Desire and Didacticism in Ira & Isabella

David Lawrimore
Idaho State University

I taught William Hill Brown’s Ira & Isabella in “Survey of American Literature: Beginnings to 1860,” a sophomore-level course designed primarily for English majors. Though the plot’s complexity required we spend some extra time cataloguing the novel’s events, revelations, and twists, this complexity also challenged the students to think more deeply the relationship between sentimental literature and didacticism.

We read and discussed Ira & Isabella over one class period during a unit on post-revolutionary American fiction. Since Brown is best known for writing Power of Sympathy (1789) and because Ira & Isabella is a mirror image—if not a satire—of that work, I initially planned to pair the two texts. However, the brisk pace of the survey class made following this plan difficult. As a compromise, I dedicated the class before Ira & Isabella to a miscellaneous cluster of Brown’s other works. These included the sentimental short story “Harriot; Or, the Domestick Reconciliation” (Massachusetts Magazine, 1789); the anti-Shaysite poem “Shays to Shattuck” (Massachusetts Centinel, 1787); and the verse fables “Two Hares and a Monkey” (Boston Magazine, 1806) and “The Educated Indians” (Boston Magazine, 1805). I assigned “Harriot” in order to introduce students to a more “traditional” sentimental tale, the type that Ira & Isabella upends, and I assigned the poem and verse fables to key students to Brown’s social conservatism. This background reading was helpful. In fact, “Harriot” ended up serving as the prototype of sentimental literature which we referred back to not only in discussions of Ira & Isabella, but also of The Coquette and Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Because of Ira & Isabella’s complicated plot structure, I began our discussion with a short activity that helped review novel’s order of events. I divided students into pairs and provided each pair with a handout that listed the novel’s fourteen major plot points in random order. (A version of the plot points, in correct order, is below). I then asked the students to place the events in correct order. This short activity, which took less than 10 minutes, was a helpful way to assess how much they followed the narrative arc; it also helped ground the discussion in the flow of the text.

Class discussion was wide-ranging, but two topics remained at the forefront. First was the extent to which many of the female characters were presented as sexual beings. Students were quick to point out Isabella had the “blush of wantonness” (12) and that while Mr. Savage believes he is seducing Lucinda during the flashback at the novel’s end, she was the one who had, in fact “laid a snare” for him (27). I asked students to compare these women to the women in “Harriot,” who align more closely with the standard portrayal of white women as guardians of virtue. They noted that the women in Ira & Isabella were different from the women in “Harriot,” but there was some disagreement over whether Brown was praising or cautioning against Isabella for her sexual desire and Lucinda for seductive savvy. On the one hand, the women seem to be enacting the advice of Ira’s two “bad friends:” Lorenzo cautions that women are simply using men for security (true of Lucinda) and Florio encourages indulging sexual desire (true of Isabella). On the other hand, Lucinda and Isabella both live “happily ever after.”

And this moral inconsistency formed the basis for the second part of discussion. Specifically, students found it difficult to pin down the novel’s moral center. This is due, in part, to how much the novel teases and then reneges on whether or not Ira and Isabella are brother and sister: we first believe they are not brother and sister; then we believe they are; then we are told they are not again. In a similar manner, different characters advise Ira and Isabella, and this advice is based on false evidence, ignored, proven wrong, or, in the case of Florio, deemed so repulsive that it actually convinces Ira to do the opposite of what is advised. All of this is to say that it is exceedingly difficult to pin down the didactic message of Ira and Isabella. Does the novel punish or reward obedience to authority? Are women who follow their sexual desires models or cautionary tales?

Unfortunately, as students were beginning to work through these questions, a fire drill cut the class was cut short. While I was disappointed that this kept our debate from reaching a resolution, it may have been better that the discussion was left open ended. Indeed, the lack of resolution seems to be the point of Ira & Isabella. While Brown knew how use literature to convey a moral message (see his verse fables), this is clearly not the goal of this novel, which instead seems interested in a kind of Derridean play. Ultimately, this irresolution provided a helpful counterpoint to more traditional and didactic sentimental tales, demonstrating that literature of the period may be written for enjoyment as well as to convey a moral message.

 

Ira & Isabella Order of Events

Ira and Isabella introduced and described as orphans

Ira recognizes his sentimental attachment to Isabella

Ira converses with Lorenzo, who tells Ira that all women are in it for themselves

Ira and Isabella decide that they will marry

Isabella’s nurse discourages the marriage of Ira & Isabella

Isabella has a conversation with Dr. Joseph, who reveals he is Isabella’s father

Dr. Joseph dies

Ira and Isabella decide to marry against the advice of Dr. Joseph and the nurse

The nurse reveals that Ira and Isabella are brother and sister

Ira has a long conversation with Florio regarding passion and virtue

Ira and Isabella decide they will not remain married and discuss the importance of virtue

Mr. Savage reveals that Ira is his son

Story of Mr. Savage’s seduction of Lucinda

Everyone lives happily ever after