The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

Just a quarter into the novel, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd has proven to be worthy of the phrase it has received from awards and book clubs across the country. One of the themes that has surfaced in the life of Sarah Grimke is gender expectations. All her life, she has had ambitions to become a lawyer, just like her father. However this Sarah’s dream is turned down when she is only allowed to take lessons in simpler subjects such as drawing and sewing. When she suggests she would like to become a lawyer, her mother even says, “A lawyer, Sarah? The idea is so outlandish I feel I have failed you bitterly” (Kidd 80). This displays that Southern women have certain morals and standards to live up too, and it would be a crime to defy those standards. Gender expectations is also seen when her mother is forced to run a traditional Southern Household and have religious and social duties in the upper class Charleston Society. Having a women be required to uphold duties that are not desired reveals the pressure that is given with the reasoning that they must act a certain way to not be shamed in their society.

The theme of Gender Expectations is just one of the concepts that overlaps with To Kill A Mockingbird. Because her mother is never around to take care of her, Sarah has a African American slave that takes her role as a mother. This maid, Binah, can be compared to Calpurnia because of the morals lessons they teach their children and their influence in their upbringing. Scout and Sarah are similar characters because they are both portrayed as tomboys. This characteristic brings them both negative attention by society, who tries to conform them to act more like ladies.

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13 responses to “The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd

  1. grace jacobson

    I agree that in the first part, gender expectations are a major theme. Sarah struggles with the idea of a typical southern woman.
    She is a black sheep in her family, yet I wonder if her speech impediment plays a part in that. I also have a question about her speech issues. Was she so in shock of seeing an African American being beat that she could not speak?
    I found it interesting how often Handful was beaten. She talked about it very prominently during the beginning, saying “Aunt-Sister slapped me into yesterday” (6) and “Aunt-Sister popped me backwards three times a day” (4). Handful was only a young girl at this time. Compared to other places slaves could be, was she being treated well despite how often she was beaten? Handful describes the beatings casually, yet does that mean they’re painful?
    I think how lucky “Mauma” and her mother were able to incorporate their sewing skills into the modern southern fashion. If Handful’s grandmother did not have sewing skills from Africa, they would probably be working in fields doing more tedious work. It really impacts the novel. Also, with her sewing skills, Mauma can do sewing work for others (secretly) and get paid to possibly buy her and Handful’s freedom If she did farmwork, it would be extremely grueling to do extra work.

  2. The comparisons you made between The Invention of Wings and To Kill A Mockingbird were so interesting to think about! One of the things that I found interesting when I was reading was thinking about how to relate this book to other novels or movies and I think that To Kill A Mockingbird is the perfect fit.

    While I see how gender expectation is going to be such a huge part of the novel, that is not all there is to this novel. I can also see an emerging theme of defying social norms in general; like as you mentioned, gender expectations. Not only is Sarah defying this norm by wishing to become lawyer, but she is also defying the norm of segregation by beginning to forge a friendship with Handful. She also defies the idea of white supremacy when she writes the note saying that Handful should be set free. Her writing of the words “I set free from slavery, Hetty Grimke, and bestow this certificate of manumission upon her” (Kidd 19) was such a brave thing to do, especially when most people in the given time period would so openly disagree with her or mistreat her for her opinion. This, along with many other examples, shows how truly strong minded Sarah is for an 11 year old girl living in such an awful time to defy so many of the culture expectations surrounding her.

  3. Kamala GhaneaBassiri

    Your analysis of gender inequality in the novel was very compelling! I do agree that Sarah faces an expectation she struggles to accept. I believe she will not give up her dream in the future because of Handful’s retrieval of the button from the ash bin being a sign of fate in my mind.

    A huge theme revealed in both Sarah and Handful’s life is their realization of the injustice in their era. Sarah realized her fate in society was determined by her gender and not her skill. For Sarah it was this realization that shed a melancholy light on the real world because she realized she had no say in her future.

    For Handful, the realization of the injustice of slavery did not come until further into the book. It was not until her “mauma’s” punishment for stealing cloth from her master, “missus,” did Handful truly see the mistreatment of blacks through her “mauma’s” vengeance toward “missus”.

    In realizing these injustices, these characters opposed them in their own ways. For Sarah secretly teaching Handful to read was her way of fighting the injustice of slavery. Her hope to become the first woman jurist was a way she openly defied gender expectations in the novel . Handful’s “mauma” showed her opposition towards slavery by doing her work poorly and sneaking out of town to get paid for her work. In this era, these actions were considered punishable and the bravery it took to oppose these injustices show how dedicated the main characters are to the greater equality of all people.

