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A Midwife’s Tale

Laurel Thatcher Ulrich

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Analysis of Major Characters

Important Quotations Explained

Themes

Actions Speak Louder than Words

Though Martha is reluctant to write down her own opinion on certain matters, her actions always make her feelings about a topic clear. She never mentions her views of equality in her diary, but she does record that she goes out to deliver black children with the same speed and skill that she does the white ones. She never discusses her opinion of the Fosters, but she cares about the family enough to stay away from church for the four years that it is controlled by the people who chased them away. Martha is careful not to state her feelings about Judge North’s acquittal, but she retains negative enough feelings about the man that when her daughters get married, they all go out of their way to make sure someone other than North marries them. Martha’s opinion of local doctors comes through in her treatment toward them. She occasionally defers to their specialized skills but generally sees them as completely unnecessary.

The Importance of Simple Moments

Much of the significance of Martha’s diary comes from the simple rhythms of her daily life rather than from the dramatic events she experiences and witnesses. Though Martha’s descriptions of dangerous rides and crossing the frozen Kennbec River are exciting, it is the gentle practicality with which she treated the families she was attending that reveal most clearly what it meant to be a mother and social healer during that time period. Though Martha was a close neighbor to the Purrintons, her description of their murder-suicide is far more limited and less detailed then records from other sources. The simple, comprehensive records of the illegitimate babies she delivered as part of her regular workload, however, offer new insight into sexuality and marriage customs of early New England. Martha generally avoids the story of what Ephraim may have experienced in debtor’s prison, but her slowly self-defeating struggle to survive winter without her husband there to offer assistance truly shows the damage that debtor’s prison could cause to people’s lives.

The Contentment of a Well-Ordered Life

In the sections of the diary where Martha seems the most at peace, her life is functioning smoothly and efficiently. Early in the diary, when she still has daughters and nieces she trusts living at home to take on the responsibility of housework, the entries clip along with the activity-focused efficiency Martha prefers. After the girls marry and move out, leaving Martha to tackle a mountain of housework along with her usual load of deliveries, complaints and talk of weariness begin to appear ever-increasingly in her diary. Chaos now awaits her each time she returns home from a delivery, and her inability to predict the behavior of her now-independent children adds chaos to her personal life. Only in the last section of her diary does talk of Martha’s difficult life slowly begin to disappear from the pages. Grandchildren appear to lessen the load of housework, and Martha decides not to dwell on her children’s behavior, instead focusing on her garden, the part of the world she can order as she sees fit.

Motifs

Births

Martha’s diary is full of the records of births with which Martha assists on almost a daily basis. In certain sections, nearly every day contains the record of a birth, listing the mother, sex of the child, and payment later received as well as the basic facts of the delivery itself. When complications arise, Martha describes them as simply and clearly as possible, preferring to focus on what is being done to help the mother and any improvement that might be seen in her or her baby’s condition. The entries rarely contain even a hint of the drama often shown in fictional representations of deliveries. Rather, these records are simple, straightforward accounts of the lives that Martha helps bring into the world. Added to this are the running tallies of births Martha assists, with a separate number for each year and a larger one that covers her entire career as a midwife. For Martha, these numbers are a way to quietly mark the value of her life. The effort she has put into helping her community is made clear in the tiny lives she helps bring into it.

Community Relations

Martha devotes most of her diary to her interactions with other people in the community, including patients, assistants, economic partners, and neighbors. She carefully lists all of the women whose babies she delivers and the sick people she treats. Her nursing records also include doctors and other women who either assist Martha with her patients or take care of those she doesn’t have the time or resources to help. She faithfully records all of the midwifery fees she receives and the people who pay them, and though her trade with her neighbors is much more complex, she records the specifics of those exchanges whenever she can. Even when she can’t, however, the visits between Martha, her daughters, and her neighbors are always recorded. Such entries trace a map of connections within the community—the network of those in need and those offering assistance—that is such an integral part of Martha’s life.

Responsibility

Martha’s life is largely determined by her feeling of responsibility toward others, and she expects her family to live in a similar manner. She travels dangerous paths and spends a significant amount of time away from her home and family because she knows how much the women in the community need her, slackening only later in life when she becomes too ill to do her job effectively. Even when Martha isn’t involved with a sick neighbor, she still keeps track of their progress. She helps and supports the Fosters because she feels responsible for maintaining the community web even when others will not. Though Martha knows that Sally has already sworn out a warrant on Jonathan, she still asks her who the father of her illegitimate child is because taking such testimony is part of Martha’s responsibility as a midwife. Much of Martha’s trouble with her children comes when she feels they aren’t fulfilling their responsibility to her, not only leaving her without support but going against the example she has worked so hard to set for them.

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.

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