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Feminization of Virtue

On this point, however, The Deerslayer stands equipped with an answer. It is crucial then—crucial not just for the plot but for the general problem of commensurability—that Judith should be, as the preface says, "erring, and fallen." Where all else fails, the category of the fallen woman remains infallible. The strength of that category reconstitutes a signifying foundation, a consensual ground that seems not provisional but absolute, not legislative but natural, and makes it possible to say, with restored confidence, who is marriageable to whom and who is equal to whom. To say that is also to suggest that in The Deerslayer as in mid-nineteenth-century America, gender is a field of symbolic order: a field where meanings are affixed, identities rationalized, distinctions maintained. Female sexuality is not just a sign here, it is a sign whose referent has become so integral, and indeed so immanent, that it commands the stability almost of a natural fact. The distinction between a virtuous maid and a fallen woman is absolute and absolutely guaranteed, biology being adduced here as a kind of epistemological ballast.

The centrality of gender as a signifying field, then, would seem to stem from its capacity for naturalizing signs and hence its compensatory relation to other fields—for instance, the field of class, where signs are becoming newly unstable, newly denaturalized.[89] In the difficult transition from classical republicanism to modern liberalism, gender is invoked, above all, to restore a natural order to a newly denaturalized political order. Against the groundlessness of political institutions, gender works with the solidity of a natural fact. One knows exactly what it takes to be a fallen woman, what it means to be a fallen woman, and what will eventually happen to a fallen woman. And so in The Deerslayer , it is within the semantic field of gender that the idea of equality, elsewhere rendered so problematic, is reconstituted as a coherent notion. It does not matter that Judith and Natty are actually found to be unequal; this regrettable fact is acknowledged, even proclaimed, since its very regrettableness is a tribute to the idea of equality, all the more honored for being unattained. And just as


equality is affirmed here in its absence, what is affirmed in absence as well is a rational universe, "commensurate but unequal," in which human institutions can furnish a unifying ground for human differences. Such a universe, of course, no longer existed in the mid-nineteenth century, and no doubt it had never truly existed in that degree of perfection. Through the semantics of gender, however, it could at least be intimated, memorialized, symbolically restored. In this context, Raymond Williams's idea of the "dominant, residual, and emergent" must be broadened to include gender as a primary site of residual signification.[90] In The Deerslayer , what is residually invoked is the idealized world of classical republicanism, as yet untouched by its infectious encounters with modern liberalism and as yet pristine in its rational harmony: a world once political in focus but now shadowed forth only through the relations between the sexes.

If sexual purity is ritually invoked, as Mary Douglas argues, to repair the perceived damage to the body politic, the figure of the fallen woman would seem to have a wide symbolic currency, indispensable to any society at odds with itself.[91] Still, at the particular historical juncture we are studying—a juncture marked by the lamented loss of rationality in the political sphere—the figure of the fallen woman would seem to occupy a special place in her culture's semantic landscape. Historians of the early republic have written primarily on the experiential status of women.[92] To their work, we might want to add a rhetorical supplement, focusing on the ways the figure of woman, her integrity or lack of integrity, is made to answer to (and perhaps to answer for) the integrity or lack of integrity of the body politic.

Nor is this political figuration altogether fortuitous. Classical republicanism has never been gender neutral—although we might also note that traditionally it was gendered in a way almost directly contrary to its later avatar. Virtue, that cornerstone of the republican polity, had for centuries been figured as masculine, manifesting itself in military heroism and civic activism. The word virtue "derives from the Latin virtus ," Hanna Pitkin points out, "and thus from vir , which means 'man.' Virtù is thus manliness." Meanwhile, fortuna , which puts virtù at such hazards, is figured primarily (though not exclusively) as feminine. "Fortune is a woman," Machiavelli memorably observes, and, as Pitkin adds, "while he sometimes calls fortune a goddess, the means of coping with her that he suggests are not those usually applied to divinities."[93] The figure of woman has other mean-


ings as well. In The Spirit of the Laws (1748), Montesquieu associates her with "luxury," a disease fatal to the republic. He cautions "good legislators" against the "public incontinence" that "causes women to corrupt even before being corrupted."[94]

Judith, whose love of luxury is copiously documented, is conceived very much in the spirit of Montesquieu. Still, this bad habit alone does not seem to be the cause for her downfall. Her capital offense lies elsewhere. Virtue—Judith's much decried loss of it—is what puts her completely beyond the pale of Natty Bumppo, and what disqualifies her forever as a claimant of names. But simply to state that is also to note the enormous distance the word has traveled, not only from its classical Renaissance roots but also from its more immediate use in Revolutionary America. To the Founding Fathers of the republic, virtue was still masculine, still political; and if there was some doubt about its availability, there was no doubt at all about its gender.[95] As the foundational attribute of the republic, the word had an authority almost tautological, as we can see in the circular incantation coming even from a skeptic like James Madison: "I go on this great republican principle: that the people will have virtue and intelligence to select men of virtue and wisdom."[96] Against that great republican principle, the prurient narrowing of focus in The Deerslayer must seem like a cruel joke. From being a civic ideal, conducive to the public good, virtue has come to denote a sexual standard, conducive to the acceptability of a marriage. And from being embodied by the manly citizen, virtue is now perilously lodged within the feminine subject.