  4. Kamala GhaneaBassiri

    Why do you believe woman stand by and let their “ambition [get] knocked out of” (81) them?

  5. Kamala, I think your comment about how the characters react to the injustices they face are thought provoking. As their stories evolve in the next quarter of the book, they react even more strongly to these injustice, an example of this being Sarah leaving for the North in order to escape the black racism and female expectations of the South.

    While reading the novel, I found the examples the author uses to reveal Handful’s sassy attitude to be very interesting. After Sarah finds Handful bathing in her tub, an action that is punishable to Blacks, Handful, “made no attempt to cover herself. I glimpsed defiance in her eyes, the way she wrestled back her chin as if to say, yes it’s me, bathing in your precious tub”(144). This is a way that Kidd shows how strongly Handful feels about her disapproval of racism and punishment of slaves during her time. By Handful not only bathing in Sarah’s tub, but being defiant about being punished for it shows how brave and willing to suffer she is in order to stand up for what she believes in. I think Handful’s mother, who faces danger daily with little acts of protest by stealing, has influenced Handful to do this by example. I would not be surprised to see Handful react stronger to the injustice in her life, because as she realizes more of this injustice she reacts in bolder ways.

    • The way that Handful and Mauma deal with these injustices are what I have found interesting. They both have thought to act defiantly towards the Grimkes although, in different ways. Mauma works slower and with less diligence, and sneaks around to find money to buy freedom while Handful goes along with the unjust treatment and acts out behind the backs of the Grimkes. For example, the instance that you (Madeleine) touched on with the bath is a great act of defiance. Another one is earlier in the novel when Handful writes in the mud. Even though she may not have meant it as an act of defiance, it was one of the most powerful ones since slaves aren’t allowed the luxury of knowledge.
      I found it interesting to not only look at defiance from the slaves point of view, but from Sarah’s. From the beginning, you can tell that she is completely against slavery. I found it very interesting at the beginning when she signs away Handful and then later when she does give Handful back to Mauma. Sarah is a character that I would like to focus on more throughout the rest of the novel and this pattern of anti- slavery that she has created

  6. Kamala GhaneaBassiri

    Madeline, I agree that Handful is very adamant in her beliefs about slavery but I really want to dig deeper into the reason she began to feel and act accordingly to her beliefs as you described.

    Handful’s “mauma” had already realized the deep-rooted racism and degrading of blacks in society towards the beginning of the novel. Her realization was caused by her one-legged punishment, however Handful’s realization stemmed from seeing her net-worth in the leather book in her master’s library.

    At first Handful marveled at being “worth more than every female slave they had, beside mama” (111). Handful felt honored by this newfound information only to figure out it’s true meaning. Handful then goes on to say, “all that pride about what we were worth left me then. For the first time, I felt the hurt and shame of just being who I was” (112). Handful realized that all her hard work had only resulted in more money in her master’s pocket if she was sold. Her master put a price on the quality of a human’s life and Handful’s “mauma” realized this when she said “ain’t nobody can write down in a book what you worth” (112). I believe it was this realization of how slaves cannot “win” in society that caused Handful to act rebelliously. I also believe it was this realization of the differences between blacks and whites that led to Handful and Sarah becoming distant.

  7. grace jacobson

    (I may be at a different page because the kindle pages are different than the actual book pages)
    Madeline and Kamala, those are both great ideas you have developed. I think Mauma and Handfuls defiance was motivated by hope and whether they had it or not.
    Sarah’s defiance of gender expectations were motivated by the similar type of hope to Mauma and Handful. They are synonymous in their wants to be free and develop their own ambitions. As for Sarah, her hopes as a child were to study law, a man’s job. And when her hope was crushed, she stopped becoming defiant. I believe that her littlest sister, Nina, will go through the same process. It’s obvious that Sarah found the North appealing, as they gave more freedoms to women. That is what gave her hope, that she could live a better life. As soon as she left the South with her sickly father, she saw how much freedom the other women had and she wanted to hold onto it.

  8. One interesting element of the novel I have noticed is the rapid aging that is documented throughout the novel. At the beginning of the novel Sarah is merely a child and at our current stopping point, third of the way through, she is almost thirty. At first I did not take into account the relationship between Sarah’s aging and realization of injustices towards slaves and woman of her era. The more I read about Sarah’s journey to find herself and her beliefs, I realized the main reason her journey takes so long is due to the opinions of her family and society.

    Her family owned many slaves and Sarah and her family had many conflicts about her beliefs. I believe it was the idea of family that stalled Sarah from acting on her beliefs. Family is sacred and Sarah cared what her family thought of her and this is what led to her journey being written over a long span of time.

