Instructor's note: The Lamplighter, published in 1854 to great sales and considerable acclaim in the USA and Great Britain, was the first and most successful novel written by Maria Susanna Cummins (1827-66) of Salem, Massachusetts. The novel's title and title character derived from an earlier bestseller, Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850), in whose first chapter a lonely young girl watches a lamplighter lighting the gas-lamps of an American city.
The Lamplighter's strong and continuing popularity with a largely feminine reading audience along with its domestic themes has often made the novel a symbol of American readers' support for sentimental popular literature over classic fiction engaging darker or more complex representations of American life. Such distinctions were first given voice by Nathaniel Hawthorne in an 1855 letter to his publisher:
The novel's opening chapters are unquestionably effective even if the themes are familiar. Historically, The Lamplighter may be most interesting for depicting an increasingly common life-experience for Americans in the 1800s, as it describes the lives of formerly rural people who have moved to a growing city and must put together surrogate families and a sense of community in an atmosphere of uncaring strangers. As the story progresses, the scene shifts increasingly to a more genteel suburban environment.
[inversion of gothic]
[inversion of gothic]
It was growing
in the city. Out in the
it would be light for half-an-hour or more; but in the streets it was
already dusk. Upon the wooden door-step of
a low-roofed, dark, and
unwholesome-looking house, sat
a little girl, earnestly gazing up the street.
The house-door behind her was close to the side-walk; and the step on which she
sat was so low that her little unshod feet rested on the cold bricks. It was a
chilly evening in November, and a
light fall of snow had made
the narrow streets
and dark lanes dirtier and more cheerless than ever.
[Gothic? or mere poverty with gothic potential?]
[Gothic? or mere poverty with gothic potential?]
[>city of strangers>] Many people were
passing, but no one noticed the little girl, for no one in the world cared for
her. She was clad in the poorest of garments; her hair was long, thick, and
uncombed, and her complexion was sallow, and her whole appearance was unhealthy.
She had fine dark eyes; but so large did they seem, in contrast to her thin,
puny face that they increased its peculiarity without increasing its beauty.
she had a mother (which, alas! she had not), those friendly eyes would have
found something in her to praise. But the poor little thing was told, a dozen
times a-day, that she was the worst-looking child in the world, and the
worst-behaved*. No one loved her, and she loved no one; no one tried to make her
happy, or cared whether she was so. She was but eight years old, and alone in
the world. [*Romantic
rhetoric of extremes and superlatives]
[*Romantic rhetoric of extremes and superlatives]
[1.3] She loved to watch for the coming of the old man who lit the street-lamp in front of the house where she lived; to see his bright torch flicker in the wind; and then when he so quickly ran up his ladder, lit the lamp, and made the place cheerful, a gleam of joy was shed on a little desolate heart [metaphor], to which gladness was a stranger; and though he had never seemed to see, and had never spoken to her, she felt, as she watched for the old lamplighter, as if he were a friend.
[1.4] "Gerty," [nickname for Gertrude] exclaimed a harsh voice within, "have you been for the milk?"
[1.5] The child made no answer, but gliding off the door-step, ran quickly round the corner of the house, and hid a little out of sight. "What's become of that child?" said the woman who spoke, and who now showed herself at the door.
[1.6] A boy who was passing, and had seen Gerty run, and who looked upon her as a spirit of evil, laughed aloud, pointed to the corner which concealed her, and walking off with his head over his shoulders, to see what would happen next, said to himself, "She'll catch it!"
[1.7] Gerty was dragged from her hiding-place, and with one blow for her ugliness and another for her impudence (for she was making faces at Nan Grant), was dispatched down a neighboring alley for the milk.
[1.8] She ran fast, fearing the lamplighter would come and go in her absence, and was rejoiced, on her return, to catch a sight of him just going up his ladder. She stood at the foot of it, and was so engaged in watching the bright flame, that she did not observe the descent of the man; and, as she was directly in his way, he struck against her, and she fell upon the pavement. "Hallo, my little one!" exclaimed he, "how's this?" as he stooped to lift her up. She was on her feet in an instant; for she was used to hard knocks, and did not mind a few bruises. But the milk was all spilt.
[1.9] "Well! now, I declare!" said the man, "that's too bad!—what'll mammy say?" and looking into Gerty's face, he exclaimed, "My, what an odd-faced child!—looks like a witch!" Then, seeing that she looked sadly at the spilt milk, he kindly said, "She won't be hard on such a mite as you are, will she? Cheer up, my ducky! never mind if she does scold you a little. I'll bring you something tomorrow that you'll like; you're such a lonely-looking thing. And if the old woman makes a row, tell her I did it.—But didn't I hurt you? What were you doing with my ladder?"