The feminization of virtue might turn out to be the most important semantic transformation attendant upon the rise of a liberal political culture. Ian Watt long ago alerted us to this "tremendous narrowing of the ethical scale, a redefinition of virtue in primarily sexual terms."[97] More recently, Ruth Bloch and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg have related this semantic transformation to structural changes newly effected in the liberal polity, with its emerging party system, its conception of politics as a sphere of expediency, and, paralleling that development, its emphasis on private morality and relegation of the ethical domain to female tutelage.[98] In short, the feminization of virtue registered in the broadest sense a cognitive revolution, a revolution in the way institutional domains were conceptualized, organized, and differentiated. It had everything to do with the liberal


philosophy of separate spheres, a philosophy which distinguished between the sexes even as it distinguished between the moral and the political, inscribing a realm of foundational certitude over and against a realm of partisan maneuverings.[99]

Proceeding further, we might say that nineteenth-century liberalism not only believed in separate spheres of life, it also attributed to each of those spheres a high degree of autonomy, which is to say, a high degree of reflexive resolution and internal equilibrium, imagining each as self-sufficient on its own terms, integrated by its own rationalizing principle. The Invisible Hand behind the self-regulating market was only the most dramatic example of such reflexive resolution. There were other examples as well. The moral domain, as it evolved under the aegis of modern liberalism, also came into its own through a declaration of independence—through a cognitive separation from the polity and from the path of the law—becoming, in the process, a fully autonomous domain, discretely conceptualized and reflexively integrated. And so here too, a self-adequating principle came to govern the structure of the moral agent, matching deed and consequence, character and desert, making the field internally commensurate and internally accountable.

Natty Bumppo, Cooper's prime exhibit in the way of the moral agent, offers a good illustration of its workings. As John P. McWilliams has persuasively argued, and as we see most vividly in The Pioneers (1823), Natty embodies the moral law as opposed to the civil law embodied by the lesser characters.[100] And the moral law, in The Deerslayer , is summed up by one word, "honesty," an epithet Natty virtually personifies. "I'll answer for his honesty , whatever I may do for his valor in battle" (63): this is Harry March's backhanded compliment, and, for the rest of the book, we are never allowed to lose sight of Natty's "honest face and honest heart" (74). "All proclaim your honesty," Judith tells him (128), "your honest countenance would be sufficient surety for the truth of a thousand hearts" (126). And she adds, "The girl that finally wins you, Deerslayer, will at least win an honest heart—one without treachery or guile" (130).

Honesty, understood as an antidote to "treachery or guile," harkens back to the eighteenth century, to what Gordon Wood has called its "paranoid style," a conspiratorial mode of thinking. Cooper's The Pathfinder (published in 1840, just one year before The Deerslayer ) was an extravagant exercise in just that genre.[101] However, as


Wood also argues, the paranoid style must be seen not as a collective delusion or mania but as a "mode of causal attribution," which, in supposing that "every social effect, every political event, had to have a purposive human agent as a cause," implicitly "presumes a world of autonomous, freely acting individuals who are capable of directly and deliberately bringing about events through their decisions and actions, and who thereby can be held morally responsible for what happens." The paranoid style turns out to be a Kantian style. Assuming as it did a fully purposive, fully rationalized universe—a universe that admitted of no mismatch, no loss between will and consequence—this paranoid style sustained not only an eighteenth-century style of political discourse but, increasingly, a nineteenth-century style of moral reasoning. And as Wood also points out, this mode of causal attribution has not died with the eighteenth century: "its assumptions still permeate our culture, although, as our system of criminal punishment shows, in increasingly archaic and contradictory ways."[102]

Natty is not about to become a recipient of such criminal punishment. Still, his moral centrality in The Deerslayer would seem to suggest not only the extent to which the novel is even more archaic, even more contradictory than criminal law, but also the extent to which this archaic contradiction is simultaneously the rallying point for a new line of development. For what Natty embodies, in his formidable integrity—in the fully commensurate, fully matching relation between his "honest face" and "honest heart"—is nothing other than the newly sanctified image of the moral domain, understood now as a domain rationalizable on its own terms, a domain of reflexive resolution and internal equilibrium. And so it is fitting that the litmus test for him should be the act of promise keeping, an act which, if executed, would bear witness to just such a rationalizable universe. Promise keeping is thus central to Cooper as the criterion for a morality reflexively integrated within the individual.[103] And Natty's conduct here is exemplary. Captured by the Hurons, he is allowed to leave on a "furlough." Judith begs him not to return, but Natty would not think of it. For him, a furlough is "a thong that binds tighter than any chain. . . . Ropes and chains allow of knives, and desait, and contrivances, but a furlough can be neither cut, slipped, nor sarcumvented" (445).

