Inglorious Battles: People and Power in Crawford's Malcolm 's Katie

by Mary Joy Macdonald

Critics of Isabella Valancy Crawford's Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story have tended to concentrate attention on certain problems of the poem, while overlooking others which may ultimately prove to be of equal significance.  An important instance of this pattern is that, while most critics recognize spiritual growth in Max and Alfred, and a few accord Alfred a partially constructive role, only a minority address either the possibility of spiritual growth in Katie, notably in her ability and will to assert power, or the role that Alfred might play in such a development.  Yet, when we contrast an initial view of Katie in the constrictive worlds of Malcolm and Max with her performance when confronted by Alfred, it is clear that the latter's antagonism incites Katie to a greater realisation of her own powers.  In this paper, I will examine Katie's fluctuating power by relating it to various aspects of the poem, including the imposition and subversion of limits, the expression of self-assertion through gestures and voice, and the association of Katie herself and of the characters with whom she interacts with royalty and divinity.  At issue here is the question of whether Katie possesses and asserts any true, enduring power, a question which carries broad implications about how Crawford inscribes herself, her writings, and women in general in the literary canon of the nineteenth century.

     Prior to the arrival of Alfred, Katie appears to be neatly contained in Malcolm's and Max's worlds, and the two men's somewhat divergent plans for her result in her double constriction.  Katie's father is a wealthy, powerful man who has spent his life subsuming and ordering nature in accordance with the pioneer's vision.  As a youth, he introduced an uneasy order of " 'tortuous lanes, ' "1 among the remaining stumps of the primal forest.  Now, the ageing man continues to direct the lumbering of his "own" forests, and the trees are reduced to "groaning" (III, 162) logs that lie "close pack'd . . . / Prison'd between great arms of close-hing'd wood" (III, 162-63) before being forced through "wooden jaws" (VI, 38) toward Malcolm's mills.  Malcolm's homestead is at the centre of a number of farms which continue to subsume an ever-expanding territory, in " 'Outspreading circles of increasing gold' " (I, 111).  Even on his homestead, however, Malcolm plans to increase his livestock holdings, which will be enclosed in their turn by " 'Such fences or such sheds about the place; / 'And next year, please the Lord, another barn' " (III, 17-18). At the centre of this universe, Malcolm encloses another wealth in the big treasure-chest on the hill: Katie, the daughter of whom he most approves when she remains "In dairy, store room, kitchen ev'ry spot / Where women's ways [are] needed on the place" (III, 34-35). In these prescribed spaces, assimilating her city education in both manners and dress, Katie looks "queenly" (III, 33) to her father; but when he leads her out into the fields to teach her the lore of farming, she is abruptly devalued, unsexed by the reminder of being born the wrong gender, and thus, receiving this second, potentially empowering education only by default:

And Malcolm took her through his mighty fields,
And taught her lore about the change of crops;
And how to see a handsome furrow plough'd;
And how to choose the cattle for the mart;
And how to know a fair day's work when done;
And where to plant young orchards; for he said,
"God sent a lassie, but I need a son — (III, 36-42)

Here he breaks off regretfully; how long does he pause before remembering to thank God " 'for His mercies all the same' " (III, 43)?  We cannot know, but to Malcolm, Katie's value clearly declines as she moves outward from her ideal, domestic sphere, and the young woman's awareness of this fact must discourage her from leaving the house where she is most affirmed.

     Malcolm's containment of Katie extends, in fact, beyond the literal:  when she does leave the house, her father's presence continues to be felt and manifested around her.   Seeking the privacy of the pond to think about love, Katie finds the log-boom blocking her way to the open water, and identifying this space as another part of Malcolm's "territory"; similarly, her most critical exchanges with Alfred and Max take place amid the roar of the log slide leading to Malcolm's mills.  Finally, while it is not clear whether Max and Katie are literally on Malcolm's property as they talk in the canoe, the old man's presence continues to haunt the couple's imaginations: Max breaks off in the middle of a metaphor as he perceives the maple groves of the man who is at once his model and rival, and Katie, in answer to Max's promise to hew out a homestead, proposes a role for herself that will not openly challenge the tacit limits on her: to" 'move' " (I, 132) her father; her plan is, paradoxically, to" 'keep still' " (I, 133).  Interestingly, she proceeds to bless the axe "With pray'rful palms close seal'd" (I, 136): as Katie commits herself to passivity, and a reliance on Max's work (traditional roles approved by Malcolm), her hands appear sealed or sanctified, still obedient to the commandment to "Honour thy father . . . ."

