Just Teach One

Reading Religion and Rights in The Factory Girl

Devin Zuber
Graduate Theological Union (GTU) at Berkeley

I taught Sarah Savage’s The Factory Girl in an advanced seminar at the Graduate Theological Union (GTU) (, a consortium for different religious studies and graduate theological degree programs in Berkeley, California. Typical of such seminars at the GTU, “Trauma and Testimony: Literature, Religion, and Human Rights” ( had an extremely diverse student body: both those divinity students ostensibly pursuing an M.Div. degree for practical work as chaplains or ministers, as well as MA students from our Art & Religion program, in addition to several PhD students whose approach to religion or theology was wholly secular and academic. For some of the divinity students, thus, the ethics of how they were to instrumentalize biblical text, and use the words as a way for living in the world, was something they had spent time thinking through for themselves, and I was curious to see how they would contextualize the character Mary, and her consistent, didactic exegesis. As Duncan Faherty and Ed White’s excellent introduction so artfully brings out, The Factory Girl lies at a fascinating intersection between early American literature and the history of 19th century American Protestant theology, and I was looking forward to how this GTU seminar, with its various seminarians, might help me develop new perspectives on a text that inherently raises questions about the relationship between religion (and/or religious institutions) and literature.

We read The Factory Girl in a section of the seminar that was concerned with labor and women’s rights in the 19th century, and the constitutive relationship between the production of literature (fiction in particular) and legal frameworks that inculcated emerging rights frameworks. We attempted to bring some of the work around a “capabilities approach” to gender, labor, and economics–primarily as developed by Martha Nussbaum and Amartya Sen—as a way of reading Mary and her relationship to the factory. The students were surprised at first, I think, at how little the novel seemed invested in showing the actual conditions of labor, and noted that the long discourses around theology (particularly in chapter two) occupied substantially much more text; they yet also saw how the novel clearly modeled the translation of labor into Sen and Nussbaum’s “capabilities” schema—that Mary’s work enabled her broader capacity for affiliation, life, imaginative resources, and the like (Nussbaum 54). They also quickly noted that the labor and “Mary’s theological imagination” (a useful phrase that came out of the class discussion) were inextricably intertwined, despite the apparent antinomy signaled by Mary’s grandmother’s opening concern that Mary “should not work for any one, or with any body, who is not good; for then she may forger her Bible… and go astray” (5). A chiasmus between theology and work is suggested by the biblical epigraph on the title-page — “The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering…”—and the novel’s closing image of the rose-marked Bible page, opened up to Proverbs: “Her children rise up and call her blessed.” The fruits of Mary’s laboring spirit become materialized in the domestic plenitude of the Danforth family; the fiction literalizes the words of the Bible (indeed, becomes synonymous with it, as the novel ends with this quote).

Does Mary, then, function as a figure of a kind of biblical literalism—a more saccharine, 19th century version of the so-called “prosperity gospel,” derived from a generalized Protestant work ethic? The class liked pushing on some of the tensions inherent within the novel’s biblical tropism, so common to sentimental fiction, that recurrently (and deferentially) pointed away from the text itself. As we somewhat reductively framed it: if “reading the Bible makes you so much better than other people,” as Nancy admiringly tells Mary (9), because it is full of so many heroic characters worth emulating, then what’s the point of reading fiction?

While we may not know much about Sarah Savage’s own particular theological or ecclesiastical predilections, aside from the glancing reference in The Factory Girl to the New Light revivals, Mary’s recourse to the Bible as ur-Text operates somewhat in tension with the novel’s proto-Romantic gestures to natural theology—to reading the (non-Biblical) natural world as a spiritualized text that instructs: “Mary saw the hand of the Deity in every blushing flower, and humming insect, and delighted to read his wisdom in the fair volume which nature presents” (23). While these moments are certainly far removed from Wordsworthian pantheism, or Ralph Waldo Emerson’s later American un-churching into his Nature of 1836, they nevertheless adumbrate the emerging rift between natural science and religion, and perhaps suggest the perceived office of literature to mediate between the two. “The appearance of nature,” Danforth pontificates in Chapter 2, should direct children “to the great Author of all things… the hills and the field, the nosegays they gather, and the insects they pursue, may all be used, as means of direction their attention toward God” (12).

Perhaps one way of reading the closing image of The Factory Girl – the new, “handsome” Bible on the portable writing desk, purchased by means of the Danforth boys’ economic thrift, with a beautiful rose fastened to the page from Proverbs—is as a composite of some of these unresolved, emerging cultural tensions: that the Biblical page remains marked by the physical, natural presence of the flower. In 1814, Savage is able to end her sentimental fiction by seamlessly blending her words into Biblical prose (her book becomes The Book), but the organic presence of nature would soon come to complicate, particularly after Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species (1859), any easy homology between the literary and the religious.

Works Cited

Nussbaum, Martha. “Women and Equality: the Capabilities Approach” in Women, Gender, and Work: What is Equality and How do We Get There? (London: International Labour Office, 2001),

Sen, Amartya. The Idea of Justice (London: Penguin, 2010)

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