The Power of Sympathy

Often considered the first American novel, The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown was published in 1789. This epistolary novel follows the tragedy of two star-crossed lovers as they navigate the strict moral expectations of 18th-century society. Marketed as an educational novel to warn women against giving in to their passions, The Power of Sympathy explores themes like the dangers of seduction and the importance of women's morality. 

The Power of Sympathy The Power of Sympathy

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Contents
Table of contents

    Content warning: Suicide

    The Power of Sympathy, Content warning, StudySmarter

    The Power of Sympathy Summary

    Below is a summary of The Power of Sympathy by William Hill Brown.

    Summary: The Power of Sympathy
    Author of The Power of SympathyWilliam Hill Brown
    Published1789
    GenreSentimental novel, epistolary novel
    Summary of The Power of SympathyThe novel tells the story of a young woman named Harriot, who is pursued by two men: her guardian, Mr. Boyer, and a young man named Sanford. Harriot eventually falls in love with Boyer and rejects Sanford's advances. However, Sanford becomes obsessed with Harriot and begins to plot her abduction.
    List of main charactersHarriot Fawcet, Thomas Harrington, Myra Harrington, Jack Worthy, Eliza Holmes.
    ThemesSeduction, obsession, love, women's morality
    SettingBoston, Massachusetts
    AnalysisThe novel is considered to be the first American novel, and it reflects the growing interest in novels and sentimental literature in the late 18th century. Its emphasis on the importance of self-control and the dangers of unchecked passions foreshadows later works of American literature, such as Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter.

    The novel is an epistolary novel because letters are sent back and forth between various characters. The opening letters are between Thomas Harrington and his friend Jack Worthy. Thomas has fallen in love with his sister's close friend, Harriot Fawcet. But instead of wanting to court Harriot appropriately, Thomas wants to make her his mistress. Harriot initially rejects his proposal on the basis of social propriety. Thomas, however, is persistent, and the two begin a secret relationship. Jack condemns Thomas's actions, telling Thomas he must respectfully court the young lady. Although Thomas's father disapproves of the match, Thomas and Harriot get engaged.

    An epistolary novel is told through a series of letters and can add a sense of realism to the text as characters respond to events in their own words.

    The Power of Sympathy, Writing desk with letters, StudySmarterFig. 1 - The entire novel is told through letters sent between various characters.

    Harriot and her surrogate mother, Mrs. Francis, travel to Rhode Island to visit Mrs. Martin. Mrs. Martin is Mrs. Francis's cousin and close friend. When the two ladies arrive at Mrs. Martin's house, they can tell she and her husband are upset. Mr. Martin had an affair with Mrs. Martin's sister, Ophelia, resulting in Ophelia becoming pregnant. When the child was born, it was "at once the son and nephew of Martin." Ophelia's father and Mr. Martin immediately turned against her after she had the child. Deep in her guilt and with no one to turn to, Ophelia committed suicide by drinking poison.

    When Harriot tells this scandalous story to Myra, Harriot's close friend and Thomas's sister, Myra is aghast. She says there is no worse sin than seducing a pure woman and ruining her honor. Jack echoes this sentiment when he writes to Thomas, telling him of a woman he found mourning in the woods. Ruffians forced her into a sexual relationship outside of marriage, causing her fiancé to kill himself. She is now scandalized and alone.

    In the oppressive patriarchal world Thomas and Harriot live in, a woman's worth decreases significantly after she has sex. In many cases, if a woman lost her virginity before marriage, she was considered impure and unfit for marriage.

    Harriot's and Thomas's relationship continues to progress, even as Myra warns them to end their engagement. Right before their wedding, Eliza Holmes, a friend of both the Harringtons and Harriot, decides she cannot stay quiet about an enormous Harrington secret any longer. Eliza reveals Harriot is Thomas and Myra's half-sister—Mr. Harrington had an affair with Maria Fawcet, who became pregnant with Harriot. Maria's health rapidly declined, and Mr. Harrington had Harriot sent away to avoid scandal. She was raised by Mrs. Francis and never knew of her true parentage.

    The Power of Sympathy, Two babies on a pillow, StudySmarterFig. 2 - Harriot and Thomas are traumatized to learn they are actually siblings.

    When Harriot and Thomas hear the news, they cancel the wedding. They now realize their relationship was incestuous and are devastated. Harriot's grief leads her to become violently ill with consumption. She quickly dies. When Thomas learns of his beloved's/sister's death, he shoots himself with a pistol. He leaves a suicide note lamenting his fate along with a copy of Goethe's The Sorrows of Werter.

    The Sorrows of Young Werther was published in 1779. It is an epistolary novel about unrequited love.

    The Power of Sympathy Characters

    The main characters in The Power of Sympathy are Myra and Thomas Harrington, Harriot Fawcet, Jack Worthy, and Eliza Holmes. Other minor characters include Maria Fawcet, Mr. Harrington, Mr. and Mrs. Smith, and Ophelia.