     Not only the patriarchal notions of Christianity, but also Malcolm's character and situation early in the poem lead Katie to perceive her earthly father as godlike. Malcolm's wealth, as painted by Max, assumes mythological proportions:

"Well, he is rich; those misty, peak-roof'd barns
"Leviathans rising from red seas of grain —

"Are full of ingots, shaped like grains of wheat.
"His flocks have golden fleeces, and his herds
"Have monarchs worshipful, as was the calf
"Aaron call'd from the furnace; and his ploughs,
"Like Genii chained, snort o'er his mighty fields.
                                                           (I, 60-66)

The invisible figure in this passage wields power over elements of Christian, Greek and Mohammedan myth2: Malcolm is shown here to possess a divine omnipotence transcendent of cultural boundaries; his status as a monarch of "monarchs worshipful" most clearly elevates him to the status of God.  Elsewhere in the poem, as kings of forests are reduced to "silent courtiers owning him their king" (III, 168), Malcolm rules nature as well as humanity and its superstitions.  The notion of Malcolm's divinity is central to the detailed description of him in his "great" (III, 1) house which stands, not sits, on a hill.  "With many windows looking everywhere; / So that no distant meadow might lie hid, / Nor corn-field hide its gold — nor lowing herd / Browse in far pastures, out of Malcolm's ken" (III, 3-6), this house lends Malcolm omnipotence through omniscience.  Godlike, too, is Malcolm's presence: "grim, grey, and somewhat stern" (III, 7), he loves to sit like an Old Testament God while his pipe makes "smoke-clouds" (III, 8) which nonetheless do not obscure his vision of the "riches" (III, 9) below.   Similarly, Malcolm's voice reaches beyond his own property lines to " 'Council and . . . Church' " (I, 67), ensuring that his will is realised throughout his universe.

     In view of this apotheosis of Malcolm, is it any wonder that Katie " 'trie[s]' " (I, 134) only the passive way of moving him to her will?  Her will, in fact, is not clearly distinguishable from that of Malcolm: as well as enclosing her physically and pressing on her imagination, his power manifests itself as an intrusive presence in her psyche.  In response to Malcolm's regrets at not having a son, Katie remains silent, thinks of Max, but ventures no further: "for she had too much / Of the firm will of Malcolm in her soul / To think of shaking that deep-rooted rock" (III, 47-49, emphasis added).  Restricted physically within the realm of this all-powerful father, Katie's will, thought, and even unity of mind are ultimately threatened.

In the period preceding Alfred's arrival, Katie makes no overt challenge to her father. Only her garden seems to present a potential subversion of her father's constrictive power:

Katie's gay garden foam'd about the walls,
'Leagur'd the prim-cut modern sills, and rush'd
Up the stone walls — and broke on the peak'd roof.
                                                              (III, 19-21)

A "gay" answer to a "stern" man's house, Katie's garden blurs the sharp lines of the walls that enclose her, and, assailing the window sills, threatens to compromise Malcolm's omniscient vision; moreover, the structure of this sentence, with the use of two additional clauses — "and rush'd / . . . and broke . . ." — conveys the persistance of the garden's assault.  The garden strongly images the passive approach that Katie has chosen: just as the wave is most erosive at the moment it "breaks," subsides, and seems to disappear, Katie hopes her self-effacement before her father will erode his resistance to her love of Max.  At the same time, both the "foaming" garden and the "Velvet and sheer" (III, 23) lawn imply a sensuous challenge to the "primness" of Malcolm's house and the "dainty raiment" (III, 26) that Katie must wear within it.  With its rushing, figurative water, and its literal, forceful seed, the garden image synthesizes two recurrent symbolisations of Katie's potential to erode, or " 'cleave into' " (I, 21) the rock of Malcolm's and later Alfred's hard hearts.  Ironically, these forces, representing Katie's "kiss-and-keep still" policy, are almost interminably slow-working, and while Katie and the "crystal current of [Malcolm's] love" (III, 50) for her "fret" (III, 52) against the rock, it is ultimately Max's pioneering that brings Malcolm to accept the youth as his heir, and largely Alfred's remorse at his own cruel deeds that contributes to his change of heart.

     Contained for the moment within the realm of her father, Katie's future does not promise to be much brighter with Max, whose power, in image and in action, closely resembles that of Malcolm.  Just as Katie's sealed, prayerful palms symbolize her passivity before Max's and Malcolm's power, so, too, the hands in the opening line apparently foretell who will act, and who will be acted upon in the young couple's relationship: "Max plac'd a ring on little Katie's hand" (I, 1).  As well as polarizing Max's and Katie's respective activity and passivity, this image, as Burns has noted3, also carries a subtle warning that Katie is coming under the rule of a potentially violent hand, one that has "beaten out" (I, 2) the ring from a coin.  At the same time, Max, with his ring made from money, is enclosing Katie in his future — and in the economic vision that will subsume and centre on her.

     The tenor of this vision varies with Max's audience.  To Katie, Max professes the desire for an egalitarian marriage, " 'A man and woman standing hand in hand' " (I, 106).  In place of the active and passive hands in the poem's first image, the linked hands here represent sexual equality, as each partner thanks God for what is" ' "mine and thine" ' " (I, 108).  Yet, in other instances, Max hardly seems to hold an egalitarian or feminist view of women.  He generalizes women, not only in a patronizing comment to Katie — " 'Well, well, . . . but womankind is wise!' " (I, 12) — but also, in his confrontation with Alfred.  " 'I'd swear by Kate . . . I had / 'A mother, and my father swore by her' " (IV, 149-50), he offers, then adds: " 'Get you a Kate, and let her sunny eyes / 'Dispel the doubting darkness in your soul' " (IV, 159-60).  According to Max's diction, one woman is as good as another, and the important thing is to have one to guarantee your happiness.  The additional notions of acquisition and possessiveness manifest in this last suggestion resound ever more clearly as Alfred drives Max to lose his "wits," or egalitarian rhetoric: " 'That is my Katie's face upon your breast, / 'But 'tis my Katie's love lives in my breast — /. . ./'Your Kate! your Kate! your Kate!' " (IV, 183-187).  In view of the possessive attitude under lying Max's speech, it is no surprise that, although Max talks of a shared home to the "women-folk" (II, 242) (apparently to him an undifferentiated group of females definable in terms of their marriages), his words to the wives actually make them see" 'Max's House' " (II, 253, emphasis added).  This final impression seems inevitable, since the "snowy walls . . . [and] deep porches" (III, 250) of Max's description obscure almost everything of Katie but her "garments flitting through the rooms" (II, 251) within, like a bird in a dark cage.

