“…nor could she marry out of subjectivity…”

This time, the quotation I’ve used as my title is the Horror. Isn’t it a puzzler?

My grandmother used to have a comment that I’m sure she thought was comforting. As I lamented a scraped knee, or a mistake on a test, or an unsuccessful audition, or a slight from a friend, she’d say “It’ll get better by the time you’re married.” Still not having achieved that blissful state, I carry on, wounds mostly healed by other means.

Many aspects of life can be described as “subjective,” but I don’t know that marriage is a cure for them either.

This clause occurred in the journal entry of quite a good student, and it really made me pause. The inevitable pause-induced daydreaming kicked in as I tried to imagine a subjective person hoping in vain to become more objective as a result of a trip to the altar—could she never make up her mind? was she struggling with a worldview in which nothing was certain? did she need a mate who could make decisions according to a clear sense of right and wrong?—but ultimately I couldn’t do it.

A look back at the earlier part of the sentence, and ahead to the end, explained it all. My student was writing about Harriet Jacobs’ autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl. Here’s the full sentence:

“Her family could not buy her freedom nor could she marry out of subjectivity, as she was property of her slave master.”

Note that without the “marry” clause we are still using the word “slave” twice (counting the title). The word occurred two or three other times in the journal entry. As I said, this is quite a good student, conscientious and reliable as well as thoughtful and curious. You know what happened as well as I do. He felt he was using “slave” too much and should vary his vocabulary.

Well, what is a slave? Someone, perhaps, who issubject to the absolute control of someone else. How could you express this idea in a noun? A moment’s meditation will suggest “subjectivity.” After all, a “captive” lives in “captivity”…. (By that pattern, would a native live in a state of nativity? Well, under one definition of “nativity,” yes!) The difference here, of course, is that “captive” and “native” already have the “-ive” and all that is attached to make the new noun is “-ity,” whereas for “subject” the “-ive” has to be added along with the “-ity” and a “subject” is not the same as a “subjective.” My student might have done better to go with “servant” as a substitute for “slave,” and then say “servitude.” But, alas, he didn’t.

I’m sure he knows that the grammatical opposite of “subject” is “object” and the conceptual opposite of “subjective” is “objective,” but that didn’t stop him from pressing the word into a servitude of its own. And an ironical servitude it is. The whole problem with slavery can be encapsulated in the word “object”: a thing, incapable of acting of itself (grammar), inanimate and incapable of self-created change (concept). A person who is viewed as and treated as a thing, a possession, chattel, and who has no autonomy in any area of his or her life and no control over his or her present and future but is completely restricted and controlled by another, is a slave. So if my student wanted to find another word for “slavery,” he might have done better to choose “objectivity” than “subjectivity,” because if she had been able to marry out of subjectivity, she would have become more of an object, and that would mean she would have become more of a slave. But I’m afraid he found his “synonym” too quickly to wander through its ins and outs and into an appropriate state of confusion (i.e., to do what I have just done!).

Harriet Jacobs was freed by a woman who contrived to buy her and then give her the freedom our Declaration of Independence says she was endowed with from the first by the Creator. It took almost a hundred years plus a bloody civil war for the nation as a whole to officially recognize the meaning of “all” in this endowment.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

One response to ““…nor could she marry out of subjectivity…”

  • Mary Jane Schaefer

    “Marry out of servitude” or “Marry as her own heart dictated”? Choosing her husband out of subjective desire would make her an autonomous subject, which, as a slave, she was not allowed to be–could that be another possible meaning?

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