    The Power of Sympathy Character Summary
    CharactersDescription
    Harriot Fawcet One half of the star-crossed lovers, Harriot Fawcet is enamored by Thomas Harrington's charms and agrees to marry him. At the novel's end, it is revealed that Harriot is the result of an affair Mr. Harrington had with a woman named Maria. To their dismay, Harriot and Thomas are actually half-siblings. The two call off the wedding, and Harriot dies from grief-induced sickness.
    Thomas HarringtonAlthough he only wanted a mistress at first, Thomas Harrington falls increasingly in love with Harriot over the course of the novel. Despite protests from his father and sister, Thomas intends to marry Harriot. He, like Harriot, is devastated to learn they are siblings and eventually commits suicide.
    Myra HarringtonThomas's sister, Myra Harrington is close friends with Harriot. Although she doesn't initially know Harriot is her sister, Myra is apprehensive about the union from the beginning. She is the first person Eliza Holmes tells about the affair.
    Jack WorthyThomas's close friend, Jack Worthy acts as Thomas's confidant. Jack encourages Thomas to court Harriot appropriately. He also reflects on the corruption of women in literature.
    Eliza HolmesA close friend of the Harringtons and Harriot, Eliza reveals the secret of Harriot's parentage.
    Maria FawcetHarriot's mother, Maria Fawcet was seduced by the married Mr. Harrington. Their affair resulted in Harriot's birth. Maria became ill and quickly died from the guilt and embarrassment of having a child out of wedlock.
    Mr. HarringtonThe father of Thomas, Myra, and Harriot, Mr. Harrington claims the affair with Maria ruined his soul as much as it did hers.
    Mr. and Mrs. SmithAn unhappily married couple, Mr. and Mrs. Smith's marriage has been tarnished by his adulterous affair with her sister.
    OpheliaMrs. Smith's sister, Ophelia was pursued and seduced by Mr. Smith not long after his marriage. She became pregnant with his child. After their child was born, Ophelia drank poison to escape the ramifications of their affair.
    Mrs. FrancisHarriot's surrogate mother, Mrs. Francis raised Harriot after her mother's death so Mr. Harrington could avoid a scandal.

    The Power of Sympathy, Bottle of poison, StudySmarterFig. 3 - Ophelia could not live with her guilt, causing her to poison herself.

    The Power of Sympathy Analysis

    When Brown wrote The Power of Sympathy in the late 18th century, social sensibilities were much different than they are today. Brown had to be careful how he presented women and sexuality to avoid being censored by his strict Protestant society, especially because his novel depicted incestuous relationships and sexual relations outside of marriage. As a result, Brown's preface positions the book as a moral guide to women who would otherwise fall into sexual temptation. The text reads,

    To The YOUNG LADIES of United Columbia, these VOLUMES Intended to represent the specious causes, and to Expose the fatal CONSEQUENCES, of SEDUCTION; To inspire the Female Mind With a Principle of Self Complacency, and to Promote the Economy of Human Life."

    The novel depicts the tragic stories of three young women—Ophelia, Maria, and the woman Jack speaks to in the woods—who have fallen from grace after being involved in a scandalous affair. Interestingly, their society simultaneously views each of these girls as helpless victims and ruinous adultresses. The men and women in the novel talk about these women as if they had no agency in their decision. By reading corrupting literature and being pursued by men, their honor is irrevocably stripped.

    At the same time, women often receive harsher punishment from society. Ophelia and Maria are both pushed to suicide for their adulterous actions. Still, the married Mr. Smith and Mr. Harrington barely suffer any consequences, even though the men cheated while the women were single. Furthermore, Mr. Harrington can send Harriot away instead of claiming her as his illegitimate daughter to avoid a scandal. While Maria loses her family, reputation, and life, Mr. Harrington emerges largely unscathed. It is the women who bare the brunt of society's repercussions.

    The Power of Sympathy, Gravestone, StudySmarterFig. 4 - Most of the women who allow themselves to be seduced are punished with death, but the men typically go unscathed.

    Although Harriot and Thomas never commit adultery, their impossible union can be seen as punishment for their parents' sins. Harriot and Thomas do everything right, but they can't be together in the end. This revelation results in both Harriot's and Thomas's deaths, highlighting how adultery and infidelity affect generations, not just those who actively have an affair.

    The tragedy in the novel reflects what Brown expresses in the preface: Without a solid foundation of morality, women will fall victim to seduction. Early in the novel, Thomas and Jack discuss the issue of women and literature. They bemoan the fact that most literature leads women to corruption and sin. Instead of depicting women in healthy relationships that they can learn from, the literature women read is unregulated and improper. Jack calls the available literature "totally unfit to form the minds of women, of friends, or of wives."

    While this conversation doesn't further the plot, it reinforces Brown's preface claims and positions The Power of Sympathy as an educational book that fights against female corruption.