     Indeed, Max's vision and his voicing of it diverge in a second respect.  While he insists that the battle with the soil is an" 'Inglorious' " (I, 25) one, Max's blood nonetheless " 'heats' " (I, 89) at the thought, and he seems to hesitate over what the "battle" really does and does not "mean" to him, a hesitation indicated by the dashes in his speech:

"Inglorious! Aye, the battle done and won
"Means not — a throne propp'd up with bleaching bones;
"A country sav'd with smoking seas of blood;
"A flag torn from the foe with wounds and death;

                                                    . . .
"            . . .Nay, none of these.
"It means — four walls, perhaps a lowly roof;
"Kine in a peaceful posture; modest fields;
"A man and woman standing hand in hand.
                                                           (I, 94-106)

Out in the forest, however, Max is undeniably triumphant at his conquest of "The mossy king of all the woody tribes" (II, 151).   His axe cleaves away, bringing "wounds and death" to tree after tree; the children of the settlement run "with little twigs and leaves" (II, 212) that are not unlike "flags torn from the foe"; and "the tangl'd dead" (II, 176) are gathered into "forest pyres" (II, 213) which, like "smoking seas of blood," attest that Max has "sav'd" the country from " 'Desolation' " (II, 160).  In this light, even the supposedly modest cabin becomes like a pile of "bleaching bones" signalling the victory of Max, who esteems himself" 'No slave beneath its pillars, but — a King!' " (II, 164).

     From his status as a warrior-king, Max's attainment of a godlike position is only a short mental step up.  Secure with the daffodil universe of love that he contains in his great chest, Max "car[es] little" (II, 182) for the natural universe obscured night and day by the smoke of his fires: he is busy creating a new "cosmos of red sparks" (II, 179) in which he will eventually " 'build up nations . . . immortal tasks' " (IV, 55-56).  In the woods at least, Max begins to deify himself as he has earlier done to Malcolm, and Katie's continuing conflict of loyalty is that of a subject trying to serve two, antagonistic gods.

     Faced with this successor to the father who holds her now, can Katie expect to assert herself any more powerfully in the future? Katie and Max's conversation in the canoe hints at a limited power for Katie through the assertion of her "nimble mind and voice" (III, 28).  Better off" 'quarr'ling with the woods' " (V, 87) than with" 'too[-]subtle' " (IV, 157) Alfred, and barely capable, as we have seen, of disguising sexist and warlike thinking with talk of sexual equality and peace, Max again betrays his rhetorical clumsiness in his would-be words of love.  Purposing to impress Katie with his figurative language, he actually alienates her with accusations of future infidelity, while compelling her to cast her gaze down, to "see" his vision of her as a rose. In Max's "prophecy" is a succession of insults, for it has the rose, and thus Katie, make admissions of deficient wisdom and understanding of self:

" 'I but was budding, and I did not know
" 'My core was crimson and my perfume sweet;
" 'I did not know how choice a thing I am;
" 'I had not seen the sun, and blind I sway'd
" 'To a strong wind, and thought because I sway'd,
" 'Twas to the wooer of the perfect rose —
" 'That strong, wild wind has swept beyond my ken —
" 'The breeze I love sighs thro' my ruddy leaves.' "

   (I, 27-34)

There is much to object to in this message: Katie is presented as being oblivious to her "core" of female sensuality; she is mistaken in believing that she now "sways" to true, enduring love; her initial power of choosing her lover is denied in the image of the wind approaching and abandoning her at will; and her understanding is inhibited by the "blindness" of inexperience.  Finally, Max is careless enough to intimate his potential for violence in his depiction of himself as a "strong, wild wind" swaying the delicate flower.  Max does, in fact, do violence to Katie by debasing her to something subhuman — a "choice thing" — immediately after raising himself to his own conception of the human ideal: the" 'soldier of the axe' " (I, 24), the warrior-king.  Katie's subsequent blush may not stem so much from an understanding of and embarrassment before the sexual dimension of the image4 as from anger at the insults Max has purposely or unwittingly levelled on her will, intelligence and self-understanding.  In her retort, " 'O, words! . . . only words! / 'You build them up that I may push them down' " (I, 35-36), she demotes Max to the role of straight man: he provides her with a metaphor that she conditionally accepts5, only to twist to her own purposes.  By suggesting a garden metaphor, Max has chosen something that Katie does know about, as is visible in the vitality of her real garden.   In her reply to Max, the implied subversion of male authority of that real garden echoes forth in Katie's re-vision of Max's image.  Katie's rose has chosen its own garden, just as Katie has chosen Max, even against the will of her father; moreover, this rose boasts royal stature far surpassing that of Katie's "queenship" in her father's house.  Whereas Katie reigns only in "spot[s] . . . there and here" (III, 33-34), going at another's call to where "women's ways [are] needed" (III, 35) on the homestead, Katie's queen rose will develop at its own pace to rule the garden, just as Katie herself, by exertion of her "nimble mind and voice" over " 'simple' " (V, 93) Max, may secretly be aspiring to the upper hand in their marriage.

