full title Iola Leroy; or, Shadows Uplifted
author Frances Ellen Watkins Harper
type of work Novel
genre Novel of social protest; historical fiction; sentimental fiction; elements of the Bildungsroman (a coming-of-age story)
time and place written During Reconstruction and the “women’s era”; Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
date of first publication 1892
publisher Garrigues Brothers (first edition); Beacon Press (1987 reprint); other reprints in 1893, 1895, and 1971
narrator The narrator is anonymous but fairly biased. The narrator’s views often coincide with Harper’s social and political platforms.
point of view The third-person, omniscient narrator relays and comments on various characters’ personal histories, thoughts, motivations, and actions. The narrator not only reports events in the novel but also delves into the inner psyche of some of the main characters, including Iola, Dr. Gresham, and Harry.
tone The tone is sympathetic, contemplative, instructional, optimistic, and at times bitter or caustic, especially in those chapters that read more like political and social commentary or speeches. Harper directly opposes slavery, promotes equal rights for blacks, and teaches the reader to adopt these views.
tense The tense frequently shifts from present to past as Harper employs the literary technique of flashback as a plot device.
setting (time) While Harper does not specify particular dates, the novel occurs during the Civil War (1861–1865) and the post-war Reconstruction period (1865–1877).
setting (place) The novel takes place in various locales, including North Carolina, Mississippi, Maine, Ohio, undisclosed cities in the North, and unspecified states involved in Civil War battles.
protagonist Iola Leroy
major conflict Iola, a mulatta, struggles to understand and define her racial identity. Society’s perception of blacks as unequal to whites shapes her inner conflict.
rising action Iola’s parents raise her to believe she is white, but her mulatta identity is exposed when her wicked uncle, Lorraine, manipulates her father’s will and sells her, her mother, and her siblings into slavery.
climax The conflict of masking and uncovering identity comes to a climax when Iola first refuses to marry Dr. Gresham, a white man, because the white race is responsible for the institution of slavery and the subsequent fracturing of Iola’s family. While she continues to grapple with her identity, Iola begins to align herself with the black race and affirm her black roots, generating her path toward self-realization.
falling action Eventually, Iola definitively asserts herself as a black woman whose goal is to advocate on behalf of her race in order to foster equal rights and racial uplift within the black community.
themes The double oppression of race and gender; biological vs. social origins of race
motifs The contrast of darkness and light; the Christian religion; literacy and authorship
symbols Birthmarks; natural imagery; Aunt Linda
foreshadowing Marie speculates that Lorraine will betray the family by selling her and her children into slavery. The images of darkness that shroud Marie’s home symbolize this dire prediction. Aunt Linda’s clairvoyant visions foreshadow the end of slavery as well as blacks’ transcendence beyond oppression toward attaining civil rights.