Natty is bound by his promise, not only in the sense that he is compelled to honor it but also in the sense that he is reflexively inte-


grated by it, becoming, in the process, a truly rational entity, recuperative in time as well as in space, its will always translating into its deed, the terminal effect always encompassed by the original intention. He is as good as his word. Here, then, is a version of the commensurate that would actually work. Problematic as a distributive category and endangered as a political category, commensurability remains coherent, it would seem, only as a moral category, reflexively unifying the trajectory of a single individual. On the strength of that commensurability, Natty is able to go through a succession of names—"Straight-tongue," "Pigeon," "Lap-Ear," "Deerslayer," "Hawkeye"—without failing always to be equal to himself. Also on the strength of that commensurability, the novel ends, having rejected various unequal matches, with that curious, seemingly tautological, but by no means unequal union: between a man named Deerslayer and a gun named Killdeer.

The moral domain, as it is reflexively integrated by the moral agent, thus turns out to be the rational ground not only for the nineteenth-century novel but also, more generally still, for a liberalism increasingly faced with the erosion of that rational ground in other spheres of life. Especially for Cooper, sorely aware that the political order has no foundation in nature, the recovery of a moral foundation must seem all the more gratifying. Natty's "moral law," offered not only in contradistinction to civil law but also in transcendence of it, might be seen, then, as a kind of necessary fantasy, an attempt to redress the decline of reason in politics by looking beyond it, locating beyond its passional sphere a rational ground at once more innate and more permanent. In short, the moral law, to be moral, must now be natural ; it must be anterior to and independent of politics. And it is the naturalness of this morality that the novel must demonstrate with particular insistence.

On that count, however, Natty himself would appear to be a rather inadequate specimen, for even though his promise keeping might look like an instance of natural morality, its naturalness nonetheless cannot be definitively proven. In fact, a hundred years before Cooper, in a well-known chapter in A Treatise of Human Nature (1739), Hume had argued just the opposite. "The rule of morality, which enjoins the performance of promises, is not natural ," Hume said, because promises are merely "symbols or signs instituted, by which we might give each other security of our conduct." As such, they are


strictly "human inventions, founded on the necessities and interests of society." Indeed, "a promise wou'd not be intelligible, before human conventions had establish'd it."[104] And since promise keeping is conventional, so too is morality itself. It is no more than an "artificial" institution, Hume argued, no more than a system of assumable signs: "It appears, therefore, that all virtuous actions derive their merit only from virtuous motives, and are consider'd merely as signs of those motives. . . . But 'tis usual . . . to fix our attention on the signs, and neglect, in some measure, the thing signify'd."[105]

A moral person, according to Hume, is simply a person who displays the signs of morality: signs anything but natural, anything but innate. Something of that unhappy thought, I think, haunts the moral landscape of The Deerslayer . And perhaps it is to overcome it that the novel would develop a twin focus, giving us not only a putatively moral character who keeps promises but also a certifiably immoral character who has grievously sinned. In other words, to be truly foundational, the judgmental weight of the novel would have to be borne not only by a man such as Natty, the naturalness of whose morality is a matter of surmise, but, even more crucially, by a woman such as Judith, the naturalness of whose "fallenness" is a matter of certainty, anatomically demonstrable and quite beyond dispute.

If the rise of modern liberalism marked the decline of political rationality, as I have tried to argue, the feminization of virtue would seem to be simultaneously a symptom and a remedy. A cognitive revolution such as this one testifies both to the emerging irrationality of the political sphere and to a spirited attempt to repair that damage, to locate a rational ground outside the vicissitudes of politics, in a natural morality commensurate with the natural order. The feminization of virtue, in this sense, might be seen as the naturalization of Reason itself, perhaps the ultimate dream of the Enlightenment. And as we have already seen in Kant's Philosophy of Law , Reason naturalized within the moral domain must make "justice" a natural dictate, a categorical imperative, its "Equalization of Like with Like" taking on the character of an axiom, its principle of commensurability doubling as a death sentence. To the extent that The Deerslayer is home to this naturalized justice, it too must be punitive at its core: punitive not out of wanton cruelty but out of rational necessity.