     To complement the force of her rhetoric, Katie reminds Max of her power of non-verbal communication.  In a final manipulation of the rose image, she definitively rejects the notion of the flower as passive, warning that her roots already " 'strike deep' " (I, 45) and would " 'shriek like mandrakes' " (I, 46) were she to be torn from her chosen garden.  Alfred later confirms this vulnerability to a beloved's anguished voice: " 'Come, Kate! I must not have you wake, dear heart, / 'To hear you cry, perchance, on your dead Max' " (VI, 112-13).  It is this same, visceral response to another's cry that Katie evokes here, to prove a second level of vocal power before Max.  Unlike men, who have traditionally denied themselves emotional self-expression, women have continued to express their pain in a more primal voice, and Katie recognizes the potential power of this vocalisation to make Max take her love seriously.

     Existing power structures and views of character are disrupted by the arrival of Alfred.   On one level, Alfred's presence implicitly augments Katie's power by destabilizing those who have been shown to control her.  In their confrontation, Alfred succeeds in silencing Max, who has no subtle arguments with which to defend himself, and who is ultimately driven to the brink of murder in a moment of moral weakness.  Malcolm, depicted earlier as possessing god-like omniscience, is now visibly confused by this physically attractive suitor who, for all his outward shows of competence and virtue, leaves him with uneasy feelings and even nightmares.  The " 'true' " (III, 86) value of Alfred eludes Malcolm.  Where Malcolm normally voices his unifying vision beyond his own sphere in the additional forums of council and church, he now becomes self-contradictory over a mere domestic affair: his resolution that, " 'if the lassie wills [the match], let it be' " (III, 72) is broken by his involuntary response to his dead wife's voice: " 'She shall not wed him — rest you, wife, in peace!' " (III, 253).  Malcolm's loss of omniscience in his world is underlined by the image of the old man lying "staring, wakeful, through the shades' " (III, 80) of night after one of his nightmares.

     In her own first contacts with Alfred, Katie seems to remain largely within the pattern of mute passivity and ineffectiveness that she exhibits with her father.  Her refusal to marry Alfred, expressed "In all the maiden, speechless, gentle ways / A woman has" (III, 89-90), fails utterly to discourage him, for the attainment of Katie and her wealth is the firmest resolution lying within Alfred's "wall'd mind" (III,91).  Indeed, Alfred's plan seems fated to succeed: "Events were winds close nestling in the sails / Of Alfred's bark, all blowing him direct / To his wish'd harbour" (III, 152).  Imaged this time as an enclosed body of water, Katie seems destined to be invaded by Alfred's "ship," or, in other words, to falter and permit Alfred's desires to mix with and weaken her own.  (This image closely parallels Malcolm's pattern of influence over Katie, where his physical containment of her is reinforced by the intrusion of his will into hers, seemingly paralysing her potential rebellion.)  How Katie reacts in an imminent crisis will largely determine whether this possibility becomes reality.

     With the arrival of Alfred, another man striving to subsume her to his personal vision, it is understandable that Katie seeks out the lily-pond to temporarily escape the conflicting and ongoing demands on her.  Katie's venture forth from the farmhouse bears many marks of subversion, not only of these personal demands, but also of others imposed by patriarchal society in general: as she bares her feet, she is shedding part of the "dainty raiment" expected of a lady, and her hair is not pinned up, as it should be during the daytime, but flowing and "wild . . . / A flying wind of gold" (III, 200-01).  She delights in "Spurn[ing]" each log in turn, in a symbolic defiance of her father's power, as she heads for the lilies that lie "clear beyond" (III, 169).  It is also significant that, in this most liberating of moments, her voice moves on from Max's lily-song (where Katie merely speaks Max's vision of her) to explore joyous, unfettered laughter, in an instant of pure self-expression that is almost unique in the poem.

     This moment of physical and mental freedom quickly turns to crisis for both Katie and Alfred.  Katie's disappearance beneath the logs bearing her father's " 'name of weight' " (I, 112) symbolizes not only punishment for her subversion of Malcolm's and society's demands, but also Malcolm's conflicting attachments, on one hand, to his daughter — his "chiefest treasure — and, on the other, to his "wooden" (III, 217) or material wealth.  In this scene, significantly, a type of insurgency is in evidence.  When we are told that the logs are "silent courtiers owning [Malcolm] their king" (III, 168), the sense of "owning" is as much a statement of possession as an acknowledgement of a higher authority: Malcolm's material wealth has surpassed his control, taking "ownership" of him and directing his decisions.  Greed and status-seeking, evident in Malcolm's determination to pass his wealth on to a "worthy" heir, have subjugated his love for Katie, and respect for her feelings for Max: patriarchal, economic values suppress paternal values, and so Katie is made to disappear under a phallic log.  Following a moment of subversion, Katie seems reduced to silence, with neither a cry nor an "upflung hand" (III, 215) to communicate her existence.