[1.10] "I was seeing you light the lamp," said Gerty, "and I an't hurt a bit; but I wish I hadn't spilt the milk."
[1.11] Just then Nan Grant
came to the door, saw what had happened, and pulled the child into the house,
amidst blows and profane, brutal language. The lamplighter tried to appease her,
but she shut the door in his face. Gerty was scolded, beaten, deprived of her
usual crust for her supper, and shut up in her dark attic for the night. Poor
little child! Her mother had died in Nan Grant's house five years before; and
she had been tolerated there since, not so much because when Ben Grant went to
sea he bade his wife to keep the child until his return—he had been gone so long
that no one thought he would ever come back—but because Nan had reasons of her
own for doing so, and, though she considered Gerty a dead weight upon her hands,
she did not care to excite inquiries by trying to dispose of her elsewhere.
[The mention of Ben Grant going to sea appears as a
possible plot-line for later, but apparently forgotten and never developed]
[The mention of Ben Grant going to sea appears as a possible plot-line for later, but apparently forgotten and never developed]
[1.12] When Gerty found herself locked up for the night in the dark garret—Gerty hated and feared the dark—she stood for a minute perfectly still, then suddenly began to stamp and scream, tried to beat open the door, and shouted, "I hate you, Nan Grant! Old Nan Grant, I hate you!"* But nobody came near her; and she grew more quiet, lay down on her miserable bed, covered her face with her little thin hands, and sobbed as if her heart would break. She wept until she was exhausted; and then gradually she became still. [*compare Ellen's fits of passion in Wide, Wide World]
[1.13] By-and-by she
took her hands from her face, clasped them together convulsively, and looked up
at a little glazed window near the bed. It was but three panes of glass unevenly
stuck together. There was no moon; but
as Gerty looked up,
she saw shining upon her one
bright star. She thought she had never seen anything half so beautiful. She had
often been out of doors when the sky was full of stars, and had not noticed them
much; but this one, all alone, so large, so bright, and yet so soft and
pleasant-looking, seemed to speak to her; to say, "Gerty! Gerty!
poor little Gerty!" She thought
it seemed like a kind face, such as she had a long time ago seen or dreamt
about. Suddenly she asked herself, "Who lit it? Somebody lit it! Some good
person, I know. Oh! how could he get up so high?" And Gerty fell asleep,
wondering who lit the star.
more or less directly to Star of Bethlehem]
[Symbol may refer more or less directly to Star of Bethlehem]
[1.14] Poor little,
untaught, benighted soul! Who shall enlighten thee? Thou art God's child, little
one! Christ died for thee. Will he not send man or angel to light up the
darkness* within, to kindle a light* that shall never go out, the light* that shall
shine through all eternity!
[1.15] Gerty awoke the next morning, not as children wake who are roused by merry voices, or by a parent's kiss, who have kind hands to help them dress, and knowing that a nice breakfast awaits them; but she heard harsh voices below; Nan's son, and two or three boarders had come in to breakfast, and Gerty's only chance of obtaining any share of the meal was to be on the spot when they had finished, to take that portion of what remained which Nan might shove towards her.
[1.17] So she crept downstairs, waited a little till they had all gone out, and then she slid into the room. She met with a rough greeting from Nan, who told her she had better drop that ugly, sour look*; eat some breakfast, if she wanted it, but keep out of her way, and not come near the fire, where she was at work, or she'd get another dressing, worse than she had last night. Gerty had not looked for any other treatment, so she was not disappointed; but, glad of the miserable food left for her on the table, she swallowed it eagerly, and she took her little old hood, threw on a ragged shawl, which had belonged to her mother, and ran out of the house. [*compare Ellen & Aunt Fortune in Wide, Wide World]
[1.19] Perhaps this would not have been the case if Gerty had mingled freely with them, and tried to be on friendly terms; but, while her mother lived, she did her best to keep her little girl away from the rude herd. Perhaps that habit of avoidance, but still more a something in the child's nature, kept her from joining in their rough sports, after her mother's death had left her to do as she liked. She seldom had any intercourse with them. Nor did they abuse her except in words; for, singly, they dared not cope with her—spirited, sudden, and violent, she had made herself feared as well as disliked. Once a band of them had united to vex her; but, Nan Grant coming up just when one of the girls was throwing the shoes, which she had pulled from Gerty's feet, into the dock, had given the girl a sound whipping, and put them all to flight. Gerty had not had a pair of shoes since; but Nan Grant, for once, had done her a good service, and the children now left her in peace.
