Wlliam Gilmore Simms
The Simms Review (Vol 14: No 2) >> Sentimental and Liberated Heroines: Bess Matthews and Mary Granger in The Yemassee >> Page 33

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Secondary Scholarship | 2006
Transcription lover, she believes that the woods and all things within "breathe of love"
(151). Bess's sentimentality also is predominant: "She was also a girl of
thought and intellect – something, too, of a dreamer: -- one to whom a song
brought a sentiment -- the sentiment an emotion, and that in turn sought for
an altar on which to lay all the worship of her spirit" (151). Bess is a
dreamer, not fully aware of reality. She is a sentimental romantic who feels
a "poetry" in the scene and a "holy sympathy for all of nature's beauty"
(151).
While she is thus charmed by nature and consumed by her romantic
daydreams, she comes upon a rattlesnake. In her illusory state, she becomes
charmed by the snake's eye and, fascinated, moves toward it: "her eye was
yet singularly fixed – fastened, as it were, to a single spot -- gathered and
controlled by a single object, and glazed, apparently, beneath a curious
fascination" (153). She becomes hypnotized, first by her innocent interest in
the "star-like shining gaze," and then moreso from fear as she realizes it is a
snake, tries to run, and cannot move: "Could she have fled! She felt the
necessity; but the power of her limbs was gone!" (153, 155). Bess becomes
completely helpless, and the "stillness [is] death-like" as the birds and
flowers she had previously been admiring either leave or lose their luster.
After she swoons, Occonestoga, a Yemassee, kills the snake with an arrow
before it can bite Bess.
This scene is reminiscent of Eden imagery in that while Bess
creates the perfect paradise for the love she has for Harrison, she is
victimized by reality in the form of a snake. As an innocent, Bess is not safe
in the wilderness, where she is easy prey for evil. Additionally, the scene
points to Bess's purity and possible fear of masculinity. She has previously
chided Harrison for being too forward, and now a snake, a masculine
symbol, attacks at the moment she is to meet her lover. The phallic
rattlesnake is not only a realistic physical danger on the frontier, but it also
serves as a figurative danger for a young woman. In order to marry well,
Bess must protect herself from unwanted male advances while she is single.
Even though Harrison is the hero of the novel, he is a threat for Bess until
the two are married. Simms inserts the rattlesnake attack during a period
when Harrison is threatening Bess's maidenly boundaries.
At the very next meeting of Harrison and Bess following the snake
episode, Harrison takes his most forward step yet. While discussing their
love for one another, he claims that he must hear Bess's love from her own
lips and then proceeds to kiss her (206). This kiss causes Bess to blush, and
she rebukes him. Although Bess may protest against his forwardness and
Harrison may respect her purity as a virtue, he does feel the freedom to
overstep the boundaries when he pleases.
While Bess Matthews is the traditional, fair heroine of The
Yemassee, Mary Granger represents a different side to this coin. When Mary


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