“Placer”: a Place to Critique Christian Middle-Class Morality
In Hannah Lloyd Neall’s short story “Placer”, an Indian baby is placed in the care of a middle-class Christian couple, the Hamilton’s, when John Hamilton recuses the infant from impending death. Upon bringing it home, John leaves it to Esther Hamilton to care for. Through the two main characters, discussions on what makes a civilized human being, benevolence, and moral obligation surface in the process of the child’s upbringing and serve as a device to critique middle-class Christian “morality”.
Esther Hamilton is presented as a “fair-weather” Christian: one that is aware of the core values of the faith, but is more concerned with projecting an image of being devout rather than actually taking the values to heart. At the start of the story, when Esther gets her first glimpse of the infant, we are exposed to her mindset on what constitutes a human being:
“The mop of coarse, black hair, the deep- set eyes, the tawny, grimy skin of the barelegged creature, suggested anything rather than a human being. And Esther shrank away with disgust and repugnance, culminating in aversion, as she ·caught a glimpse of the crawling wonders, defying concealment, which doubtless had been the cause of its uneasiness” (Neall 318).
This passage illustrates how important appearance is for Esther when evaluating humanity and civility. This detail about her character serves as a critique on the “type” of Christian Esther Hamilton is.
John Hamilton’s character is there to challenge Esther’s Christian morality and his position is apparent from the start with his response to Esther’s first reaction to the infant: “‘Esther Hamilton, have you no bowels of compassion? Of what avail are all the humanitarian ideas you have been inculcating by precept, if they fail you when the time comes for their, exercise?’” (Neall 318). This passage sets the tone for the story’s critique of Christian morality where John will contest Esther’s conduct and mindset in relation to the teachings of her faith. Moreover, John points out specific arguments to strengthen the critique as he continues his response to Esther:
“I have heard you say repeatedly, that every human creature was endowed with God-given faculties, which needed only development and proper training to produce a Christian. Where is the benevolence that constituted you a member of every moral reform society in the past, from anti-slavery down to the prevention of cruelty to animals? Now, here is a human soul” (Neall 318).
The effect of this is the creation of a space for the reader to contemplate this developing critique on Christian morality.
The Indian infant girl is soon baptized and named “Placer” and with this, Esther continues the conversation on what constitutes a human being with her inner monologue on how to raise Placer: “But had she not (as her husband had reminded her) asserted that to be human was to be susceptible of recipiency, at least; and that education and culture were alone needed to place the races of humanity on a par with each other? She thought over these things with vexation of spirit” (Neall 320). This passage further illustrates the effect John’s challenging Esther’s beliefs has on her and pushes her to think further about her role in being responsible for Placer; “To be brought to the trial of putting one’s theories into instant exercise is rather a severe ordeal; but Esther nerved herself for the task. ‘No; I will not cast out this perishing human soul,’ she said. ‘I will struggle, at least, to mold it into the beautiful likeness of its divine originator’” (Neall 320). This passage shows that this is the first time Esther is charged with putting her ideals into actual practice and that it is a much more difficult task for her in comparison to just acting the part of a devout Christian. This passage also shows that Esther has decided in her mind that Placer is now a human soul, but that she still needs to mold Placer into a Christian human being, giving the impression that a Christian human being is of higher value.
Esther quickly loses her passion to “civilize” Placer, illustrating the “fair-weather” aspect of this type of Christian; “‘I never shall civilize this miserable thing, John! Do let us turn it out to grass. Such unreasoning rage is impossible to control, and I am ready to adopt the enlightened philosophy which places the lower orders in a descending scale toward the brute creation’” (Neall 322). This passage not only shows that there are limits to Esther’s Christian practice, but also how easily she is willing to adopt a new faith when her faith is tested beyond her dedication.
The effects Esther’s child raising practices on Placer and the Christian doctrine she is exposed to quickly become apparent as Placer grows up and begins to speak for herself; “I don’t want to know. I hate every body…I won’t wear shoes; I won’t go to Sunday-school; I won’t be made a Christian of” (Neall 322). This passage shows the response Christianity has when it is forced upon someone. Human beings are unique in that they have free will and when that is taken away, even in the name of religion and faith, opposition is to be expected.
Esther refuses to acknowledge Placer’s Indian roots and opposition to being made into something she is not; “I do believe we can win her to gentleness, and transform her into an interesting and noble woman” (Neall 323). This passage suggests that without Christianity, Placer is not an interesting and noble woman. It also shows that Esther is only thinking of herself and what she deems interesting and noble. She is not practicing actual Christianity, which teaches that everyone is different and unique just as they are.
“Placer” is a story that addresses middle-class Christian morality through its Characters. Each character approaches their faith in different ways, which is how Hannah Lloyd Neall is able to create a dynamic critique of Christianity. The culmination and effects of which can be seen when Placer encounters the Indian tribe she came from for the first time:
“And I am one of these! I belong to them!” came again and again from her lips, and out of their hearing she almost shrieked in her agony; for the in that moment the seeds which Esther Hamilton had planted quickened their germinating forces, and closed over, in their sudden growth, the torn soil from whence the weeds had been uprooted” (Neall 324).
Neall, Hannah Lloyd. “Placer”. The Overland Monthly. San Francisco: Volume 7, Issue
4, Oct 1871; pp. 317-324.