The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Pauline Hopkins, Contending Forces (1900)

  1. What were some of the circumstances/debates in African-American circles at the time of the publication of this book?
  2. What does Hopkins claim in her preface are the goals of this novel? What is the social purpose of a "simple, homely tale"? To whom does she look for fair literary presentations of the emotional life of African-Americans?
  3. What does she believe are the special problems of southern black people? Of northern black people? What does she mean by "both sides of the dark picture--lynching and concubinage"?
  4. Why do you think she makes a final appeal to the "justice of heart and mind . . . which the Anglo-Saxon in America never withholds from suffering humanity"?
  5. To what extent is this a historical novel? What kinds of history does it provide for its readers? What ties the different subplots together?
  6. What account does Hopkins give of Caribbean slavery? To what extent is Charles Montfort implicated in these evils? His wife? Why do you think Hopkins chose them as representative slave-holders/Creoles?
  7. What motivates Montfort's decision to move to North Carolina? What factors there conspire to end the Montforts' happiness and lives?
  8. Robert Yarborough's introduction mentions that Hopkins' plot uses many conventions of the nineteenth-century sentimental novel. What are some of these? Do they alter/undermine/enforce the progress of the political plot?
  9. What is the racial heritage of the Montforts? Do you agree with Robert Yarborough that Hopkins herself reveals racist judgements in her descriptions of the characters and their qualities? If so, to what do you attribute this? To what extent does this undermine the novel's effort to argue for racial equality?
  10. Do you think the novel is an effective vehicle for making some of the points Hopkins wishes to convey? Would argumentative prose or poetry have served her purposes as well?
  11. In chapter 2, "The Days 'Before the War'" and chapter 3, "Coming Events Cast Shadows," what elements of ante-bellum white society are represented? What are features of the portrayal of slave life? What has happened to a man who had wanted to marry a black woman?
  12. What are traits ascribed to the Committee for Public Safety, and to Anson Pollock, Bill Sampson and Hank Davis? How is their speech portrayed? What motives are given as the cause for Mr. Montfort's murder?
  13. Why wasn't Mrs. Montfort able to protect herself after her husband's death? Why did she likely commit suicide?
  14. What seems to have happened to their children, and to the latter's descendants?
  15. In Chapter 5, "Ma Smith's Lodging House," what do we learn about the social world of post-bellum African Americans in Boston? What forms of discrimination do they face? What advantages do they retain?
  16. What does Hopkins see as some of the chief features of this society? How are intelligence and accomplishments demonstrated? What factors does she think will gradually bring improvement? (e. g., p. 87)
  17. How are Will Smith and John Langley contrasted? What does the narrator think may account for some of their traits of character? What are some of her views on heredity? Would these have been common in 1900?
  18. What qualities are emphasized in the descriptions of Sappho Clark? What are implications of her name? Is she a "new woman"? How would you characterize her friendship with Dora?
  19. What issues seem to preoccupy Sappho? What does the narrator seem to feel about the issue of female "past sin"? Would this have been an uncommon view at the time?
  20. What cultural pleasures are engaged in by the Smith circle? Which qualities of their lodgers are satirized in the account of their evening party?
  21. In chapter 6, "Friendship," what do you make of the fact that Sappho calls Dora "my little brownie"? What is revealed in the women's conversation about marriage?
  22. What qualities are ascribed to Dr. Arthur Lewis? What does the narrator seem to feel about the views and character of his original, Booker T. Washington? In particular, what does Sappho believe about the need for the franchise for black men? What views about women are ascribed to "Arthur"?
  23. What do you make of the parody/representation of Doctor Peters's practice of magnetism? Do you think the portrait is condescending?
  24. To what extent is Mrs. Willis presented favorably? What values does she bring to the African-American "sewing-circle"? What message, if any, seems to be conveyed about admitting one's past?
  25. Of what kind of social gatherings does Hopkins seem to approve?
  26. Do you think this novel serves its purpose in educating white readers about the lives of their fellow Americans? What purpose would it have served for African-American readers?

Go to Top

  Copyright © 2010 Florence S Boos, The University of Iowa. All rights reserved.
  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56