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The Limited Role of "Woman" in William Attaway's "Blood on the Forge"

The role of “woman” in American social development is a commonly disputed one among feminists and other critics, but the basic titles for the gender have generally been similar throughout the American tradition of literature- a woman is either a mother, a daughter, a sister, or a wife, and occasionally claims more than one of these labels. In some cases, a woman who begins as a daughter may also become a mistress, or in graver terms, a whore. It is unfortunate to note that this is a rather common role of “woman” in literature, and that this earnest position often takes away the possibility of filling any other more desirable post. This is certainly the case in William Attaway’s Blood on the Forge, which portrays a society where the role of women as familial human beings is cast aside in favor of the alternative- a society showcasing women as creatures of sex who cannot become more. The effect of this choice comes in a chilling conclusion.

Early in the novel, there is an immediately poignant absence of mother figures. The reader learns that the mother of Melody, Chinatown, and Big Mat has “dropped dead between the gaping handles of the plow (6),” and yet, somehow life in the little shack has gone on as usual. The family’s first task of filling in the “hole” Mama leaves behind and sustaining the remaining members is performed in a utilitarian and practical way. The only bumps on the road to a clean continuity are the physical reaction Melody has to food and the angry rage which leads Big Mat to kill the mule while it was still hooked to the plow. Melody’s physical reaction to witnessing his dead mother’s corpse is justified, but a reader may stop and wonder if perhaps that would be an expected reaction to seeing a corpse of any acquaintance, or even a corpse in general. As far as a real mother-son connection on behalf of any of the boys, no real details are given. Instead, we are to assume that at this point, Mama will not be contributing to the plot of the novel.

The only other woman introduced in the opening stages of the novel is Big Mat’s wife, Hattie, who seems to take some part in the “mothering” of Big Mat’s brother’s, Melody and Chinatown. Still, this role is only a figurative one, because Hattie cannot physically be a mother. At this point, the author has eliminated all possible mother figures and created, instead, one woman without an easily definable role. The next logical choice would inspire a reader to place Hattie in the role of “sister,” since she is a sister-in-law to Melody to Chinatown. Still, in order for Hattie to be a sister-in-law, she must first be a wife. Unfortunately, by eliminating Hattie’s role as a mother, Attaway also removes the possibility of her lasting as a wife.

The legal authority of Big Mat and Hattie’s marriage is not discussed, but she is first introduced as “Big Mat’s wife. The marks on her told that much (2).” Her role as “wife” is defined by her ability to cook (“Damn a woman who can’t even keep the pot astirrin’, (23)”) and her ability to give birth (“Muck ground get big every year jest like a woman oughta. (22)”), which is an ability it turns out she does not have. Hattie instead becomes woman who is beaten and ravaged by her husband upon his hope that she will someday bear him a child to prove that he is not actually cursed by God. Hattie’s direct participation in the plot ends when she is left behind “barefoot…in the doorway (37)” by all of the men, and is subjected to the unknown fate that most married women need not fear. Later, when it becomes clear that Hattie will not bear a child, she is erased from the role of “wife” and simply becomes another female body of the past (“You never see her again. (64)”)

The body that replaces her is a 15-year-old prostitute called Anna who begins the story in the role of “whore,” and seeks to move out of it into another role. From this young woman’s description of her past on page 113, we learn that “there is a baby in [her] mother’s house, but that is nothing.” This suggests that though she has the physical capability of being a mother, she refuses the role. Instead, she leaves her family in Mexico (also forfeiting the role of daughter) to become a grand Americano, or a woman who’s man will buy her fine dresses and high heels in exchange for her services. In this, she openly claims the role of “whore,” and seeks then only to become a wife.

When Big Mat finally places Anna in a position to be his companion, the reader is given a spark of hope that maybe this poor young girl will have a second chance at life and love. Instead, she is beaten like a disobedient pet and treated as an object of loathe and jealousy, all the while being used sexually. Even Melody, who is supposed to be treating her as a sister figure, uses her body and ignores her feelings on more than one occasion. After Chinatown’s injury late in the novel, he is comforted by placing his hands on Anna’s breasts- a gesture surely unacceptable from the “brother-in-law” of this young woman. Soon, it is plain that Anna can not really be granted the position of wife, and will rather remain a whore, even after the events of the novel have concluded.

There is little other mention of women in the world of Blood on the Forge that does not contain a graphic scene of rape, prostitution, or grotesque nudity. Most of these scenes extend to very young women and female children as well, portraying a completely barbaric society where men and boys rape and use women at whim. It seems that all other roles these women could be capable of are held up and away from them, and instead they are maintained as whores for the society of working men with no hope of becoming real mothers, sisters, daughters, or wives. By creating an environment like this, Attaway may be commenting that without a proper distribution of these womanly roles, the world of men turns to chaos, destruction, violence, and essentially death. By limiting the women of the novel to only the possibility of whoredom, Attaway is setting in motion the horrible atmosphere that makes Blood on the Forge so desolate and dismally powerful.