How shall I describe the person I once was? At the age of thirteen I was very much a girl, having not yet begun to take the shape, much less the heart, of a woman. Still, my family dressed me as a young woman, bonnet covering my beautiful hair, full skirts, high button shoes, you may be sure, white gloves. I certainly wanted to be a lady. It was not just my ambition; it was my destiny. I embraced it wholly, gladly, with not an untoward thought of anything else. (Preface.3)
At age thirteen Charlotte is, much like a Britney Spears song, "not a girl, not yet a woman." As her body has yet to bloom, Charlotte's first ideas about what it means to be feminine have a whole lot to do with clothing. Skirts! Shoes! Gloves! You get the picture. This passage also sets up the very important distinction between gender and sex. Sex has to do with biology (Charlotte's actual body is female), while gender is socially constructed (that is, Charlotte can put on clothes and become feminine).
Never mind that my dress – having been worn for four days – was creased and misshapen, my white gloves a sodden gray. Never mind that my fine hair must have been hanging like a horse's tail, in almost complete disarray. With all eyes upon us as we crossed the ship's waist to the bowsprit and figurehead, I felt like a princess being led to her throne. (6.1)
Charlotte isn't able to keep up her feminine appearance (her clothes are nasty at this point), yet she stills feels like a lady. A princess, even! But why? Is it because of the big strong captain who's leading her out on the deck? (Dashing, isn't he?) What does that say about what it means to be a woman, at least in Charlotte's mind?
Captain Jaggery and Mr. Zachariah! Such unlike men! And yet, quite suddenly I was struck by the thought that each of them, in his own way, was courting me.
Courting me! I could not help but smile. Well no, not courting in the real sense. But surely courting me for friendship.
What a queer notion! But I must confess, it filled me with smug pleasure. (7.30-7.32)
Charlotte thinks of Captain Jaggery and Zachariah as her would-be suitors (creepy), and what's more, she totally gets pleasure out of this (creepy squared). Is Charlotte's relationship with each man about power in some way? What stops her from seeing the captain or Zachariah as her equal?
So saying he presented me with a pair of canvas trousers and blouse, a kind of miniature of what the crew wore – garments he himself had made.
While I thanked him kindly, in fact I took the gift as a warning that I had been forgetting my station. I told him – rather stiffly, I fear – that I thought it not proper for me, a girl – a lady – to wear such apparel. But, so as not to offend too deeply, I took the blouse and trousers to my cabin. (8.24-8.25)
Being the clothes horse that she is, Charlotte has some very definite ideas about what a girl, er, a lady, is not to wear. But what does Charlotte mean when she says she's been "forgetting her station"? Is being friends with Zachariah also something that Charlotte would deem unladylike? Why?
With fumbling, nervous hands I put on the seaman's clothing. The trousers and shirt felt stiff, heavy, like some skin not my own. My bare toes curled upon the wooden floor.
I stood some while to question my heart. Zachariah's words to Fisk, that I was the "very soul of justice" echoed within me. (12.108-12.109)
As Charlotte's role on the boat changes, so too does her wardrobe. And from all the fuss she's made about clothes, we know that there must have been some big, big changes going on. Charlotte is basically gender bending at this point (i.e., putting on clothing typically reserved for hard-working sailor men), though we should also take note of the passage's emphasis on her body. What does she mean by a "skin" that's not her own?
"I do mean it," I said, finding boldness with repetition, "I want to be the replacement for Mr. Johnson."
"You're a girl," Dillingham spat out contemptuously.
"A pretty girl," Foley put in. It was not meant as a compliment. "Takes more than canvas britches to hide that."
"And a gentlewoman," was Grimes's addition, as though that was the final evidence of my essential uselessness. (13.3-13.6)
The men of the crew are as suspicious of Charlotte's being a girl (her gender) as they are of her being a gentlewoman (her class). How are the two (class and gender) intertwined? The men also seem a bit nervous about Charlotte's physical attractiveness. Why?
The captain turned to the first mate. "Mr. Hollybrass, remove Miss Doyle's belongings from her cabin. Let her take her place in the forecastle with the crew. Put her down as Mister Doyle and list Miss Doyle in the log as lost. From this point on I expect to see that he works with the rest. (14.19)
The captain seems to think it's important that, since Charlotte is now a member of the crew, she be addressed as "Mister Doyle." Charlotte's sex may still be the same (that is, she's still got a girl's body), but her gender role is now completely different. We guess that means no more tea in the captain's cabin.
I was given a hammock placed in a corner. Around this a piece of torn sail was tacked up as a kind of curtain. The space was private for me, and kept that way. (14.28)
Though Charlotte has taken on the name "Mister Doyle," she's still different from the rest of the crew. We mean, she's still, biologically speaking, a female, yes? Do you think the curtain is a realistic solution to the problem of Charlotte's, um, body?
"Is the way you dress unnatural?"
"Not for the work I do..."
"What work is that?"
"As a member of the crew."
"Is being a crew member not unnatural for a girl?"
"Unusual," I insisted. "Not unnatural."
"I could not work with it long!"
"I am one of this crew."
"Unnatural," he said.
"Unusual," said I. (18.192-18.203)
In the courtroom scene, we're asked to think about Charlotte's gender bending. Is it "unusual" or "unnatural"? Jaggery argues that a girl dressing as a boy is unnatural and goes against the laws of nature. (Uh, since when did the laws of nature dictate what we wear? We'd really like to know.) Charlotte insists that wearing pants and cutting her hair is out of the ordinary, perhaps, but these things have more to do with society than with nature.
He walked to the far corner of his cabin and picked up what looked like a bundle of clothing. He dumped it at my feet. I saw by the light of my lantern that it was the garments I had set aside weeks ago – a lifetime ago, it seemed - for my disembarkation. White dress. Stockings. Shoes. Gloves. Bonnet. All in perfect order. (21.45)
The captain seems to believe, as Charlotte once did, that the first step in making someone into a proper young lady is to get her into some nice clean clothes. Charlotte may have been down with that kind of thing when the journey first started, but now these garments symbolize something else entirely. How have Charlotte's dress and gloves become a symbol of restraint, silence, and even imprisonment?