A Midwife’s Tale

by: Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Symbols

Martha’s House

To Martha, her house represents her increasing frustrations with her workload, her family, and her life in general. Martha struggles to balance a career with the responsibilities of her home life, and after her daughters marry and move out, Martha finds it impossible to stop her home from sliding into ever-greater chaos. Her daughters are no longer around to help, her son Jonathan interrupts the peace of her house with drunken rages, and Ephraim, who faces none of the responsibilities of housework, attempts to interfere when Martha berates a hired girl who is supposed to help her. When Ephraim is in debtor’s prison and her sons are not willing to help, the demands of the house are almost more than she can deal with, and Martha is forced to nearly give up midwifery in order to cope. When Jonathan and his family move in, the house reflects her frustration over her stolen autonomy as she is forced to scale her life down from the entire spread of the house to what can fit in the back room.

Martha’s Garden

To Martha, her garden is a microcosm of her life, her investment into the community, and her career as a midwife. All of the benefits she gleans from a garden are rewards for her effort, since vegetables will not grow without careful planting and tending. Like nursing the sick and delivering babies, gardening requires regular care and attention. In several entries, Martha describes the weeks and months of hard work with the simple comment that she has worked in her garden. Maintaining the garden is personal, but it is also a community effort, with Ephraim helping to dig and set hop poles and neighbors plowing the field. Near the end of Martha’s life, her garden represents the order she wishes she could find in her own life, and in her diary, descriptions of planting pea and squash plants replace traumatic moments with children and neighbors that she doesn’t wish to discuss.

Prayer

For Martha, prayer is less a religious observance than a symbol of the constant presence and support of God in her life. Though she seems to see church meetings as simply pleasant diversions and is absent from them for years with no noticeable effect, she regularly includes in her diary pleas to God for strength, comfort, and gratitude for receiving those things. When a difficult delivery turns out well, she thanks God for being by her side throughout the proceedings, and when a sickness worsens, she prays that God will watch out for the ill person as he has always watched out for her. When the Malta rebels threaten to attack the town, Martha says a simple prayer for the safety of her friends and neighbors. After the Purrinton murders, Martha realizes she is witnessing a sickness far out of her power to heal, and she prays to God that he will make something good out of the tragedy. God is also there during a more personal tragedy: the death of Martha’s beloved niece, Parthenia. When Martha finally sees that all chances for physical healing have passed, she helps Parthenia find God in the hopes that she will receive the same comfort and strength that Martha has always had.