    Brown positions this novel, where seduction is clearly punished, as an educational source to discourage men and women from entering into unlawful affairs. Some scholars, however, believe Brown's "lesson" was merely a cover to avoid scandal for writing about taboo subjects. Novels involving sex and scandal thrilled Puritan readers, who were discouraged from discussing sexuality in their strict culture. While The Power of Sympathy could pass as a didactic tale since the immoral characters are punished, the real pleasure resulted from the shock value of the characters' immorality and subsequent suffering.

    The epistolary form The Power of Sympathy follows was a popular subgenre in the late 18th century when the novel was written. It adds an element of realism to the text and offers a glimpse into each character's mind. This allows Brown to develop the characters in relation to one another and track how their thinking changes throughout the novel.

    The epistolary form also offers an element of irony. While the characters lament sexual immorality at the beginning of the novel, they realize they have all been involved in a scandal without even realizing it. The epistolary form documents the characters' growth and their downfall.

    The Power of Sympathy Themes

    The Power of Sympathy's main themes are the dangers of seduction and the importance of women's morality.

    The Dangers of Seduction

    In many instances throughout the novel, seduction and sexuality lead to death. Ophelia, Maria, Harriot, and Thomas all ultimately die because they allowed themselves to be swept away by passion. According to their strict Puritan society, too much passion leads to seduction and sin. Harriot rejects Thomas's seduction at first but eventually gives in to her feelings. Thomas never cares about social conventions and writes,

    Shall we not... obey the dictates of nature, rather than confine ourselves to the forced, unnatural rules of — and — and shall the halcyon days of youth slip through our fingers unenjoyed?"

    When Harriot and Thomas forgo tradition and become passionately involved with one another, their relationship becomes a disaster. And when their relationship ends, they find they cannot live without one another. Like the tragic lovers before them, Harriot and Thomas both die at the hands of passion and seduction.

    The Importance of Women's Morality

    The entire novel also centers around the issue of women's morality. Beginning in the preface, Brown argues that women need a solid education to protect their morals and honor. This is because, as female characters like Myra, Mrs. Smith, Mrs. Francis, and Eliza suggest, women are the backbones of morality in their society. While men are prone to sin and easily give in to temptation, it is women who either save men from themselves or plunge into sin after them. While the male characters like Mr. Smith and Mr. Harrington cheat on their wives or seduce innocent women as Thomas does, the female characters know right from wrong and are loyal to their virtues. The tragic women who sacrifice their morals (like Maria and Ophelia) are punished with death.

    The Power of Sympathy, Right vs. wrong sign, StudySmarterFig. 5 - Morality is largely presented as a feminine issue in the novel.

    The Power of Sympathy Quotes

    Below are some of the most important quotes in The Power of Sympathy.

    Surely there is no human vice of so black a die — so fatal in its consequences — or which causes a more general calamity, than that of seducing a female from the path of honour."

    This quote comes from Myra as she's writing to Harriot regarding the tragic affair between the married Mr. Smith and his wife's sister, Ophelia. This sentiment is echoed throughout the novel as more scandalous affairs come to light. Women are importantly seen as passive beings who play no role in their fall from grace. It is the women, not the men, who are taken off the "path of honour" and whose reputation becomes tarnished.

    Must I then forget the endearments of the lover, and call you by the name of brother? But does our friendship remain upon this foundation? Is this all that unites us? And has there subsisted nothing more tender — a sentiment more voluntary in our hearts?

    Harriot writes these words to Thomas after discovering they are, in fact, half-siblings. Although it is painful, Harriot does what is expected of her and calls off the affair. Unlike the other tragic women in the novel, Harriot acts out of propriety and within society's expectations. Still, she is punished for the sins of her parents.

    The Power of Sympathy - Key takeaways

    • The Power of Sympathy was written by William Hill Brown.
    • Published in 1789, it is often considered the first American novel because it was written by an American author and published in the newly-established United States.
    • This epistolary novel features young lovers who, unbeknownst to them, are half-siblings due to a secretive affair.
    • The novel features tragic women who are harshly punished when they give into their passions in scandalous love affairs.
    • The main themes in The Power of Sympathy are the dangers of seduction and the importance of women's morality.

    The Power of Sympathy, Crisis banner, StudySmarter

    Frequently Asked Questions about The Power of Sympathy

    Who wrote the first American novel The Power of Sympathy?

    William Hill Brown wrote the first American novel The Power of Sympathy, published in 1789.

    Is The Power of Sympathy a gothic novel?

    The Power of Sympathy is not a gothic novel, although it does involve death and suffering.

    What are the themes of The Power of Sympathy?

    The Power of Sympathy's main themes are the dangers of seduction and the importance of women's morality. 

    What kind of book is The Power of Sympathy?

    The Power of Sympathy is marketed as a morality tale for its codemnation of sexuality and seduction.

    What was the significance of The Power of Sympathy?

    The Power of Sympathy is considered the first American novel.

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false: Thomas and Harriot's relationship begins properly in the eyes of their society? 

    What does Thomas initially want from Harriot? 

    Who disapproves of Thomas and Harriot's union?

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