How are Clara and Peggy similar? How are they different? Which one is the “main character” of The Traitor’s Wife?
I think Clara’s ongoing struggle throughout the course of the novel is to become the leading lady of her own life. As an employer Peggy Shippen Arnold is demanding, difficult, and she casts a very large shadow. Clara has to learn, ultimately, to stand up to this overbearing figure before she can take the reins of her own future.
It was fun to explore the ways in which these two women, with their different resources and perspectives, would have navigated the events into which they were thrust. In some ways, Clara and Peggy are similar. They are the same age. They resemble one another physically. Look how easy it is for Clara to masquerade as Peggy’s sister once she has the right hairdo and the right dress. Both of their fates are inextricably tied to the fate of not only the Arnold family, but also the new country.
And yet, they occupy completely different worlds. Clara begins the novel as a naïve, friendless servant who has never known anyone so sophisticated and worldly and charming. Clara has never worn fancy dresses, or entertained gentlemen suitors, or even slept in her own bed. That is why, at first, Clara is so enamored of Peggy Shippen. Clara’s new mistress is a popular, witty, fashionable force who has all of Philadelphia society at her feet, and Peggy not only wants Clara to work for her, but she seems to want Clara as a friend. Clara is, in her own way, just as seduced by Peggy as many of the other characters in the novel are. Given the social and economic disparities between the two of them, it’s clear why Clara becomes pretty much entirely dependent on Peggy.
But just as Clara is reliant on her mistress, so too is Peggy dependent on Clara. She invites Clara out with her; she asks for Clara on her wedding day; she moves Clara with her to set up her new home. You see time and again that when Peggy is in a particularly tough spot, it’s Clara for whom she asks. But then, as Peggy’s luck worsens, it’s Clara who suffers. It’s the classic case of venting one’s anger on the person nearest, the person trusted so implicitly that one takes his or her presence entirely for granted. That’s why, even after everything devolves with the plot to turn over West Point, Peggy reacts so violently to the idea of Clara leaving her employ. She can’t fathom the possibility of Clara not always being there.
Ultimately, I would say that Clara is the leading lady of The Traitor’s Wife, even though, at times throughout the story, she seems like little more than a pawn. A supporting character in Peggy and Benedict Arnold’s plots. But Clara does grow into herself by the end. She sees the life she wants – a life of independence, a life with Caleb, and a life far away from Peggy. Clara does what is necessary to achieve that life. But not without her biggest challenge yet – outsmarting the indomitable Peggy Shippen Arnold.
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Hope you guys enjoyed! And thank you Allison Pataki for writing us this fantastic guest post!
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