Reflections on Hilda Silfverling: A Fantasy

by Sha Chen

The first time I read Lydia Maria Child’s Hilda Silfverling: A Fantasy, I thought it was no more than a science fiction short story because the elements of this genre, such as time travel, plausible technology, for example, are ubiquitous in the short story. Because of that, Child’s story attracted my attention and kept me reading it again and again. The more I read, the more thought-provoking the story was. The story is, as far as I am concerned, a female gothic story.

Because Hilda exists in a patriarchal society where she is utterly silent, her destiny is under the control of men, like the male judges and the male chemist.

In The Female Gothic: New Directions, the female Gothic is shaped by such issues as “national identity, sexuality, language, race and history” (Ritchot 10). Ritchot in his review of The Female Gothic: New Directions states that “the Female Gothic is ultimately about identity—both that of the author and the (female) characters in the story” (2). In the story Hilda Silfverling: A Fantasy, the information about the identity of the female character Hilda is insufficient. All the aspects related to her family background are given at the beginning of the story:

Hilda Gyllenlof was the daughter of a poor Swedish clergyman. Her mother died before she had counted five summers…But at the age of thirteen, Hilda lost her father also just as she was receiving rapidly from his affectionate teachings as much culture as his own eduction and means afforded. (Child 205)

Because of the absence of her mother’s guidance, Hilda may have grown up easily trusting every one that appears in her life. She first trusts Magnus Andersen, mate of a Danish vessel, with whom Hilda becomes pregnant and gives birth to a baby simply because “she was naturally prone to listen to the first words of warm affection she had heard since her father’s death” (Child 206). Virika Gjetter, a mysterious woman who promises to adopt the baby for her own, reveals herself to be a baby killer. The deficiency of maternal tenderness makes Hilda always long for the replacement of it and easily accepts others’ kindness without thinking whether it is out of good intention or ill intention. Such yearning peaks in her hardships: “If she had had a mother’s bosom on which to lean her aching head, and confess all her faults and all her grief, much misery might have been saved. But there was none to whom she dared to speak of her anxiety and shame” (Child 206). This directly leads to her misplaced trust in Virika and the subsequent involvement in the baby-kiling case. At the very beginning of the story, it is hard for readers to find Hilda’s identity; however, Hilda’s identity of being a girl without a mother goes influences her deeply.

Another thought-provoking point is Hilda’s reaction to her suffering. When accused of killing the baby, Hilda does not defend herself, nor does she resist being a subject of the experiment when taken to the lab apartment of the old chemist. Hilda’s strange response keeps me thinking about her reaction. According to what the old chemist said, “Our souls keep coming back again and again into new bodie” (Child 212), which strikes Hilda and haunts her. Later Hilda begins a new life, when she rambles on the street and observes people. She thinks, “perhaps they are poor ghost, crowing over the recollections of sins committed in the human body” (Child 235). All this seems to show that Hilda, to some extent, holds in her mind the “original sin.” Because Hilda exists in a patriarchal society where she is utterly silent, her destiny is under the control of men, like the male judges and the male chemist. According to Carolyn Karcher, who compares Hilda with Rip in Irving’s Rip Van Winkle, she states, “Child shows every institution of patriarchy acts against Hilda” (35). I think that Hilda’s silence echoes women’s position in the patriarchal society; Hilda’s inability to speak for herself plunges her into numbness.

It seems that Child deliberately designates the destiny for Hilda, which also echoes the title of the story “A Fantasy” and aims at referring to the worldwide issue of women’s self-identity.

After a centennial slumber, Hilda wakes up and people around stare at her as if she were a witch or a ghost. The alienation brings Hilda tremendous forlornness. Worse still, the humiliated past haunts her. To escape this state, Hilda sets out to a new place where people are ignorant of her past, trying to start a new life under the new name of Hilda Silfverling. She tries her best to integrate herself to the new environment and redefine herself. Things seem to go as she expects until she falls in love with Alerik, who turns out to be, ironically, Hilda’s great-grandson. As much as Hilda loves Alerik, deep in her heart she thinks this relationship is immoral. Though the two finally live together, Hilda is still unable to get over her guilt of being the great grandmother of Alerik; her feelings make her uncomfortable every time she stays with him. In this sense, Hilda fails to redefine herself because of the inability to redefine her identity. In contrast to Hilda, Alerik performs more naturally, always comforting Hilda in a humorous tone to alleviate her anxiety and remove her uncomfortableness. He states to Hilda, “I have read in my mother’s big Bible, that a man must not marry his grandmother, but I do not remember that it said a single word again his marrying his great-grandmother” (Child 237). It seems Alerik is challenging the authority represented by the Bible and God. Being a woman living in the patriarchal society usually means women perceive they have no right to be anti-authority because only men may enjoy such rights.

Hilda’s experience is just like a journey of looking for self-identity and redefining self-identity. The seemingly happy ending actually shows the deprival of the chance for Hilda to redefine herself. It seems that Child deliberately designates the destiny for Hilda, which also echoes the title of the story “A Fantasy” and aims at referring to the worldwide issue of women’s self-identity. Like Hilda’s destiny in the fiction, some women in reality fail in their journey of self-identification because they undervalue themselves. . The priority is that women should value themselves in a correct attitude and treat themselves in a reasonable way, at least as equal as men. Nowadays, the issue of female identity is still of paramount importance around the world. The female gothic plays an important role in raising women’s awareness of self-identity and will definitely exert a far-reaching influence.

Works Cited

Child, Lydia Maria. “Hilda Silfverling:  A Fantasy.” Fact and Fiction: A Collection of Stories. Francis, 1847. EBSCOhost.

Karcher, Carolyn L. “Patriarchal Society and Matriarchal Family in Irving’s ‘Rip Van Winkle’ and Child’s ‘Hilda Silfverling.’” Legacy, vol. 2, no. 2, 1985, pp. 31–44. JSTOR.

Ritchot, Daryl. Review of The Female Gothic:  New Directions, edited by Diana Wallace and Andrew Smith.  Journal of the Fantastic in the Arts, vol. 23, no. 2 (85), 2012, pp. 342–344. JSTOR.

Wallace, Diana, and Andrew Smith, eds. The Female Gothic: New Directions. Palgrave Macmillan, 2009.

Sha Chen is a graduate student in the Master of Arts in English program.