[1.20] It was a sunshiny, though a cold day, when Gerty sought shelter in the wood-yard. There was an immense pile of timber in one corner of the yard, almost out of sight of any of the houses. Of different lengths, the planks formed, on one side, a series of irregular steps. Near the top was a little sheltered recess, overhung by some long planks, and forming a miniature shed, protected by the wood on all sides but one, and from that looking out upon the water.
[1.21] This was Gerty's haven of rest, and the only place from which she never was expelled. Here, during the long summer days, the little lonesome child sat brooding over her griefs, her wrongs, and her ugliness; sometimes weeping for hours. Now and then she would get a little more cheerful, and enjoy watching the sailors as they labored on board their vessels, or rowed to and fro in little boats. The warm sunshine was so pleasant, and the men's voices so lively, that the poor little thing sometimes forgot her woes.
[1.22] But summer was gone, and the schooner and the sailors were gone too. The weather was cold, and for a few days had been so stormy, that Gerty had to stay in the house. Now, however, she made the best of her way to her little hiding-place; and, to her joy, the sunshine had dried up the boards, so that they felt warm to her bare feet, and was still shining so bright and pleasant, that Gerty forgot Nan Grant, forgot how cold she had been, and how much she dreaded the long winter. Her thoughts rambled about sometime; but, at last, fixed upon the kind look and voice of the old lamplighter; and then, for the first time since the promise was made, it came into her mind that he had engaged to bring her something the next time he came. She could not believe he would remember it; but still he might—he seemed to be so sorry for her fall.
[1.23] What would he bring? Would it be something to eat? Oh, if it were only some shoes! Perhaps he did not notice that she had none?
[1.24] Gerty resolved to go for her milk in season to be back before it was time to light the lamp, so that nothing should prevent her seeing him. The day seemed very long, but darkness came at last; and with it came True—or rather Trueman Flint, for that was the lamplighter's name. Gerty was on the spot, though she took good care to elude Nan Grant's observation.
[1.25] True was late about his work that night, and in a great hurry. He had only time to speak a few words to Gerty; but they were words coming straight from a good and honest heart. He put his great, smutty hand on her head in the kindest way, told her how sorry he was she got hurt, and said. "It was a plaguy shame she should have been whipped, too, and all for a spill o' milk, that was a misfortin', and no crime."
[1.28] How much she came in time to love that kitten no words can tell. [sentiment + sublime?] Her little, fierce, untamed, impetuous nature had hitherto expressed itself only in angry passion, sullen obstinacy, and hatred. But there were in her soul fountains of warm affection, a depth of tenderness never yet called out, and a warmth and devotion of nature that wanted only an object upon which to expend themselves.
So she poured out such wealth of love on the poor kitten as
only such a desolate little heart has to spare. She loved the kitten all the
more for the care she was obliged to take of it, and the trouble it gave her.
She kept it, as much as possible, out among the boards, in her favorite haunts.
She found an old hat, in which she placed her hood, to make a bed for pussy. She
carried it a part of her scanty meals; she braved for it what she would not have
done for herself—for almost every day she abstracted from the kettle, when she
returned with the milk for Nan Grant, enough for pussy's supper, at the risk of
being discovered and punished, the only risk of harm the poor ignorant child
knew or thought of, in connection with the theft; for her ideas of abstract
right and wrong were utterly undeveloped. So she would play with her kitten for
hours among the boards, talk to it, and tell it how much she loved it. But in
very cold days she was puzzled to know how to keep herself warm out of doors,
and the risk of bringing the kitten into the house was great. She would then
hide it in her bosom, and run with it into her little garret. Once or twice,
when she had been off her guard, her little playful pet had escaped from her,
and scampered through the lower room and passage. Once
[1.30] How was it that Gerty had leisure to spend all her time at play? Most children of the poorer class learn to be useful while they are young. Nan Grant had no babies; and being a very active woman, with but a poor opinion of children's services, she never tried to find employment for Gerty, much better satisfied for her to keep out of her sight; so that, except her daily errand for the milk, Gerty was always idle—a fruitful source of unhappiness and discontent.
