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Edgar Lee Masters' "Minerva Jones"

Edgar Lee Masters' classic work, "Spoon River Anthology," offers a fascinating character study of the American mind in the mid-20th-century.

Introduction and Text of "Minerva Jones"

This epitaph, "Minerva Jones," is the first in a series of five interrelated poems: "'Indignation' Jones," "Doctor Meyers," "Mrs. Meyers," and "'Butch' Weldy."

Edgar Lee Masters’ "Minerva Jones" from his American classic, Spoon River Anthology, dramatizes the report of a unself-aware, young woman who died after undergoing an abortion; the issue of forced intercourse drives much of the discussion in the interpretation of this poem because Minerva does not state directly that Butch Weldy forced himself upon her, but rather she implies that the two were engaged in a relationship prior to her becoming pregnant with Weldy’s child.

Interestingly, the information revealed by the other characters in his series does not clarify Minerva’s motives. The character most closely involved with Minerva’s situation, Butch Weldy, does not even mention her in his harrowing tale.

About her husband, Doctor Meyers, who performed Minerva’s abortion procedure, Mrs. Meyers remarks, "he was not at fault for Minerva’s fall"; this remark indicates that Minerva was, in fact, less than the victim she professes. It was Minerva’s "fall" even if others were intimately or tangentially involved.

Minerva Jones

I am Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when "Butch" Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.
He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.
Will some one go to the village newspaper,
And gather into a book the verses I wrote?—
I thirsted so for love!
I hungered so for life!

Interpretive Reading of "Minerva Jones"

Commentary

In this epitaph, the village poetess, Minerva Jones, presents herself as a victim of the hooting mobs of the town, while also a victim left alone and pregnant by another Spoon River character, "'Butch' Weldy," and finally she loses her life after being victimized by a medical procedure performed by another Spoon River character, "Doctor Meyers."

First Movement: Acquainted with Classic Works

I am Minerva, the village poetess,
Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street
For my heavy body, cock-eye, and rolling walk,
And all the more when "Butch" Weldy
Captured me after a brutal hunt.

Minerva proudly proclaims herself as the poet of Spoon River. But then she complains that she jeered at by the townspeople. Likening the boorish individuals of the village to the Swiftian characters, "the Yahoos," in Gulliver’s Travels, she demonstrates that she is, in fact, acquainted with classic literary works and that she deems herself above her fellow citizens of Spoon River.

These "Yahoos" taunted poor Minerva because of her huge body, crossed eyes, and abnormal gait. And these characteristics were only exacerbated by her pregnancy.

Minerva then describes her relationship with "Butch" Weldy as a "brutal hunt" after which he "captured" her. This description indicates that she is attempting to portray herself as a victim, in order to excuse her own deeds: he hunted her, he captured her. As a victim, she considers own deeds not under her control; thus, she remains the innocent party.

Minerva does not state specifically that Butch forced himself upon her, although she does attempt to imply as much. Those implications demonstrate that she is now excusing her own behavior—a typical response of many of the Spoon River residents to their own flaws.

Second Movement: Abandoned to Her Fate

He left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers;
And I sank into death, growing numb from the feet up,
Like one stepping deeper and deeper into a stream of ice.

Minerva then states that Butch "left me to my fate with Doctor Meyers." By stating that he "left" her, she is implying that they were, in fact, a couple. It is unlikely that a woman who has been brutally raped would lament being "left" by the rapist.

After being abandoned by her baby’s father, Minerva attempts to address her pregnancy issue by seeking out a doctor who is willing to abort her baby, and her fate with Doctor Meyers results in her death.

Third Movement: No Mention of Baby

Will some one go to the village newspaper,
And gather into a book the verses I wrote?—

With no mention of the baby’s death, Minerva’s thoughts turn to her "verses" which were published in the "village newspaper." She wonders if someone will visit the newspaper office to collect her verses and publish them in a book. Her selfishness and disingenuousness know no bounds.

Fourth Movement: The Epitome of Irony

I thirsted so for love!
I hungered so for life!

Minerva’s final flourish reveals the epitome of irony: she "thirsted so for love!" Might she not have had much love to give and receive from the child she aborted? She "hungered so for life!" Not the life of her unborn baby, however.

Minerva reveals herself to be one of the most unself-aware, disturbed, and duplicitous characters of Spoon River. After losing her life, Minerva is now asking for someone to collect her verse into a book to demonstrate that what happened to her was a great tragedy because she "thirsted so for love!" and "hungered so for life!"

Rehabilitating Minerva Jones

In the epitaph, "Minerva Jones," the issue of forced intercourse drives much of the discussion of the interpretation of this poem. Minerva does not state directly that Butch attacked her for s*x, but rather she implies that the two were engaged in a relationship prior to her becoming pregnant with Weldy’s child.

By insisting she was brutally attacked and forcibly coerced, readers attempt to rehabilitate Minerva’s reputation: if she were attacked and forced, then she would be a faultless victim, and thus her ending her pregnancy would be more easily justified. Even legislation that seeks to end or limit abortion often allows for the procedure in cases of incest and r*pe. So it is important to those who wish to prop up access to abortion procedures that the fictional character, Minerva Jones, remain a victim entitled to the procedure because she was attacked and forced to experience s*xual intercourse.

