THE SECULAR PARABLE

In consideration of the themes and narrative progression in John Ford’s 7 Women (Ford 1966), the focus on a small group of seven dedicated missionary women trapped in an unfamiliar wilderness and their passage to redemption by the hand of Dr. Cartwright, echoes sentiments from The Gospel of Mark. Though, unlike the second book of the New Testament, the journey the women undergo is not conclusively principled by a spiritual faith, but rather the logical and temporal activeness of Dr. Cartwright, who prevails the groups arresting faith in order to educate them in the principles of consequence. This essay is concerned with discussing the various ways in which Dr. Cartwright’s character embodies a secular counterpart to Mark’s protagonist and how she could be interpreted as a modern day Jesus.

7 Women is predominately a tale of how rationality prevails over blind faith. In the beginning of the film the characters in 7 Women obey religious instruction directed by Agnes Andrews, an ardent Christian woman suffering an intimate moral dilemma. Dr. Cartwright, a distinct archetype for the twenty-first century’s modern woman, comes to the missionary during a time of vexation. Concern, driven by violent group of bandits causes unease among the members of the mission and as Dr. Cartwright incorporates herself into the group with a certain amount of difficulty under the watchful eye of Andrews, a transition of power takes place. Cartwright’s resolute manner and self-assured competence opposes Andrews’ austere leadership and in what becomes a matter of life and death, Cartwright’s professional insight and rationality offset Andrews’ righteous influence over the other characters. Considering Andrews as a flawed religious leader, rather than the leader of a flawed system of beliefs creates an interesting discussion of how 7 Woman’s subtlety alludes to themes in Mark’s Gospel. Andrews’ shortcomings as a spiritual leader are a result of her internal and personal struggles with being a ‘repressed lesbian who cannot admit her own desires and scorns Dr. Cartwright as a Scarlett Woman’ (McBride 2001:664).

7 Women could be perceived as the feminine answer to Mark’s gospel. Mark’s Gospel is a bearing of witness to a series of alleged events forty-six years after the death of Jesus. The writings are not explicit with any actual community or situation. They adopt a narrative mode of presentation. Herein lies a fundamental comparison between Ford’s morally conscious narrative and Mark’s account of the final days of Jesus’ life. Both narratives focus on the righteous sufferer who dies so that others may live. The lead up to both Jesus and Dr Cartwright’s respective deaths are similar in the way both narratives forewarn a conflict and persecution for the sake of the gospel and the Christian community respectively. In writing, ‘He who loses his life for my sake shall save it’ (Mark 8.35) refers to circumstance involving martyrism. Cartwright’s unjust treatment and subsequent death mirrors that of Mark’s Jesus in that it is an act of offering. To save the lives of others, both deaths are meaningful and like the followers that the Markan Jesus entrusts, the women that Cartwright saves, become alternate disciples. The events that have unfolded are witnessed by them and can be retold by them. Cartwright dies for the sake of others. Unlike Mark’s Jesus who is persecuted and killed by the hands of others, Cartwright takes her own life after killing her enslaver. Both Cartwright and Mark’s Jesus died as slaves of varied design.

Cartwright, as a doctor and healer reshapes the lives of others, but more so it is her developed understanding of the modern world and her application of this understanding in the form of rational instruction to the mission that ultimately save the group. This is possibly the most distinguishable evidence of Cartwright’s comparability to a ‘modern day’ Jesus. Where Mark’s Jesus could be considered an antiquated superhero exercising God’s power to overcome evil compulsion, Cartwright displays the qualities of a modern day guardian of the weak or mislead, who martyrs herself so that the innocent may escape a genuine evil. And like Jesus, Cartwright leaves behind her own brand of disciples in the women she saves, in particular Miss Clark, the youngest and most impressionable of the group. In this sense, Cartwright has impressed a substitute of rational acceptance to replace that of Christian convention. This new conviction corresponds with a modern society as opposed to Andrews’s prohibitive and outdated Christian values. Cartwright represents a modern feminist movement, a development that acknowledges a balanced feminine capacity within an industrialized society in the clothes she wears, the way she communicates and the moral values she bestows. Andrews however, questions all of Cartwright’s characteristics such as smoking, sitting before grace and using what Andrews believes to be profane words. Andrews states that ‘morally, spiritually she’s dead [and that] the difference [between the mission and her] is the evil in her’ (Ford 1966).

