The cover of my copy of Valerie Martin’s 2003 novel Property features an impressive blurb by Toni Morrison: “This fresh, unsentimental look at what slave owning does to (and for) one’s interior life must be a first.” However, Martin’s novel is much more than a feminist reclamation of an unheard voice, as it goes well beyond simply telling the story of Manon Gaudet, the mistress of a Louisiana sugar plantation. Rather, Martin gives Manon a complexity which reveals not only Manon’s impatience with her society’s sexism, but also Manon’s own shortcomings and lack of empathy: not only in dealing with her husband but—more importantly—in dealing with Sarah, her slave and her husband’s “mistress.” The novel’s feminist subtext is strengthened not only by Manon’s candid voice, but also by the remarkable silences which surround Sarah.
The novel opens with Manon expressing disgust for her husband, as she spies on him forcing his young male slaves to engage in naked horseplay, punishing those who become sexually aroused and then finding a female slave to satisfy his own arousal. This is followed by a breakfast scene in which Manon implies that Sarah, who has born his children, shares her disdain. When she tells Sarah that her husband is afraid that she is poisoning him, Manon observes that “Something flickered at the corner of her mouth; was it amusement?” (6). Any solidarity which might be inferred here, however, is quickly dismissed in the following scene, in which Manon unhappily sews while Sarah fans her. After Sarah gives a reasonable explanation for what Manon originally thinks is an extravagance, Manon acknowledges Sarah’s persistent silences while begrudgingly admitting that, “It is one of the annoying things about her; on those occasions when she bothers to speak, she makes sense” (6).
Sarah’s silence is one of the most important parts of the novel. Manon is alternately unnerved, frustrated, and maddened by Sarah’s reticence. However, she also learns from it: when her husband throws a fit over dinner, Manon “looked at him for few moments blankly, without comment, as if he was speaking a foreign language. This unnerves him. It’s a trick I learned from Sarah” (8). Though Manon has learned to perform Sarah’s trick, she fails to realize the actual meanings of Sarah’s silences. Rather than portray the two women, who both suffer under Mr. Manon’s rule, as having a growing understanding of each other, Martin instead shows how Manon’s self-centeredness and cruelty inflict further pain upon Sarah. Manon cannot hear what is beneath Sarah’s silences; she can’t even read between her own lines.
For the reader, however, the most important meanings emerge from such silences, such as the striking example after the death of Manon’s mother. Seeing Sarah nursing her baby, Manon—wordless herself—approaches Sarah and suckles from her breast. The combination of sexual domination and the appropriation of a surrogate mother figure is intoxicating and rejuvenating for the grief-stricken Manon. However, Sarah is silent and unmoving under this assault: “She had lifted her chin as far away from me as she could, her mouth was set in a thin, hard line, and her eyes were focused intently on the arm of the settee. She’s afraid to look at me, I thought. And she’s right to be. If she looked at me, I would slap her” (77). Here, Sarah’s silence is absolutely necessary, as Manon teeters on the edge of feeling an emotional connection with her. Where previously, Sarah’s silences have been a silent rebellion against her owners, here her silence protects Manon from her own momentary vulnerability.
Both Manon and Sarah are eventually allowed some escape after Mr. Gaudet’s death during a slave revolt. Sarah escapes to the North, and Manon is able to live by herself. However, Martin refuses any tantalizing romanticism these events might offer, as Sarah is ultimately caught and returned to Manon, who herself remains constrained by her role as a widow in antebellum society. In the novel’s last scene, Sarah is once again serving a meal to Manon. Manon attempts to undermine any Sarah’s experiences of freedom which she might have had, ridiculing the idea of a black woman being treated as fully human. However, freedom has changed Sarah, and she no longer suffers in silence. In light of her previous persistent silence, that Sarah’s words—“It appeal to me” (192)—are the last in the novel, they gain a defiant force which they might have lacked had Sarah earlier been more loquacious.