By Linda Naranjo-Huebl
In E.D.E.N. Southworth’s The Hidden Hand (1988), the protagonist, Capitola, when faced with her greatest physical threat in the form of the villain Black Donald in her bedroom, invokes in an inner monologue the biblical heroines Jael and Judith: “Now, Cap, my little man, be a woman! don’t you stick at trifles! Think of Jael and Sisera! Think of Judith and Holofernes!...” Southworth’s biblical allusions to Jael and Judith evince her familiarity with both the Old Testament and the apocryphal texts, and they underscore her view of God’s sovereignty. While the similarities between the narratives abound, their differences mark the limits of Southworth’s endorsement of the biblical hero Judith and her story. Southworth’s allusion to Judith helps justify in the strongest (i.e., biblical) terms the assertive and masculinized behavior of her protagonist Capitola, but Cap’s rejection of violence points to Southworth’s own conviction that women’s empowerment will be characterized by alternative, nonviolent responses to oppression, and to her rejection of the concept of an irredeemable “enemy.”
A comparison of the stories of Judith and The Hidden Hand suggests that Southworth was more than casually familiar with the apocryphal hero Judith, as were most nineteenth-century readers, writers, and artists. The Hidden Hand echoes Judith in formalist elements—plot features and genre (comedy)—and in its themes of gender role inversions and emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Both stories have enjoyed extraordinary popularity among readers over time and across cultures while they have also been the subject of mixed criticism and exclusion from biblical and literary canons, respectively. Capitola’s departure from the sentiments of Judith correlates with contemporary feminist theologians’ observations of a spiritual progression from Judith to Mary, the Mother of Christ, that moves from “righteous” violence to acts of peace. Thus, Capitola emerges as a more progressive Judith who acts to usher in an age of peace.
The dominant feature of both stories are the gender inversions that have their protagonists moving fluidly across gender boundaries through disguise, costuming, and performance (demonstrating gender as performative). Both Judith and Capitola act as warriors against powerful men who tyrannize nations and communities, and they operate with the readers’ tacit approval because their “masculine” behavior protects them from literal rape and their communities from figurative rape. Their gender nonconformance and emasculation of male oppressors serve national/communal security and preserve personal virtue.
Both stories are also comedies. The obvious humor in The Hidden Hand serves to deflect criticism of Capitola’s assertiveness and utter lack of submission to any authority. The humor in Judith is more understated but well established by biblical scholars. Both stories share humorous and fantastical plot twists, clever commentary, satire, word play, and happy endings that delight readers, help divert moral objections, and arguably play a role in their devaluation by critics and gatekeepers of the canon. The stories’ endings have led to accusations by feminist critics that they reinscribe masculinist values, particularly in the mixed messages sent by the gender inversions and the stories’ conclusions.
Most notably, both narratives share the underlying theme of God’s sovereignty and practice of raising up people—including women—to champion the cause of the marginalized and the oppressed. Inasmuch as “God hears the prayers of the widow and orphan” (Ex. 22:22), the widow Judith and the orphan Capitola are directed by the hidden hand of God in seemingly hopeless circumstances to gain the victory over malevolent forces. As Lynette Carpenter notes in her article on the paradoxes of The Hidden Hand, “Double Talk” (Legacy 10.1), “the true hidden hand in this novel is ‘His good hand,’ which sends all good and evil and writes the endings of all stories.”
For all the narrative and interpretive similarities between the stories, Southworth’s protagonist in The Hidden Hand differs from Judith in one major aspect: Capitola eschews violence, particularly the taking of human life, because she believes in the redemptive potential of even the most reprobate persons, whereas Judith and her community celebrate the violent demise of Holofernes and the Assyrian troops and rejoice over God’s vengeance. Southworth gives us a gender-bending protagonist who, like Judith and Jael, fights for justice for the oppressed, but in this case, does so without spilling any blood and, further, rejoices in the villains’ redemption. Brittany Wilson, in her study of what theologians have noted as a progression from Jael and Judith to Mary the mother of Christ, notes a similar discontinuity in the stories of Jael, Judith, and Mary. Wilson acknowledges how “the violence of Jael and Judith is often explained as being in continuity with Mary, since Mary ‘crushes’ the head of Satan,” but she notes how “Mary’s ‘crushing’ symbolizes God’s defeat of evil (through Mary), but Jael and Judith kill with their own hands” (The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 68). While Capitola is no Mary, one can read in her depiction Southworth’s own endorsement of an age of peace and equality brought about not by the hand of man or woman, but the hidden hand of God.