Like Jesus, Cartwright cast out demons and heals the sick; in short she is the practical affinity the Mark’s miracle-working Jesus. This is evident firstly and most plainly in the fact that she is a woman of medical profession. It is her job to heal the sick. The ironic twist in 7 Women however, is that Cartwright is placed within a domain bound by religious conformity, she attends to the medical needs of those her appeal to a higher power concerning quality of life. And whereas Mark’s Jesus attends to a sick or troubled population out of his own volition, Cartwright is send for by a groups whose dangerously devout leader rejects both Cartwright and what she stands for. 7 Women’s self-enclosed setting presenting a concentrated attunement to a dramatic situation with clear-cut boundaries, ones that help to disclose as well as to limit and conceal. This environment makes it possible for the secular character, Cartwright to have a positive, non-religious influence on the group because as Andrews’ moral intensity and ethical judgment overshadows her common sense, she forfeits the mission’s trust and exposes herself as an unbalanced leader. Ignoring the threat of violence from an outside group against the mission and likewise disregarding Cartwright’s advise concerning Florrie’s pregnancy decisively exposes her questionable dedication to the members of the mission. It is Andrews’ unstable characteristics, evident throughout the film, which not only allow the secular practices of Cartwright to influence and ultimately save the group, but Andrews’ inhumane actions and severe religious devotion provoke an audience’s inquiry as to the legitimacy of her immaculate constitution. Moreover, without a spiritually flawed Andrews’ to administer a heavy-handed brand of Christian principles, Cartwright’s role as a healer and protector of the community could be lost to the notion that she is simply a doctor.

The characteristics that divide Andrews and Cartwright create a paradox in which Dr. Cartwright appears as the ‘practicing Christian, the character who embodies Christian values even while vocally disdaining organized religion, who wins the heart of the viewer not [Andrews’] the preaching Christian’ (Stoehr 2008:207). As a secular savior, Cartwright ultimately succeeds as the liberating Ying, to Andrews’ restrictive yang. Perhaps the scene that defines Cartwright, as a deserved leader of the mission is when she listens compassionately as Andrews confesses her loss of faith. Three pivotal realizations emerge from this event. Firstly, Andrews publically acknowledges her lack of Christian faith in saying ‘I’ve always searched for something that isn’t there. And God isn’t enough’ (Ford 1966). Secondly, her repressed feelings for Emma are made apparent, and lastly, Cartwright adopts a god-like role in Andrews’ eyes because only she can save the woman Andrews loves. Ultimately, Cartwright succeeds as the missions true savior because not only does she emulate a Markan Jesus through her benevolent actions in saving the victims of the plague when Andrews would have them turned away, but Cartwright offers herself wholly in order to save her newfound community. She becomes Tunga Khan’s mistress in exchange for food and medicine and her final sacrifice ensures the freedom of the people in her care.

The tension between Andrews and Cartwright influences a will to believe in one thing, whilst insisting the loss of faith in another. Andrews pauses when reading Cartwright’s name out aloud to the group, perhaps because as a religious woman or moreover a conventionally devout Christian, she is apprehensive of the significance in such a name. Cartwright is a name that carries with it an industrious property, referring to Edmund Cartwright, inventor of the power loom in 1785 and this association with industry or rather changes, that signifies Cartwright’s arrival and subsequent influence on the group as a rational liberation. Perhaps this is also an indication to an audience as to the nature of the films secular protagonist. Like in Mark’s gospel, Jesus’ name is pronounced in the first line. Its is a dramatic irony that serves as a mainspring of the story because, though a reader knows the identity of Jesus, none of the characters in Mark’s Gospel do other than the demons. Considering this notion, Andrews somewhat concedes her deficiency as a leader when she pauses to consider the significance of Cartwright’s name. Andrews reaction also somewhat exposes her similarity to that of a Markan devil, having a diabolical influence on the other characters; a form of devil in disguise. It is this formula that offers both Mark’s Gospel and Ford’s film their method of tension because the anxiety that unfolds is by cause of both reader and viewer’s knowledge of what is oblivious to the characters.

Comprehensively, 7 Women is a film that reveals the importance of choice and consequence. Ford’s Film is ultimately a tale of morality, the alternatives of faith and doubt, community and chaos and heroic sacrifice. Like Mark’s Gospel, 7 Women should be perceived as an integral narrative, a story that depicts the shape of Christian discipleship, though, varied from Mark’s account, 7 Women and in particular Cartwright’s secular leadership, depicts the church as a defensible institution. Lead, conclusively by Cartwright, the characters arouse inclusive notions about the struggle and jubilation of what it means to be human. The modern Jesus figure in Ford’s film (Cartwright) also represents a modern woman and as such pertains to rationalism over blind faith. She embodies the feminine leader, not the female follower and in this regard she can be compared with a modern day Jesus.

References:

Ford, J 1966, 7 Women, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.

Owens, W R 2011, The Gospels: Authorized King James Version, Oxford University Press.

McBride, J 2001, Searching for John Ford, University of Mississippi Press.

Gallagher, T 1988, John Ford; The Man and His Films, University of California Press.

Stoehr, K L 2008, John Ford in Focus: Essays on the Filmmaker’s Life and Work, McFarland, North Carolina.

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