Clotel by William Wells Brown: Summary & Analysis

Instructor: Dori Starnes

Dori has taught college and high school English courses, and has Masters degrees in both literature and education.

In a land that proclaimed all are equal, slavery still existed. The tragic tale of Clotel shows just how far the country still had to go to reach equality in the days before the American Civil War. This lesson summarizes and analyizes the novel ''Clotel''.

Jefferson's Daughter

William Wells Brown's 1853 novel Clotel, or The President's Daughter, was first published in England. It tells the story of Clotel, the mixed-race daughter of President Thomas Jefferson, her mother and sisters, and the injustices of their lives in slavery.

Sold as a Slave

The action in Clotel begins at a slave auction. Up on the block are the mistress of President Jefferson, Currer, and her two daughters: Althesa and Clotel. Supposedly, Jefferson is also the girls' father. All three women are mulatto, or mixed-race, and described as 'near white'. They were still considered slaves under the law of the time.

Clotel is the luckiest one at the auction. She is bought by Horatio Green, a wealthy Richmond man, who marries her. Sadly, both Currer and Althesa are purchased by Dick Waller, an evil man who treats his slaves badly. They are quickly separated and resold.

Both women eventually meet bad ends. Currer is sold to a man in Missouri and dies of yellow fever. Initially, Althesa has a happier story. She is bought by Henry Morton and marries him. They have two daughters. Unfortunately, when Althesa and Morton die, their daughters become slaves.

Betrayed by her Lover

Clotel is happy with Horatio at first, but that changes with the birth of her daughter, Mary, and her husband's career ambitions. Horatio decides to go into politics and soon abandons Clotel (whom he never legally married, as mixed-race marriages were not legal in Virginia) and Mary. He decides to marry Gertrude, a white politician's daughter. Though he would still see Mary sometimes, he has nothing more to do with Clotel, who is heartbroken.

Things go from bad to worse for Clotel when the powerful Gertrude sees how much Mary looks like her husband. Clotel quickly finds herself sold to Dick Waller, while Mary is made to be a servant in her father's home.

Live as a Slave, but Die Free

Clotel meets a fellow slave named William, and they decide to escape. Clotel disguises herself as a man and makes it to Ohio. There, they part ways. William heads to Canada and freedom, whereas Clotel cannot live free while her daughter is enslaved. She journeys back to Richmond to try to rescue little Mary from Gertrude's grasp. Sadly, she is caught and thrown into prison. Clotel manages to escape the prison but cannot face life as a slave. She decides to commit suicide and drowns herself in the Potomac River. She dies only a mile away from the White House where, by right, she should have lived as the president's daughter.

Clotel jumps into the Potomac River
Clotel jumps into the Potomac River

Not all of the stories end tragically. Mary falls in love with a slave named George and takes his place in prison. He escapes to Canada, and Mary is taken to France. Years later, they are both freed and reunite in France. They get married, and we hope they live happily ever after.

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