     This moment becomes critical for Alfred, too, as he abandons what he "knows" about his feelings for Katie — a cold attraction for her inheritance which would not merit any great physical risks — to save her life out of love.  Control of voice, and clear thought, crucial elements, as we have seen, in gaining and holding power, both dissolve in Alfred as he "hurl[s] / Himself, and hardly [knows] it, on the logs" (III, 2 19-20).  Involuntarily, he cries Katie's name, and, holding her above the water, " 'know[s] not' " if he 'die[s]' " (III, 238) or lives.   Literally and symbolically, Alfred has assumed Katie's "place," and feels the kind of constrictions that she, at least on the psychic level, lives with every day.   Alfred's involuntary response to love's call subverts his own unity of thought and thus, his own power, momentarily rendering him a victim.

     The crisis at the pond brings conflict and sorrow into the lives of both Alfred and Katie: for the former, the saving of Katie's life occasions an awakening of morality that will wage internal war with his established nihilism; for the latter, a burden of indebtedness to her saviour will increase the pressure to marry him, and intensify her struggle to maintain unity of mind in her sincere love for Max.  In their mutual submersion, Katie and Alfred have experienced a kind of baptism into sorrow, which is at the same time " 'a regeneration, the initiation into a new state' "6 where each will grow due to his or her uneasy bonding with the other.  Alfred will experience a painful growth of love for Katie, and she in turn will be forced to develop her resistance to the demands of Alfred and her father.

     Katie's self-assertion is tested for the first time after the accident when she sings a song for Malcolm and Alfred.  Although she sings only in "air time" that has been permitted her, she does assert herself in subtle ways.  Leaning "on the moonlit window" (V, 33), she pushes against one of the most vulnerable parts of the walls that contain her, intimating, perhaps, an increasing readiness to challenge the constriction of this sphere.  At the same time, she places herself in the foregound of Malcolm's vision, between him and the rich fields that he loves to contemplate: Katie may be appealing to her father to put her interests before his material concerns, or at least to newly incorporate these interests within his "omniscient" vision.   Katie's choice of song is one that she has composed herself, and within the song, she makes further choices, rejecting the passive rose " 'redden[ing] to the gale' " (V, 54) with which Max has earlier associated her. Instead, she depicts herself sharing a moment of female solidarity with a guiding figure that may stand for her absent mother:

"And I on mossy bank would lie
       Of brooklet, ripp'ling clear;
And she of the sweet azure eye,
       Close at my list'ning ear,
Should sing into my soul a strain
       Might never be forgot
So rich with joy, so rich with pain,
       The blue 'Forget-me-not!'
(V, 44-51)

The "strain" (and note the sense of discomfort) that Katie now seems willing to hear is the message expressed ever more clearly in this latter part of the poem: this song and the next, "Doth true Love lonely grow?", as well as the passage exalting "Sorrow," all stress that love and life involve both joy and pain, and that Katie must encounter and accept both as she matures.   It is probably no accident that the conveyor of this message in Katie's song should also have the same azure eyes as the man whose antagonizing presence, whether Katie likes it or not, will continue to push her to assert her own desires and power.

     With her song and a persuasively affectionate touch of her hand, Katie successfully "moves" her father to broach the subject of Max; she quails, however, when Malcolm actually speaks his name.  Having done so, Katie loses ground: with the "sudden rose" (V, 81) in her cheek hidden on her father's arm, we see her regress toward the passive flower of Max's image, and she seems more vulnerable again to the power and entrapment symbolized in the "silver snarls / Of [Malcolm's] thick locks" (V, 70-71) looming just above her.  Similarly, Katie momentarily relinquishes her power of self expression by allowing Malcolm to speak for her in the talk of Max.  Malcolm's godlike wrath and his guarantee of forgiveness of her if she has deceived him emphasize the lopsided relationship with her father from which Katie needs to liberate herself.  And this she does, finally, when Alfred blithely asserts that Max is married and" 'doing well' " (V, 108). As Katie raises her head, she defies Malcolm's "heavy hand" (V, 101), and, belatedly, Max's own demand for her downcast gaze in their initial conver sation. For the first time, she interrupts male discourse, flatly accusing Alfred of lying. Her father challenges her convictions with demeaning and possessive adjectives, as well as diminutives aimed at containing her in the proper spheres of deferential femininity and childhood: " 'How know you that, my foolish little lass?' " (V, 123). In response, Katie's (first-ever?) contradiction of him is spoken with "simpl[e] . . . low-voic'd" (V, 127) confidence, in a long, powerful assertion:

"No, no . . .
"If he were traitor I must needs be false,
"For long ago love melted our two hearts,
"And time has moulded those two hearts in one,
"And he is true since I am faithful still."
                                                     (V, 127-31)

Katie has seized upon an argument that is irrefutable, since neither Malcolm nor Alfred is willing to dishonour the proper lady with accusations of her infidelity to Max.  Katie closes the issue by breaking off the conversa tion.  Alfred recognizes a kind of royal strength in Katie at this moment, as he privately images her successful defence of her convictions: " 'To-night she conquers Doubt' " (V, 137).  However, Alfred still believes that his soldiers of rhetoric (or dishonesty, if need be) will " 'enter and possess the fort' " (V, 139), convincing her to relent (again, Katie is represented as first contained within, then "invaded" by male influence).  Although he struggles with a fitful, nascent love for Katie, his greed persists in driving him toward his initial goal: to " 'crown' " his passion for riches " 'with the fairest [he] can find' " (III, 120.)7  For the present, in other words, Alfred and Katie will remain psychologically bound together in their respective struggles for power.

