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Edgar Lee Masters’ "Nellie Clark"

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 "Nellie Clark"

The speaker of Edgar Lee Master's epitaph titled "Nellie Clark" from Spoon River Anthology begins her blunt report by describing a horrific event that certainly influenced the direction of her life and likely shortened that life.

Although this character remains simplistic, lacking much depth of experience and feeling, she does communicate her confusion and life of horror as she focuses on the despicable act that ruined her life.

Nellie Clark

I was only eight years old;
And before I grew up and knew what it meant
I had no words for it, except
That I was frightened and told my Mother;
And that my Father got a pistol
And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy,
Fifteen years old, except for his Mother.
Nevertheless the story clung to me.
But the man who married me, a widower of thirty-five,
Was a newcomer and never heard it
Till two years after we were married.
Then he considered himself cheated,
And the village agreed that I was not really a virgin.
Well, he deserted me, and I died
The following winter.

Reading of "Nellie Clark"


Nellie Clark’s report focuses on the traumatic event she experienced at only eight years of age.

First Movement: A Violent Experience

When she was only eight years old, Nellie was raped by Charlie, an older boy of fifteen.
The little girl did not even realize what had happened to her, and she could not even give that act a label; as she explains, she had "no words for it."

However, Nellie did describe the act to her mother because she did experienced fear after the act occurred. Although Nellie has no word for crime at only age eight, even as she reports as an adult, she never uses the term "rape."

However, no reader can come away from Nellie's description without knowing what had occurred and know that the term "rape" does apply to what happened to the little girl. As an eight year old, there is no way that Nellie could have consented to that violent assault that took her virginity.

Second Movement: Violent Intentions

After learning about what happened to his daughter, Nellie's father took out his pistol with intentions of killing the boy, Charlie, who had raped his daughter. Nellie's father, however, did not kill the boy. And it remains somewhat unclear who managed to stop him.

Nellie states it this way: " . . . my Father got a pistol / And would have killed Charlie, who was a big boy, / Fifteen years old, except for his Mother." It remains unclear whether the "Mother" was the mother of Nellie's father or the mother of Charlie, the boy who raped Nellie.

It is likely Charlie's mother. Nellie would possibly have said her grandmother, if Nellie's father's mother has been the one to stop him. Either way, some mother prevents Nellie's father from becoming a murderer, which would have further traumatized the young girl.

Third Movement: Nellie's Husband

Nellie then reports that she had to live with the story following her throughout her life; she expresses it as, "the story clung to me." Eventually, Nellie marries a man who had relocated to Spoon River and who did not know about Nellie's unfortunate assault.

Nellie's husband had been a widower and was thirty-five years old. It is unclear the exact age of Nellie at the time of marriage, but she appears to suggest that she was still in her teens or likely in her early twenties.

Nellie and her husband had been married only two years when he learned that Nellie had been raped when she was eight years old. The man's "newcomer" status had prevented him from being aware of the story clinging to the young Nellie.

Fourth Movement: He Felt Cheated

After learning about Nellie's attack and therefore her lack of virginity, her husband leaves her. He claimed that he felt "cheated." Nellie asserts that, "the village agreed that I was not really a virgin." Then after being abandoned by her husband, Nellie dies the "following winter." Nellie offers no indication as to how she died.

Nellie, thus, leaves her listeners wondering how old she was when she died and what caused her early death, but those two details pale in comparison to the grizzly scene Nellie had earlier in her report planted in the mind's eye of her readers.

Edgar Lee Masters, Esq.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

© 2017 Linda Sue Grimes

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