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A Hallowell midwife and the protagonist of A Midwife’s Tale. A reserved woman, Martha deeply values her own autonomy and avoids passing judgment on others. However, she is very firm in her own opinions and finds ways of making her displeasure known when she or someone she likes is slighted. Though Martha rarely says so explicity, her actions show that she loves her family and has a comfortable, mutually helpful marriage with Ephraim. Martha takes her duties as a nurse and midwife very seriously, giving help to anyone who needs it, no matter what their position in society or her own life situation. Deeply religious, Martha is aware of God’s power and influence in her life even when she doesn’t attend meetings. Like all women, Martha occasionally feels very tired and sorry for herself, and during these times, the diary serves as an outlet for the feelings she can’t share with her family.
Read an in-depth analysis of Martha Ballard.
Martha’s husband. A surveyor for most of his life, Ephraim is a well-respected man who holds several positions of authority and trust within the community. Ephraim is calm and independent and generally lets Martha have full authority over her duties and whereabouts. He angers Martha only when he feels she is complaining too much about the help. Finally sick of being attacked, Ephraim quits his surveying job and becomes a tax collector. Though the job leads him to being jailed for debt, Ephraim seems to see his confinement almost as a period of relaxation. When he is home, however, Ephraim is a great help around the house and generally a good friend to Martha.
Martha’s oldest son. Quiet and unmarried, Cyrus follows miller jobs wherever they become available and moves in and out of his parents’ house until he is in his early forties. Having developed powerful shoulders through his years of re-chiseling mill stones, Cyrus is a great help to Martha whenever he is in town. Though no mention of it is made in the diary, Ulrich theorizes that Cyrus had great difficulty achieving independence due to some sort of mental impairment.
Martha’s middle son. Jonathan is brash and drinks too much, and his fits of temper are a source of contention between him and Martha for much of her life. On more than one occasion, Martha records fights that Jonathan has instigated with neighbors, and though the rest of the family learns to accept these brawls, Martha’s descriptions indicate that she remains opposed to his behavior. Despite his temper, Jonathan is very aware of his responsibilities. He marries Sally when she gives birth to his child, and he makes sure his mother is taken care of even if it isn’t in the way she might have wanted. Ephraim’s declared heir, Jonathan has occasional problems with debt but works hard to raise the fortunes of himself and his children.
One of Martha’s daughters. A quiet, dutiful girl who masters all of the domestic skills necessary to set up a good household of her own, Hannah is the only daughter living at home during the course of the diary who isn’t mentioned in conjunction with directly helping with her mother’s nursing duties. After her marriage to Moses Pollard, Hannah’s focus seems to be on her own large family. Still, Hannah’s birth so close to the death of her sisters may have led to a special relationship between her and Martha, as she is the only child listed at Martha’s bedside in the diary’s final entry.
Martha’s youngest daughter. The only daughter to develop a specific career of her own, Dolly trains and begins working as a dressmaker for a period of time before her marriage to Barnabas Lambard. Dolly is a hard, uncomplaining worker, and she assists her mother during her midwiving and nursing duties, though she is not always sympathetic enough to Martha’s needs. Dolly is left in charge of Martha’s papers after she dies, and she passes the diary on to her daughters.
One of Martha’s nieces. Sent by her mother, Dorothy Barton, to live with Martha as a teenager, Parthenia likes the arrangement so well that she stays with Martha until she marries Shubael Pitts and sets up a household of her own. A patient, uncomplaining worker, Parthenia assists Martha both through housework and by watching patients when Martha can’t do so herself. Baptized during her final illness, Martha commends the niece she thinks of as a daughter on her patience and Christian meekness. Parthenia dies at a young age.
Jonathan’s wife and Martha’s daughter-in-law. A strong woman who knows what she wants, Sally has no trouble claiming Jonathan as the father of her daughter and pressuring him until he agrees to marry her. This strength of will gives both her and Martha considerable difficulty when they live under the same roof, each fighting to be mistress of the same space. Though she often complains of Martha’s inflexibility, the entries suggest that she behaves similarly when living as a widow under her own son’s roof. Sally cares very much for her sister Hitty and occasionally fulfills nursing needs in the neighborhood.
Martha’s neighbor, who murders his family before committing suicide. Sober, industrious, taciturn James is a respected member of the local militia, and, before the murders, Martha bakes for James and often trades goods with the rest of the family. Early historians have theorized that James diverts from his original plan to only commit suicide because he needs to control his family’s future. A Universalist, he believes that everyone will be saved regardless of their actions.
A local preacher who Martha likes. Somewhat more radical in his religious beliefs than many town leaders, Foster is given to suing his enemies and is eventually dismissed from his position. Looking for work out of town at the time, Foster seems able to do little to defend his wife’s safety or reputation from the abuse of town leaders. Eventually, he and his family are forced to flee Hallowell in disgrace and debt. The same traits that brought him and Rebecca such trouble in Hallowell also get them chased out of several other towns. Eventually, they find a town that accepts their eccentricities.
Another Hallowell diarist often quoted by Ulrich. Martha’s neighbor and occasional employer, Sewell is very conservative in his religious beliefs and is a major force behind driving the Fosters out of town. Sewell is highly patriotic and attuned to ceremony, and he disapproves of any activity that even hints of scandal. In his diary, he offers a very male perspective of the time—that is, he seems completely oblivious to the daily rhythms of life going on around him. Even the birth of one of his children is recorded only in Martha’s diary, not in his.
Read an in-depth analysis of Henry Sewell.
Martha’s neighbor who is accused of rape. A well-respected member of the community, North seems to feel sympathy for the woman he is accused of attacking. He is acquitted of Rebecca Foster’s rape charges and seems to suffer no lasting effects on his career. Martha and her family, however, never forgive him, and her daughters go out of their way to have someone else officiate at their weddings.
A Hallowell physician who sometimes works with Martha. Page is intent on developing an obstetrics practice rather than arriving during emergencies like most physicians, and Martha thinks him bumbling enough to record more than one of his mistakes for posterity. His skill improves with experience, however, and during the years when Martha delivers fewer babies, he is one of the main people whom the expectant mothers request.
Martha’s great-great-granddaughter, who inherited the diary. A practicing physician in the late 1800s, Mary is one of the first women allowed into the once exclusively male Massachusetts Medical Society. Mary cherishes Martha’s diary, admiring her great-grandmother’s skill and professionalism and feeling a deep kinship with her. She donates the diary to the Maine State Library to keep it safe and give others greater accessibility to it. Though highly disappointed by the deletions in the incomplete transcript they give her in return, Mary is gracious enough to thank the library for their efforts.
Ace your assignments with our guide to A Midwife's Tale!