header image
 

Is “The Problem of Old Harjo” really a work of Romance?

Upon reading “The Problem of Old Harjo” by John M. Oskison, I began asking myself if this work really added to the Romance genre. Given everything that was discussed in class, this story is not as obvious in the romance department as one would imagine a work would be in a class called Bad Romance. But, as I continued to read, I noticed that the Bible, and the way it was interpreted at the time, played a big role in the meaning (moral) of the story. As I further understood the biblical parallels of this story, I also saw many terms from A Lover’s Discourse by Roland Barthes being explained.

At the beginning of the story, we are introduced to Old Harjo, a Native American, who has converted to Christianity from his Cherokee religion. However, he is not fully “accepted” by the Mormans in his village, because he is considered a proclaimed bigamist with two wives. Interestingly, he is likened to Abraham from the Old Testament of the Bible. Abraham is considered the father of the ancient Hebrews (Oskison 531). Comparing Old Harjo to Abraham seems fitting, considering, they are both patriarchal figures in their villages and they also had two wives. However, the Mormons decided to see past this fact in the story, and still would not allow Old Harjo into the faith. This is where the first term from Barthes’ discourse comes into play. “Embrace” is described as, “the gesture of the amorous embrace seems to fulfill, for a time, the subject’s dream of total union with the loved being” (Barthes 104). Miss Evans, the young missionary who helped Old Harjo see that he was a sinner and urged him to repent, believed that he was genuine and that the “Spirit of the Lord of the Lord” had descended upon him (Oskison 531). Old Harjo wanted to be baptized and do everything he can to be closer to God because he was enraptured; there was a moment of affirmation where Old Harjo felt fulfilled. (Barthes 105). But, this wasn’t enough.

In the eyes of the Mrs. Rowell, a missionary who deemed herself more experienced with the ways of the unchangeable Indians, Old Harjo’s soul was not good enough to be apart of the Christian faith (Oskison 532). He could not lay himself at the feet of the Lord. Here lies the mode of alteration, another term defined by Barthes. It is, “abrupt production, within the amorous field, of a counter-image of the loved object. According to minor incidents or tenuous features, the subject suddenly sees the god Image alter and capsize” (Barthes 25). Barthes also draws reference from a passage by Dostoevsky, “I perceive suddenly a tiny speck of corruption. This speck is a tiny one: a gesture, a word…something unexpected which appears (which dawns) from a region I had never even suspected…” (Barthes 25). This definition and example are present in Ms. Rowell’s insistence of breaking apart Old Harjo’s family. But why is this a big deal when he is willing to offer his heart and soul to God? This is a counter image of the loved object. In other words, in order to be apart of which Old Harjo desires, he must give up what he also loves, even though his “bigamy” was accepted in the Old Testament during the time in which Abraham, his spiritual brother existed.

What I took from this, based on what the biblical references and Barthes’ insight, is that you should not force your definition of love on someone. If you do not understand the love someone has for something or someone, that is okay. They are in full comprehension of their own emotions and feelings, and so it should be left to them. Forcing Old Harjo to choose one wife over the other in order to stand in the presence of the Lord, is outrageous and Miss Evans felt it too. If someone is genuinely in love with his spiritual development, allow it to be; allow the person to embrace it wholeheartedly, because the references used from Bible spoke nothing but love for faith regardless of external situations. Perhaps this is a romance after all.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. A Lover’s Discourse. Hill and Wang, 2010. Print.

Oskinson, John. “The Problem of Old Harjo”. University of Virginia, 1907. Print.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

~ by Ravenn Haynes on October 30, 2017.

4 Responses to “Is “The Problem of Old Harjo” really a work of Romance?”

  1. The Abrahamic parallel adds further tension to the issue of bigamy when Abraham’s reasons and process for his pluralistic marriage are compared with Harjo’s own backstory. Indeed, hearkening to the Judeo-Christian patriarch creates sympathy for Harjo’s ‘sin,’ but perhaps it is his departure from the Abrahamic plot that effects the most tangible part of this sympathy.