Gerty had had her kitten about a month, when she took a
violent cold from exposure to damp and rain; and Nan, fearing she should have
trouble with her if she became seriously ill, bade her stay in the house, and
keep in the warm room. Gerty's cough was fearful; and she would have sat by the
fire all day, had it not been for her anxiety about the kitten. Towards night
the men were heard coming in to supper. Just as they entered the door of the
"Cracky! what's this 'ere?" said the man whom they called
Jemmy; "a cat, I vow! Why,
"Well, 'tan't none o' mine; drive it out," said
[2.4] Jemmy tried to do so; but puss, making a circuit round his legs, sprang forward into the arms of Gerty.
"Whose kitten's that, Gerty?" said
[2.6] "Mine!" said Gerty, bravely.
"Well, how long have you kept cats?" asked
[2.8] Gerty was afraid of the men. She did not like to confess to whom she was indebted for the kitten; she knew it would only make matters worse, for Nan had never forgiven True Flint's rough expostulation against her cruelty in beating the child for spilling the milk, and Gerty could not think of any other source to which she could ascribe the kitten's presence, or she would not have hesitated to tell a falsehood; for her limited education had not taught her a love or habit of truth where a lie would better serve her turn, and save her from punishment. She was silent, and burst into tears.
"Come," said Jemmy, "give us some supper,
[2.13] When Gerty was angry, she always cried aloud—uttering a succession of piercing shrieks, until she sometimes quite exhausted her strength. When she found herself in the street she commenced screaming—not from fear of being turned away from her only home, and left alone at nightfall to wander about the city, and perhaps freeze before morning—she did not think of herself for a moment. Horror and grief at the dreadful fate of the only thing she loved in the world entirely filled her little soul. So she crouched down against the side of the house, her face hid in her hands, unconscious of the noise she was making. Suddenly she found herself placed on Trueman Flint's ladder, which leaned against the lamp-post. True held her high enough to bring her face opposite his, and saw his old acquaintance, and kindly asked her what was the matter.
[2.14] But Gerty could only gasp and say, "Oh, my kitten! my kitten!"
[2.15] "What! the kitten I gave you? Well, have you lost it? Don't cry! there—don't cry!"
[2.16] "Oh, no! not lost! Oh, poor kitty!" and Gerty cried louder and coughed so dreadfully, that True was frightened for the child. Making every effort to soothe her, he told her she would catch her death o' cold, and she must go into the house.
[2.17] "Oh, she won't let me in!" said Gerty, "and I wouldn't go if she would."
[2.18] "Who won't let you in?—your mother?"
[2.21] "She's a horrid, wicked woman, that drowned my kitten in bilin' water."
[2.22] "But where's your mother?"
[2.23] "I ha'n't got none."
[2.24] "Who do you belong to, you poor little thing?"
[2.25] "Nobody; and I've no business anywhere!"
[2.26] "With whom do you live, and who takes care of you?"
[2.27] "Oh, I lived with Nan Grant; but I hate her. I threw a stick of wood at her head, and I wish I had killed her!"
[2.28] "Hush! hush! you musn't say that! I'll go and speak to her."
[2.29] True moved to the door, trying to draw Gerty in; but she resisted so forcibly that he left her outside, and, walking into the room, where Nan was binding up her head with a handkerchief, told her she had better call her little girl in, for she would freeze to death out there.
[2.30] "She's no child of mine," said Nan; "she's the worst little creature that ever lived; it's a wonder I've kept her so long; and now I hope I'll never lay eyes on her agin—and, what's more, I don't mean. She ought to be hung for breaking my head! I believe she's got an ill spirit in her!"
[2.31] "But what'll become of her?" said True. "It's a fearful cold night. How'd you feel, marm, if she were found to-morrow morning all friz up on your door-step!"
[2.32] "How'd I feel! That's your business, is it? S'posen you take care on her yourself! Yer make a mighty deal o' fuss about the brat. Carry her home, and try how yer like her. Yer've been here a talkin' to me about her once afore, and I won't hear a word more. Let other folks see to her, I say; I've had more'n my share, and as to her freezin', or dyin' anyhow, I'll risk her. Them children that comes into the world, nobody knows how, don't go out of it in a hurry. She's the city's property—let 'em look out for her; and you'd better go, and not meddle with what don't consarn you."
True did not wait to hear more. He was not used to an angry
woman, who was the most formidable thing to him in the world.
[2.34] "Well," said he, "she says you shan't come back."
[2.35] "Oh, I'm so glad!" said Gerty.
[2.36] "But where'll you go to?"
[2.37] "I don't know! p'raps I'll go with you, and see you light the lamps."
[2.38] "But where'll you sleep to-night?"
[2.39] "I don't know where; I haven't got any home. I'll sleep out where I can see the stars. [The narrative later associates Trueman's lighting of the lamps with God's lighting of the stars.] But it'll be cold, won't it?"
