The Book of Esther and the Typology of Female Transfiguration in American Literature

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Ariel Clark Silver
  • New York, NY: 
    Lexington Books
    , November
     2017.
     240 pages.
     $95.00.
     Hardcover.
    ISBN
    9781498564786.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

The story of the Jewish queen Esther, as recounted in the biblical book of the same name, has recently attracted a lot of attention. From historico-critical, literary, and feminist studies, articles and monographs on the subject of Esther abound. This new study by Ariel Clark Silver offers a significant contribution to the reception history of Esther by focusing on Puritan literature and its aftermath, in particular on those authors most associated with transcendentalism. The thesis of the book rests on an exploration of Esther as “type,” which is developed in chapter 2. “Esther as Type: The Search for a Figure of Female Redemption” explores the roots of the use of such typology. By tracing it back to the early days of Christianity and rabbinic Judaism, the author traces the uses of typology by early biblical commentators and its importance to Protestant communities from the Reformation to the Puritans and beyond. Another factor underlying the choice of both method and subject is the publication of Cotton Mather’s Ornaments for the Daughters of Zion: Or The Character and Happiness of a Virtuous Woman in 1692 whose discourse on women is both traditional in encouraging them to virtuous and submissive conduct and radical in encouraging women to reach a higher spiritual status. Mather turns to biblical women, and to Queen Esther in particular, as a type of woman who best embodies female virtues and wisdom. His influence is considerable on the Transcendentalists. 

Margaret Fuller, as the first editor of The Dial went on to write Woman in the Nineteenth Century in 1845. This seminal philosophic work is a reflection on the nature of “femininity” and “masculinity.” Despite her statement that there is “no wholly masculine man, no purely feminine woman” (418), Fuller is not free of essentialism. Silver argues in chapter 1, “The Death of Male Sacrifice: Margaret Fuller and the Flowering of a New God,” that the female type of “transfiguration” can only rise when the male god and the idea of sacrifice associated with it is deposed. In chapter 3, “‘A’ is for Atonement: Hawthorne and Esther,” Silver analyses the character of Hester Prynne as a new woman and encourages readers to shift perspective from “adulteress” to “atonement.” Chapter 4, “Beyond Redemption: Queen Esther, Zenobia and Miriam,” continues to explore two more of Hawthorne’s novels, The Blithdale Romance and The Marble Faun. Silver’s careful analysis shows that by providing “a narrative of female suppression and female revenge, female containment and female rebellion,” the back story of Esther helps create transcendence for the female protagonists. The last two chapters, “The Education of Esther: Henry Adams and the Eternal Woman” and “The Face of Female Salvation: Clover Adams and the Art of Transfiguration,” focus on the work of Henry Adams (and his novel Esther) and his concept of the “eternal woman” in a changing world where women struggle to find their place in marriage and through the wider debates between art, religion, and science.                                         

Silver is successful in going beyond John Gatta’s work on the prominence of Mary in 19th century literature (American Madonna) and in establishing an older paradigm in the person of the Jewish Queen Esther. Silver’s book acts not so much as a corrective but as an expansion of how ancient types of women are helpful to American women in presenting the emergence of a redeemed spiritual figure who accepts responsibility for her actions and acquires moral autonomy in a culture often set against her. 

About the Reviewer(s): 

Ann Jeffers is Senior Lecturer in Biblical Studies at Heythrop College, Univeristy of London.

Date of Review: 
June 26, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Ariel Clark Silver is Institute Faculty at the Columbus Ohio Institute of Religion.

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