“Sister Josepha” by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

03Mar05

This short story is kind of like The Sound of Music only without the kids, the singing, the Nazis, or the optimistic ending. In fact, the ending is pretty bleak. But besides those things, it’s exactly the same.

The main character has two lives: Camille and Sister Josepha. As Camille, she has no parents, no history. She appeared at the nunnery when she was three and the only information the nuns could wrest from her was the name Camille. The name might not be her own. When Camille is confronted with the possibility of being adopted, she balks.

Camille stole a glance at her would-be guardians, and decided instantly, impulsively, finally. The woman suited her; but the man! It was doubtless intuition of the quick, vivacious sort which belonged to her blood that served her. Untutored in worldly knowledge, she could not divine the meaning of the pronounced leers and admiration of her physical charms which gleamed in the man’s face, but she knew it made her feel creepy, and stoutly refused to go.

Despite Camille’s youth, she seems to understand the power dynamic between herself and this man who leers at her. She understands her vulnerability to him if she agreed to the adoption. The whisperings of other girls living at the convent suggest that even the priest admires her beauty, “linger[ing] longer in his blessing when his hands pressed her silky black hair.” Confronted with these men who seem to lust after her, she begs the Mother Superior to allow her to enter the convent and become Sister Josepha, also seizing control of her sexuality.

She quickly becomes bored with the life of a nun, of the self-repression and submission, and a brief encounter with a sympathetic young man seems to augment her desires to leave the nunnery, causing her to make a feeble escape plan. But the night before her escape, she overhears two other nuns talking about her and she is reminded that she has

No name but Camille, that was true; no nationality, for she could never tell from whom or whence she came; no friends, and a beauty that not even an ungainly bonnet and shaven head could hide. In a flash she realised the deception of the life she would lead, and the cruel self-torture of wonder at her own identity. Already, as if in anticipation of the world’s questionings, she was asking herself, “Who am I? What am I?”

Without her habit, she feels as if she has no identity. As Sister Josepha she belongs to God and the convent, but as Camille she has no family or friends. She also recalls that her beauty is a vulnerability. Reminded of these things, she does not escape the following day at High Mass, rather she confesses, “j’ai beaucoup péché par pensées – c’est ma faute – c’est ma faute – c’est ma très grande faute.”

The situation of the main character potentially represents the limited options available to all women at the time this story was written. Camille may choose to make herself vulnerable to the sexual desires of men by leaving the convent or to remain in an equally sublimating environment. As a nun, at least she has an identity and degree of protection from lascivious men. Unfortunately, she blames herself for her vulnerability, as if she is at fault for her good looks and her orphaning. Her confession makes her sound like a rape victim who blames herself for “asking for it.”

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