[2.40] "My goodness! You'll freeze to death, child."
[2.41] "Well, what'll become of me, then?"
[2.42] "The Lord only knows!"
[2.43] True looked at Gerty in perfect wonder. He could not leave her there on such a cold night; but he hardly knew what he could do with her at home, for he lived alone, and was poor. But another violent coughing decided him to share with her his shelter, fire, and food, for one night, at least. "Come," said he, "with me;" and Gerty ran along by his side, never asking whither.
[2.44] True had a dozen lamps to light before his round was finished. Gerty watched him light each with as keen an interest as if that were the only object for which she was in his company; and it was only after they had walked on for some distance without stopping, that she inquired where they were going.
[2.45] "Going home," said True.
[2.46] "Am I going to your home?" said Gerty.
[2.47] "Yes," said True, "and here it is."
He opened a little
gate leading into a small yard, which stretched along the whole length of a
two-storied house. True lived in the back part of it; and both went in. Gerty
was trembling with the cold; her little bare feet were quite blue with walking
on the pavements. There was a stove in the room, but no fire in it. True
immediately disposed of his ladder, torch, etc., in an adjoining shed, and
bringing in a handful of wood, he lit a fire. Drawing an old wooden settle
[bench] up to
the fire, he threw his great-coat over it, and lifting little Gerty up, he
placed her gently upon the seat. He then prepared supper; for True was an old
bachelor, and did everything for himself. He made tea; then, mixing a great
mugful for Gerty, with plenty of sugar and all his milk, he brought a loaf of
bread, cut her a large slice, and pressed her to eat and drink as much as she
could; for he concluded, from her looks, that she had not been well fed; and so
much pleased did he feel in her enjoyment of the best meal she had ever had,
that he forgot to partake of it himself, but sat watching her with a tenderness
which proved that he was a friend to everybody, even to the most forlorn little
girl in the world.
[2.49] Trueman Flint was born in New Hampshire; but, when fifteen years old, being left an orphan, he had made his way to Boston, where he supported himself by whatever employment he could obtain; having been a newspaper-carrier, a cab-driver, a porter, a wood-cutter, indeed, a jack-at-all-trades; and so honest, capable, and good-tempered had he always shown himself, that he everywhere won a good name, and had sometimes continued for years in the same employ. Previous to his entering upon the service in which we find him, he had been a porter [person who carries loads, goods, boxes] in a large store, owned by a wealthy and generous merchant. Being one day engaged in removing some casks, he was severely injured by one of them falling upon his chest. For a long time no hope was entertained of his recovery; and when he began to mend, his health returned so gradually that it was a year before he was able to be at work again. This sickness swallowed up the savings of years; but his late employer never allowed him to want for any comforts, provided an excellent physician, and saw that he was well taken care of.
[2.50] But True had never been the same man since. He rose from his sick-bed debilitated, and apparently ten years older, and his strength so much enfeebled, that he was only fit for some comparatively light employment. It was then that his kind master obtained for him the situation of lamplighter; and he frequently earned considerable sums by sawing wood, shoveling snow, and other jobs. He was now between fifty and sixty years old, a stoutly-built man, with features cut in one of nature's rough moulds, but expressive of much good nature. He was naturally reserved, lived much by himself, was little known, and had only one crony [close friend], the sexton [caretaker, custodian] of a neighboring church.
[2.51] But we left Gertie finishing her supper, and now she is stretched upon the wide settle, sound asleep, covered up with a warm blanket, and her head resting upon a pillow. True sits beside her; her little, thin hand lies in his great palm—occasionally he draws the blanket closer around her. She breathes hard; suddenly she gives a nervous start, then speaks quickly; her dreams are evidently troubled. True listens intently to her words, as she exclaims eagerly, "Oh, don't! don't drown my kitty!" and then, again, in a voice of fear, "Oh, she'll catch me! she'll catch me!" once more; and now her tones are touchingly plaintive and earnest—"Dear, dear, good old man! let me stay with you; do let me stay!"
[2.52] Tears are in Trueman Flint's eyes; he lays his great head on the pillow and draws Gerty's little face close to his; at the same time smoothing her long, uncombed hair with his hand. He, too, is thinking aloud—what does he say? "Catch you!—no, she shan't! Stay with me!—so you shall, I promise you, poor little birdie! All alone in this big world—and so am I. Please God, we'll bide together." [Thus begins a common motif in American Renaissance women's writing, in which individuals whose families have broken through relocation or health / mortality begin to reassemble a surrogate family.]