But if Minerva and Butch were both willing lovers until the pregnancy ended the relationship, then Minerva’s choosing to abort the "love child" becomes likely to bring disgrace upon her. Suffering the inconvenience of pregnancy cannot compare with suffering the victimhood of a forcible attack.

Finally, Minerva’s exclamatory insistence that she "thirsted so for love!" and "hungered so for life!" ring ironically hollow: she aborted the individual who could have given her love through that very life. Whether she was attacked and forced or was the willing participant in her relationship with Butch Weldy, she could have had a child to love and nurture. But her final words demonstrate that she cared more about her published verse than she did for the life that she had carried.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2016 Linda Sue Grimes

Comments

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on October 04, 2019:

Madelaine Adam, thank you, for your comment.

Just a few quick responses.

1. ". . . you are not correct on the relationship between Minerva and Butch. He definitely raped her, and brutally."

While the lines, "'Butch' Weldy / Captured me after a brutal hunt," may be interpreted to imply a rape, they do not state definitely that a rape occurred, and the brutality was in the "hunt," not the act itself.

"There is another annotated version of Spoon River that confirms this."

I would be interested in seeing a direct quotation from that version that supports your claim.

2. "he and the 'yahoos' (of which he was the leader of the pack) most likely GANG-RAPED her"

This claim is patently false. The line, "Hooted at, jeered at by the Yahoos of the street," clearly states that the "Yahoos" are the people of Spoon River who taunted Minerva as she walked down the street. Even Minerva does not hint at a "gang-rape."

3. "All of these speeches should honestly rip your heart out or make you laugh. There are no in-betweens."

While each reader is entitled to his/her own opinion of and reaction to these characters, the gamut of reactions certainly remains much wider than the simplistic dichotomy of "rip your heart out or make you laugh." And there are many "in-betweens." There are many merely unsympathetic characters such as Knowlt Hoheimer and Lydia Puckett, and there are some who are actually admirable, such as Emily Sparks, Fiddler Jones, and Sarah Brown. Edgar Lee Masters' character study would have had a rather limited scope had it included only two types of characters. In fact, Spoon River Anthology has become a classic because of the wide range of characters explored in its pages.

Madelaine Adam on October 04, 2019:

Hello! I am in an acting class and we happen to use these poems once we get to the advanced level of work. While you are on point with a few of your notions, I wanted to inform you that you are not correct on the relationship between Minerva and Butch. He definitely raped her, and brutally. There is another annotated version of Spoon River that confirms this.

When you read out from the text and not into it, the answers become clear as day. Butch not only raped her, but he did so after a "brutal hunt"...which means he and the "yahoos" (of which he was the leader of the pack) most likely GANG-RAPED her after chasing and tormenting this poor woman, leaving her pregnant.

After this, the village idiots tormented her for walking even more "rolling" (or in pain from gang-rape) and heavier with child (product of the rape).

So, she went to Dr. Meyer's for a solution. For another chance at LIFE.

In these poems the main objective of every speech becomes clear with the last sentence. "I thirsted so for love! I hungered so for life!"...This poor, tragic woman wanted more for herself, and she was RUINED by this man and his gang of yahoos. He stole whatever goodness she had, and as a last resort to try and put her tragedy behind her, she sought an abortion. Now I know it's probably too much to ask a clearly conservative woman to see the merit in this woman's actions because all you read is "abortion" or "baby killer"...but she was a young woman who carried the burdens of that rape all alone. If you were gang-raped and pregnant, would you want to keep that baby? Try and see it from her perspective.

Minerva Jones wanted to be known for her real legacy: her poems. She begs to have them collected and bound in a book for people to read and judge her for the first time only for her words, and not her looks. She was not being selfish or covering up her misdeeds. She simply was a girl suffocating from tragedy who tried to do what was best for her to move on and to heal, only to die from complications.

It's a tragic story, filled with sorrow and should be acted as such. All of these speeches should honestly rip your heart out or make you laugh. There are no in-betweens.

I am saying something because I honestly find your work helpful. I tried to play it the way you said and was embarrassed when a classmate with a different version of the book said: "no, you were absolutely raped"...So, you misguided me, which is fine. I learned I can't trust anyone but my own instincts with these Spoon Rivers. I just want to be sure you don't misguide anyone else.

....and shame on you for misjudging Miss Minerva Jones! She deserves way more credit than what you gave her.

Linda Sue Grimes (author) from U.S.A. on March 28, 2019:

Yes, you're right, bluemoontexan. Masters has created quite a motley crowd of scoundrels, most of whose main characteristic is selfishness. While Spoon River Anthology remains an American classic, it does become a bit tedious having to contend with such ugliness from all these characters.

bluemoontexan on March 28, 2019:

Thanks for your commentary. I had been wondering whether she had been raped, and I noticed that Butch’s epitaph didn’t seem to acknowledge her at all. It’s true that most of these residents don’t seem to show any care for anyone but themselves.

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