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A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Analysis of Major Characters

Character List

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Martha Ballard

Though Martha seldom mentions deep friendships in her diary, she relies heavily upon her connections to people in her community. One of the most significant elements in her diary is her chronicle of neighbors she visits with and those who visit her. The interaction itself, not the reason for the visit, is what matters to Martha, and sometimes she makes no mention of why the visit takes place. Her midwifery is the greatest example and facilitator of these connections, giving a wide variety of people a reason to reach out to Martha and ask her for help. Martha is a popular midwife, and her delivering and nursing take her to most of the community. When the Purrinton murders strike the community, Martha focuses on the neighbors’ actions instead of on the crime itself and describes how together they deal with the dead and help the survivor. When Martha becomes increasingly homebound, her isolation from the rest of the community bothers her a great deal, and she begins deliberately passing along the produce from her garden in an effort to reach out to the community once again.

Though contact with others is vital for Martha, she also needs to maintain authority over her own life. Midwifery gives Martha the chance to make her own decisions, spend considerable time away from home, and work with only the eyes of the community as supervision. Unlike most jobs available to women, midwifery provides a salary equal to her husband’s and the chance to manage it independently, both of which help Martha gain a greater autonomy in her marriage. Martha clashes with the local doctors only when they try to deny her ability to make intelligent, skilled decisions on her own, and though she acknowledges their skills, she does her best to avoid working with them. Martha’s need for autonomy also contributes to making the later years of her life difficult. Without the responsibility and constructive effort of midwifery, she feels she has lost the ability to control her own life.

Henry Sewell

Though Martha and Sewell meet only rarely during their lifetimes, Sewell’s diary is a perfect foil for Martha’s. While Martha builds her life on the strength of the people she is connected to and on the worth of her daily accomplishments, Sewell’s highest priority is clearly the philosophies and ideals he most supports. The funeral of a dead president, merely a local event for Martha, becomes for Sewell an opportunity to ruminate on the ideals of the new republic and how Washington had served as a symbol for those ideals. Sewell has a long and bitter feud going with Isaac Foster and contributes wholeheartedly to driving the family out of town, but in none of his entries on Foster does Sewell have anything bad to say about the man as a person. The entirety of Sewell’s very strong dislike is a disagreement with Foster’s religious beliefs. Ideas are Sewell’s focus even when writing about the Purrinton murders. His entry about the funeral focuses less on the tragedy than on the fact that the preacher is a Methodist. For Sewell, people matter far less than what they believe in.

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