     Alfred and Katie's conversation by the log chute brings their power struggle to its climax.  As Katie stands by the river that narrows through the great wooden jaws, she is imaged once again as water, contained as in the trope of Alfred's "harbour," but with greater turmoil this time, since Katie's resistance to the limitations upon her has been increasing.  Moreover, the river passing through the chute seems "In ivory-arm'd conflict with itself" (VI, 45), just as Katie, the ivory-skinned Victorian lady, must constantly overcome her internalized lessons in female deference if she is to assert her own will with success8.

     Katie does appear to be in good control at the beginning of the passage.  Like Max before him, Alfred asks Katie to cast her eyes down and " 'see' " (VI, 46) his turmoil of love, but he also seems to have been weakened by Katie's refusals of him, as he repeats the word " 'hopeless' " (VI, 49).  Moreover, by putting a question to Katie, " 'You swear [this love] is hopeless. . . is it so?' " (VI, 49), he affords her an opportunity to refuse him yet again, and to attempt a definitive closing of the subject: " 'ask me not again' " (VI, 50).  Alfred makes the point that " 'no word has come' " (VI, 51) from Max, and we realize that her lover's silence only makes Katie's self-defence more difficult: failing again in the respect of verbal communication, Max has become the more passive partner, and Katie, to compensate, has had to become more forceful to defend their union.  Indeed, Katie continues to rise to the challenge as she not only refuses to look down and legitimate Alfred's professed "vision," but actually directs Alfred's own gaze up to meet hers, facing him as she did not dare to do earlier with her "rose"-blushing cheeks.  Although Alfred retorts with a patronizing comment — " 'O simple child!' " (VI, 59) — and makes further assaults on her faith, Katie again plays her trump, the unassailability of her honour: " 'He is as true as I am . . . / 'And did I seek for stronger simile, / 'I could not find such in the universe!' " (VI, 70-72).   In one last effort, Alfred responds with a hypothesis intended to point out the realistic limits of fidelity: surely, were Max to die, Katie would not still remain "true"?  When Katie affirms that she would indeed remain faithful to Max, Alfred's last hope for her hand in marriage is crushed.  Katie's steadfastness, imaged alternately in the poem as the slow-working forces of seed or water, finally triumphs over Alfred's composure:

"O fool!" said Alfred, stirr'd — as craters rock
To their own throes — and over his pale lips
Roll'd flaming stone, his molten heart.  "Then, fool —
"Be true to what thou wilt — for he is dead.

"I saw him dead.  I heard his last, loud cry,
" 'O Kate!' ring thro' the woods; in truth I did."
                                                            (VI, 78-85)

Whereas Alfred's voice was originally the censor keeping the "unspeakable" within, in this moment of weakness it becomes a passive conveyor of his feelings, "rolling out" of "pale lips".  Yet, even if Alfred has significantly lost face and further upset any hope for Katie's love (which does seem to have gained much importance to him by this point), his loss of verbal control serves to reveal one of his prior, empowering acts, that of leaving Max to die.  Newly exposed, this act assumes additional power, for it brings about Alfred's ascendancy over Katie, who faints in horror.  As if energized by this sudden lapse of Katie's power, Alfred waxes eloquent once again, and, seizing her, prepares to end her life along with his own.

     It is worthwhile to consider to what degree Katie is meant to appear responsible for her own defeat in this scene.  Alfred, of course, plays the key role: he has left Max to die, and, in destroying Katie's lover, has also destroyed the focus of her shows of self-assertion.  Yet it is unlikely that Alfred would have admitted to this act without considerable provocation.  Katie is stubborn enough to claim that she would remain true to a dead lover, but more than that, she is "faintly smiling" (VI, 77) as she does so, and this smile may be perceived by Alfred (and, perhaps, by the reader) as a taunt.  If this is the case, Alfred's brutal reaction may be seen by some as a partially justified punishment for Katie's subversion of male authority and pride.

     Whatever her role in precipitating Alfred's confession, it is clear that Katie has been radically disempowered by this news.  Her voice is silenced, and even her hand, only "half raised up . . . piteous [and] pleading" (VI, 86), does little to express her pain before she sinks into unconsciousness.  As she falls at Alfred's feet, she is shown in a position of inferiority.  But, worse still, Katie's fainting at this painful news seems to belie her earlier acknowledgement that love entails moments of extreme pain as well as joy.  The understanding that has underlain Katie's resistance seems effaced, and men take her over, containing and immobilizing her once again.  Thus, Alfred encloses Katie in his arms, and "turn[s] her still face close upon his breast" (VI, 114); in a parallel to the initial image of the poem, Katie's "ring'd" (VI, 115) hair is pressed by Alfred's lips.  As he jumps, Alfred physically encompasses Katie in his suicidal despair, and the waters close over their heads.  This second immersion marks the end of Katie and Alfred's temporary bonding, and the growth of self-assertion that Katie has reaped from their struggles appears to be reversed, for we will soon see her in an extreme of self-abnegation before Max.  Alfred, too, is disempowered, when Max pulls him from his attempted suicide to face his sins: whatever the positive effect that repentance may work on his spirit, Alfred, by the final section, continues to exist only as a pitiful soul who is fortunate enough to receive Max and Katie's "seal of pardon" (VII, 8).  Foreshadowing this new, diminished status for Alfred, his eyes in our last glimpse of him are "close-seal'd" (VI, 126) in a kind of passivity reminiscent of Katie's hands at the beginning of the poem.