The fate of Judith amply attests to that punitive rationality. She, as we know, is someone inhospitable to the commensurate, being al-


ways above or beneath someone else. Such a problem, however, is not without its remedy. The remedy is suggested, in fact, by Hurry Harry in an oddly prescient remark to Thomas Hutter. Judith, he says, "hasn't her equal on the frontiers for good looks, whatever she may have for good behavior. . . . Give me Jude, if her conduct was only equal to her looks!" (73). Hurry begins by stating the problem—Judith, once again, has failed to be equal to anyone—but he quickly moves from the problematic to the optative, turning from the unequal distribution of beauty among persons to a more congenial topic, namely, the maintenance of equivalence between "looks" and "conduct" within a single person. As with Natty, it is the moral agent that is offered as the theater of the commensurate. And since that agent happens to be a fallen woman, the gender inflection neatly transposes as a disciplinary proposition what is problematically unstable as a distributive proposition. The persistence of retribution in the novel, the feminization of that phenomenon, thus represents something of a wish fulfillment on its part, its dream of a justice immanent within a natural order.

And yet if The Deerslayer is any indication (and the novel seems to me virtually generic in this regard), such a dream of justice must remain, first and last, a dream. Its frailty is underscored not least of all by the punitive excess of the novel—its tendency toward undue severity, redoubled execution—an excess which, in its refusal to limit its scope, must end up upsetting the very moral ground that underwrites it and gives it coherence. Something of that excess is seen in the fate of Hetty, who, caught "in the crowd of Huron women" (507) fleeing the British army, is fatally wounded by a stray bullet. "How this wound was received no one knew" (512). Judith, of course, assures her sister," 'Twas an accident, poor Hetty; a sad accident it has been" (514). But Cooper also adds, "it was probably one of those casualties that ever accompany scenes like that related in the previous chapter" (512). What was related in the previous chapter was the triumph of the king's army, a triumph accompanied by the usual "shrieks" and "groans" of the vanquished, although, oddly, what Cooper chooses to dwell on is one particular aural detail, "a sound unusual to the woods." This was the "measured tread" of the army, an army of "trained men," a tread "regular and heavy, as if the earth were struck with beetles" (507). It is the sinister repetition of this sound, this "heavy, measured, menacing tread," which troubles the


concluding pages of the novel, and gathers into a single detail the bugbear of republican thought, its fear of the "standing army." And it is against the complex inscriptions of that sound that we can see Hetty's death as complexly inscribed as well, a death afflicting her, to be sure, but also radiating outward to a web of referents.

Guiltless herself, Hetty must nonetheless pay the penalty of death. That exorbitant penalty is exacted from her, no doubt because, like Judith, she too is a signifying criminal, made to atone not only for a moral offense, the "sins of the family," but also in this case for a political offense, something like the sins of the nation, the sins of a republic gone liberal. For what is dramatized here, in the "accidental" death of Hetty, the senselessness of it and the randomness of it, is nothing other than the breakdown of Reason itself: once the hoped-for foundation of the polity and now the hoped-for foundation of nature, but, in the mindless killing of Hetty, proven unreliable on both counts. Perhaps that mindlessness matches the feeblemindedness of Hetty's own life; but, if so, this instance of commensurability must seem an obscene parody of the term. Unlike the death penalty in Kant, the guaranteed "Equalization of Punishment with Crime," the death penalty in Cooper brings with it no guarantee of a natural fit in the world. And unlike the path of the law, the broad mantle of novelistic justice is finally too broad for its own logic, too complexly inscribed and too richly particularized to pass for a model of full rationality. What is dispensed here, then, turns out to be a rather disconcerting kind of justice, intensely retributive, to be sure, but also hopelessly overwrought, hopelessly asymmetrical to its object, unnerving in its excess, and unedifying in its residue.

And so even Judith, the prime recipient of novelistic justice, is not completely dispatchable, not completely obliterated by the verdict which, barring her from Natty's affections, leaves her "with a heart nearly broken by the consciousness of undeserving" (531). Judith is undeserving of Natty, the voice of justice would like us to think. But given the lack of a syntactic predicate here—given the construction of "undeserving" as a detached substantive, rather than as an adjectival copula appended to a particular object—Judith might also be said to be the embodiment of "undesert" itself, embodying it as a morally vexing condition and embodying it, as always, in a glaring unfitness for the commensurate. If she is both too good and not good enough for Natty, she is also too good and not good enough for any fate that


the novel might conceivably devise for her. Her banishment to England—to take up with Warley, "though she did not bear his name" (534)—dispenses justice only within the formal closure of the novel. It cannot eliminate her completely, for, fifteen years later, revisiting the scene, Natty "found a ribbon of Judith's fluttering from a log," a ribbon which "recalled all her beauty and, we may add, all her failings." Natty takes it and "knot[s] it to the stock of Killdeer, which had been the gift of the girl herself" (533). Together, in their knottedness and in their incommensurability, gun and ribbon testify both to the workings of novelistic justice and to the persistence of its residues.


previous sub-section
1— Crime and Punishment
next chapter