    In Sarah’s era, society had also made abolitionist beliefs seem sinful. This is shown when a rock is thrown through the window because Sarah became a Quaker. Even after Sarah has acted upon her beliefs and adopted a religion that fit her beliefs, she is still having to deal with factors that originally kept her from speaking out and defending her beliefs. It was her family and society that kept Sarah from being herself for so long.

  9. Kamala, I agree that it is her family who hold her back from fully expressing her ideas. They have enforced their opinions on her to such an extreme she feels that sharing her ideas would result in shaming from her community. This is seen earlier in the novel when her family scolded her because of her ambition to be a lawyer. As a thirty year old abolitionist she has realized that she will never fully be able to follow her dreams because of the opposing influences from her family and society. This is seen when Handful says, “She was trapped same as me, but she was trapped by her mind, by the minds of people around her, not the law… My body might be a slave, but not my mind. For you, it’s the other way around” (201).

    As Sarah’s ideas develop, her relationship with Handful changes. As children they have a strong friendship despite their racial differences. However, as they grow their relationship is affected by these differences. For example, after Handful’s foot is disfigured on the treadmill Sarah asks her if she needs anything and she laughs and replies, “ ‘There anything I need? Well, let’s see now.’ Her eyes were hard as glass, burning yellow’ (169). Even though Sarah does not believe in her treatment her color, Handful lashes out to Sarah, who was just trying to help. I am curious to see how the return of her mother and sister will affect their relationship in the future.

  10. Madeleine, it’s very true that age affected Sarah and Handful’s relationship. I believe that their innocence as children was what allowed them to become friends. I think this is very similar to “To Kill A Mockingbird” as the Finch children were oblivious to racial differences.

    I think that this certain section of the book is extremely similar to “What Means Switch”. Sherman in the story thinks that it is impossible to “switch” cultures or lifestyles. However, Sarah demonstrates exactly the opposite by becoming a Quaker. She completely abandons the values and traditions of the South such as slaves and expensive accessories or clothing, Sarah completely “switched” from Southern lady into a preservative Quaker woman. As Mona was flipped by Sherman and had a self-discovery about herself, I believe that Israel is who “flipped” Sarah. He made her realize Quaker values and traditions. Israel also showed her that women can hold power as Lucretia is a Quaker minister.

  11. Invention of Wings 8/10
    The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd tells the story of Sarah Grimke, a privileged Southerner and her slave Handful. The novel begins on Sarah’s ninth birthday when she is given a slave for a birthday present. Sarah and Handful then develop a friendship and Sarah teaches Handful to read, which was illegal at the time. After Handful is whipped for this their friendship begins to be entangled with destroyed hope, guilt, and freedom. As they grow up they both speak up for their beliefs, Sarah by giving abolishment speeches in the North and by Handful attending anti-slavery meetings. Through both of their struggles for freedom, intellectually or physically, the two go on a lifetime journey to find meaning in their world.

    One of the themes that Kidd writes about is that it takes action to stand up for what you believe in. Both Handful and Sarah invent their own wings by standing up for what they believe in. Sarah learns this lesson by attempting to write about and believe in anti-slavery movements. When this fails to make an impact, she has to step out of her shell and speak publicly to gain attention.

    The Invention of Wings is a great novel for anyone to read. It tells a story that is moving and meaningful by preaching messages of freedom, love, and courage. Its complex characters come to life of the pages because of Kidd’s writing style and captivates the reader. This book is not only important to our history, but contains thought provoking ideas to challenge the reader to speak up on what they believe in.

  12. The Invention of Wings 9/10

    The Invention of Wings is narrated by two young girls, Sarah and Handful. Sarah is part of a white wealthy slave owning family but disagrees with her family’s values about both gender and racial discrimination. Handful become Sarah’s slave and best friend and is very opposed to slavery. I found how Sue Monk Kidd created this parallel between two people and their similar struggles fascinating but because I have read many books with similar ideas I felt this book deserved a 9 out of 10.

    It was very interesting to see the characters grow over a long period of time, about 20 years, and it was this that I thought made the book more intriguing and different from the other books I have read. Sue Monk Kidd tied every knot and left the reader knowing how Sarah and Handful’s lives are going to play out.

    I was very moved by how Sarah and Handful ended up living for others. They both moved to the North to pursue giving rights to both women and slaves. What I really took away from their story was that in order to truly achieve greatness one must dedicate their lives to it and that’s exactly what Sarah did by not getting married and spending her life writing, and preaching equality.

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