     Held firmly in Max's arms, now, Katie regains consciousness.  The description of her eyes indicates a re-entry into the realm of Max's vision, for they have assumed a rose-like quality, "slow budding to a smile" (VI, 130) as Katie looks up with "wonder and . . . bliss" (VI, 131) at her saviour9.  As she comprehends Max's intention to save Alfred, Katie doubly disempowers herself: by casting herself at Max's feet, she ensures the passivity of her own hands, which will not " 'keep / '[him] back with one light-falling finger-tip' " (VI, 135-36); by hiding her face at the same time, she precludes even a non-verbal communication of her own desire to be comforted.

     Katie's power of understanding is denied a second time, as she now seems to "forget" what she has learned and sung about facing pain.  Covering her eyes and ears, she would rather be " 'Blind, blind and deaf' " (VI, 153), than know what transpires.  At the same time, Katie's desire to shut out the "sound / Of the vex'd waters" (VI, 143-44) seems to mark an end to her association with water, one of the central images of her power.  Katie may indeed feel a dissociation from herself, for she speaks of herself in the third person: " 'My Max! O God—was that his Katie's name?' (VI, 154).  Her "torn heart" (VI, 150) is engaged in debate with a second voice, not precisely that of her soul, but rather, "a voice in Katie's soul" (VI, 146, emphasis added) that proclaims: " 'If [Max] should perish, 'twill be as a God' " (VI, 148).

     This voice presenting Max as godlike may be another instance of the penetration of Katie's mind by the power figures around her.  Certainly, Katie appears in awe of Max at this moment: her voice is empty of self-expression as she repeats Max's words, like a worshipper reading a responsive prayer: " 'There lies the false, fair devil, O my Kate, / 'Who would have parted us, but could not, Kate!' / 'But could not, Max,' said Katie" (VI, 164-66).  Securely clasped against Max's breast in the final moments of this scene, Katie's "forgetting" of the need to accept adversity seems complete:

             "Is he dead?"
But, swift perusing Max's strange, dear face,
Close clasp'd against his breast — forgot him straight
And ev'ry other evil thing upon
The broad green earth.
                                                              (VI, 166-70)

The two final lines of this passage suggest Katie's regression toward a simplistic, black-and-white view of the world.  Now that Max has returned, she seems to deny having permitted, and even (however unconsciously) enjoyed the challenge of Alfred's company: when Max calls his adversary a "fair devil," she follows his cue, debasing Alfred to the status of an "evil thing."  Her newly simplistic outlook is reflected in the singsong, iambic metre of these two short lines, and it seems clear that Katie has relinquished the verbal sophistication that she has been cultivating through her testing by Alfred.  As Alfred now disappears from her life, Katie loses her wrong suitor"10, one of the few males whose will her "right suitor," her father, and society in general permit her to oppose.  Whether Katie ever recovers her prior spirit of subversion is a question we must address in the conclusion of the poem.

     The poem's final section presents the realised dream: "Max's house."  Katie, often depicted as a dove in the poem, sits in her proper place "in the trellis'd porch" (VII, 4) that resembles and serves as a cage for her.  The present scene recalls an image established by Max in the initial scene.  There, he turns Katie's gaze to the hill, which he likens to a king:

"Look at yon hill that rounds so gently up
"From the wide lake; a lover king it looks,
"In cloth of gold, gone from his bride and queen;
"And yet delay'd, because her silver locks
"Catch in his gilded fringes . . .
                                                              (I, 49-53)

The image communicates the emotional pain undergone by a woman at the departure of her lover, such as Katie has felt with Max; at the same time, however, the image is one of domination and subjugation, for the queen is most likely at the king's feet if her hair is catching in his fringes, and this ensnarement must be causing her considerable physical pain.  If the king and queen are Max and Katie, this image may foreshadow a painful future for Katie.  When we now see Max, the "king" of his own little castle, "twist[ing] Katie's hair/About his naked arm, bare from his toil" (VII, 16-17), the potential domination of Katie by a hold on her hair seems to have become a reality.  With her hair that once flew "wild" now so closely entwining Max's arm, Katie must realise that she cannot move without occasioning her own pain.  In general, the message seems to be that Katie has little room to move or act upon her ideas within Max's world.  The two negative images associating Max with Katie's hair, as well as the single instance of Alfred touching it — in order to pull her from the water where she drowns — further encourage a reassessment of which suitor truly acts against or in the interests of the young woman.

