Chapter 10: Growing Pains
By, Denise MacNeil
Two events that occur in Chapter 10 “Growing Pains” articulate Emily’s developing maturity and contribute to the arc of Emily’s development as a writer. The first revolves around her friendship with Rhoda Stuart and Rhoda’s much-hyped, much-anticipated birthday party. To Emily, Rhoda was “the friend of her dreams” and “as near perfection as a human being could be” (83, 90). Only Rhoda, of all the girls, had been permitted to enter “the inner shrine” of “her temple of friendship” (88). However, in Chapter 10, Emily does not receive an invitation to Rhoda’s party with everyone else. Jennie Strang reports that Rhoda did not send an invitation to Emily because Rhoda is currying favor with a summer visitor, Muriel Porter, who harbors a jealous dislike of Emily. Emily “mourned … for the friendship that had been so dear to her,” feeling that she could “never, never love or trust anybody again. There lay the sting.” (105). What starts out for Emily as the sharp pain of forsaken by one particular individual, expands, transforming Emily’s naïve understanding of the reliability of all others and the safety of her heart when she places it in other people’s hands.
The second event involves the threatened cutting of Emily’s hair. Aunt Elizabeth sees Emily’s despondent malaise at being deserted by Rhoda as evidence that Emily’s hair must be cut, specifically “shingle[d] … close all over [Emily’s] head” to protect Emily’s health (106). Emily wants bangs, which Aunt Elizabeth has expressly forbidden, although without an explanation. They clash over what should be done with her hair. Does staid Aunt Elizabeth want to bob Emily’s hair in a fashion that seems very similar to the sophisticated, flapper hairstyles of the 1920s, when the book was released? Or, does she want Emily’s hair shorn, with the implications of depersonalization, humiliation, and unsexing that go with such an experience? In comparison, Emily’s desired bangs, even if the “hair [is] banged clean from the crown of their heads” as some girls have it, would result in a more innocent and appropriate hairdo (106). It appears that more is going on than just Aunt Elizabeth’s concern that Emily’s hair “took her strength” (105). This is the first time I am reading Emily of New Moon, so I do not know what depth we may find in the character of Aunt Elizabeth as the novel progresses, or what may, in the end, happen to Emily’s hair and what will be her experience of it.
When Emily stands up to Aunt Elizabeth, she experiences the power of her own developing personality forcefully, feeling as if she were “wearing somebody else’s face instead of her own” (107). Aunt Elizabeth also responds to the changed Emily, backing down from her insistence to cut Emily’s hair and telling her sister Laura that she “saw—Father—looking out from her [Emily’s] face” (107). Emily performs the authority of a patriarch. Aunt Elizabeth responds to Emily’ s personification of this role: “Aunt Elizabeth never referred to the matter again …. several days passed before she meddled much with Emily” (107). Emily’s emotional development and growth as a writer merge in this sequence. In preceding chapters, Emily has gone from fearing ever to write again to her beginning to write letters to her deceased father and hiding them in the attic of New Moon. After the run-in with Aunt Elizabeth, Emily “ceased to grieve over her lost friend … speedily regained her appetite and animation, resumed her letters to her father” (107). In the closing scenes of the chapter Emily again faces Aunt Elizabeth. While performing an errand for Aunt Elizabeth, Emily simultaneously defied Aunt Elizabeth’s authority by removing her shoes and “pranc[ing] away barefooted,” performing her errand “with an untroubled conscience” (108). Upon her return to New Moon, Emily unthinkingly allows herself to be caught in her disobedience, displaying her transitional status between child and adult. Emily, however, sees Aunt Elizabeth’s challenge to her as “superfluous” (109), a response of an individuated adult to the unreasonable demands of another to control one’s autonomous person. Additionally on the way home, Emily had written a poem, which she sees as her best yet, and which fills her with satisfaction and confidence. And, while in the next chapter, Emily is prevented from writing down her poem right away, she had already memorized it on the way home, demonstrating that Aunt Elizabeth may no longer be an insurmountable obstacle in Emily’s path, or even a controlling factor, as she was earlier in the novel.
Denise MacNeil is Professor of English at the University of Redlands, author of the book The Emergence of the American Frontier Hero 1682-1826,and editor(with Jesslyn Collins-Frohlich) of a special issue of Women’s Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal devoted to The Female American; or, The Adventures of Unca Eliza Winkfield.