    The biblical passages appear in Genesis. Here, Abraham, who is yet childless, is advised by Serai, his (now sole) wife, to procreate with Hagar, her slave (16:1-4). This correlates concretely with Harjo, who married his second wife for the purposes of procreation, (albeit with the underlying distinction of the class difference between Abraham’s wives in contrast with the equality of Harjo’s own).

    The correlation is polluted as the biblical passage continues. While Harjo’s home is represented as a peaceful, equal, and mutually respectful domestic environment, Abraham’s becomes rife with rivalry. Indeed, the harmony of Harjo’s unions becomes precisely why he cannot give up one of his wives, but the disharmony in Abraham’s world allow for the separation of his conjugates (16:6).

    The final moment of the discontent reaches its zenith upon God’s own involvement in the plight of Abraham’s second wife. After she escapes the mistreatment of her counterpart, she is commanded to return to her position in the state of Abraham’s bigamy, in submission to Serai (16:9). Arguably, this submission creates a situation in which the discord present in the domestic environment prevents the propriety of bigamy, but this restriction is removed when complacency (even, apparently, a synthetic form) is established.

    This expanded biblical analogy allows the following interpretation of Harjo: the same domestic complacency or harmony that is evinced by Harjo is not only accepted by Evans at the close of the narrative, but is established as a fundamental requirement for (or at least helpful in establishing) sympathy with forms of love that seem to contradict ruling ideologies.

    The Holy Bible, New International Version. Grand Rapids: Zondervan House, 1984. Accessed via BibleGateway.com

  2. Avi,

    This is a great and rather in depth analysis of Abraham’s relationship with someone other than his first wive, and the discord created within the family thereafter. However, the premise of my argument was that Harjo’s conversion wasn’t deemed unworthy even though he was likened to Abraham. There were many reasons as you pointed out. I guess what I intended was that there needed be an act of love regarded his conversion despite his previous decisions, and his love for his wives regardless of his faith. Does that make sense, or did I butcher my interpretation again?

  3. Ravenn,

    I completely agree the romanticism in “The Problem of Old Harjo” is, to say the least, subtle. And while I appreciate the connection you made to Barthes, I believe the question of love in the short story is manifested in a slightly different way, which you allude to with “forcing Old Harjo to choose … is outrageous.” The story, and more precisely Miss Evans, embodies how our understanding of love is often in conflict with other commitments. For many, religion prescribes not only what we should love but how we should love. Mrs. Rowell diligently accepts this prescription and advocates that Miss Evans –and every Christian for that matter– should do the same; Mrs. Rowell is in this sense the “force” imposed on Old Harjo. But aside from questioning the validity of religion, doctrinal interpretations, and/or dogma, Oskison’s story asks the reader to create a hierarchy– a hierarchy that denotes the love’s inferiority or supremacy.
    Ravenn,

    I completely agree the romanticism in “The Problem of Old Harjo” is, to say the least, subtle. And while I appreciate the connection you made to Barthes, I believe the question of love in the short story is manifested in a slightly different way, which you allude to with “forcing Old Harjo to choose … is outrageous.” The story, and more precisely Miss Evans, embodies how our understanding of love is often in conflict with other commitments. For many, religion prescribes not only what we should love but how we should love. Mrs. Rowell diligently accepts this prescription and advocates that Miss Evans –and every Christian for that matter– should do the same; Mrs. Rowell is in this sense the “force” imposed on Old Harjo. But aside from questioning the validity of religion, doctrinal interpretations, and/or dogma, Oskison’s story asks the reader to create a hierarchy– a hierarchy that denotes the love’s inferiority or supremacy.

  4. Bryan –

    That is another great way to interpret the meaning of love in this story. It’s short but rich analysis and interpretation.

Leave a Reply




 

Spam prevention powered by Akismet

Skip to toolbar