     Katie's last words have solicited much critical discussion; hopefully, the consideration of Katie's near-immobilisation by Max's arm, and the imaging of her as a caged bird will help to explain her choice of words.  Katie remains silent until invited to speak, but this apparent deference runs counter to the spirit of subversion in her first two statements.  First, she outdoes Max's Eden metaphor by responding that " 'these wild woods and plains' " (VII, 31), like the wildness she has expressed once in the poem, are much preferable to Eden.  Secondly, some ambiguous language may carry an insult to Max: rather than stating that Adam's soul was not as great as Max's, she suggests that " 'Adam had not Max's soul' " (VII, 30), which can be taken to imply Max's inferiority.  Following this, however, Katie changes her tone, as if fearing that her raillery is too transparent, or realising that her days of expressing legitimized criticism are over, now that she has the "right" man and situation.  Constrained by an awareness of this reality, and perhaps, too, by the physical reminder of Max's gentle tugs on her hair, she expresses a motherly concern for the other settlers, a sentiment that would be deemed honourable in a society that gives a woman total responsibility for the nurturing of her family, and for the preservation of its virtue.  Finally, like the ideal tame bird that seems perfectly content in its cage, Katie claims that she would not change her world for Eden — if she" 'knew [her] mind' " (VII, 40).  As we have seen, Katie's mind has manifested the influence of both her father and her husband — Malcolm's will arresting her own will to rebel, and Katie's repetition of Max's words — so that "knowing" and acting consistently with this mind may well entail subscribing to internalized male expectations, such as perfect contentment within the roles of daughter, wife and mother.  But Katie's use of the conditional points to an ironic tone, and perhaps to the message that Katie is really of two minds, her own (strengthened through her battles with Alfred) as well as that which has been dominated by male figures all of her life.  Katie's first comments in this final section suggest that she has recovered her spirit of subversion since its critical relapse at the log slide; this final comment, in turn, indicates that Katie will commit herself to life within the limiting world of the homestead, but with a more objective perspective on the male attitudes that have dominated her in the past.  Such an awareness would allow Katie the consolation of a veiled, verbal irony expressed toward the men whom she lives with, without the need for Alfred's energizing antagonism.  Whether she is likely to venture further is not made clear in the final passage.

     Even if this ironic, intellectual consolation is Katie's, it is a minor one indeed.  Bentley has suggested that, in order to write saleable, melodramatic material and yet maintain her artistic integrity, Crawford strove to simultaneously respect and subvert the norms surrounding propriety and gender roles in place in nineteenth-century North America11.  In terms of the power relationships in Malcolm's Katie, this reasoning seems to be confirmed.  Consistently, Crawford makes her statement with caution.  As she knows, even a preposition can be political: her original opening line, where Max places the ring in Katie's hand, is emended to the less egalitarian, and perhaps too, less provocative version that we know: Max places his ring on Katie's hand12.  Crawford permits Katie's active subver sion of male expectations, but, in two instances at least, also allows the punishing effects of these acts to appear at least partly self-induced.  Over all, there seems to be a law of conservation of power at work in the poem: one recalls Max and Malcolm diminishing in power in their encounters with Alfred; the weakening, silencing effect of Katie's contradictions and irrefutable logic on her father; Katie's and Alfred's notable capacities for destruction of each other in their respective moments of dominance; Katie's radical debasement before a godlike Max.  Since, in patriarchal society as she knew it, men must ultimately "conserve" the most power, Crawford seems to allow Katie a measure of enduring, verbal power and subversion that only the keen ear will perceive, while according to Malcolm and Max strong positions that will be recognized and condoned by most of her Victorian readership.


  1. Isabella Valancy Crawford, Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story, ed. D.M.R. Bentley (London, Canada: Canadian Poetry Press, 1987), I, 78. All subsequent references are to this edition.[back]

  2. See D.M.R. Bentley, "Explanatory Notes", Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story 52.[back]

  3. See Robert Alan Burns, "Crawford and Gounod: Ambiguity and Irony in Malcolm's Katie" Canadian Poetry 15 (Fall/Winter 1984) 8.[back]

  4. See Bentley's "Introduction", Malcolm's Katie xix.[back]

  5. See Bentley's "Introduction" xix.[back]

  6. See Bentley's "Explanatory Notes" 69-70.[back]

  7. These two, contrasting images of the fort and the crown demonstrate a slippage in Alfred's notions of women and royalty.  Here, in a moment of admiration, he pictures Katie as a kind of equal, a rival queen defending her stronghold against him; perhaps his respect for Katie is growing, for he has previously linked her with royalty only in objectified form, as the "crown" to be passed from wealthy patriarch to heir.  It is noteworthy that, on the economic level, the implication of the crown image is that Katie will not directly benefit from the legacy.   Irigaray has pointed out this traditional exclusion of women from economic exchanges: "their reproductive use value (reproductive of children and of the labour force) and constitution as exchange value underwrite the symbolic order as such, without any compensation in kind going to them for that 'work.'  "See Luce Irigaray, "Women on the Market" in This Sex Which is Not One (Ce sexe qui n'en est pas un), trans. Catherine Porter (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1985) 173.[back]

  8. For much of this idea, I am indebted to Wanda Campbell.[back]

  9. Note however that the ambiguity of these lines (VI 129-3 1) equally allows a reading of this reaction as Max's.[back]

  10. See Bentley's "Introduction" xxviii for a more detailed discussion.[back]

  11. Again, Bentley discusses this idea in greater depth in his "Introduction", beginning from page xiv.[back]

  12. See "Appendix A", Malcolm's Katie: A Love Story 77.[back]