“Elspeth Howell was a sinner… Whenever she saw a church or her husband quoted verse or she touched the simple cross around her neck while she fetched her bags, her transgressions lay in the hollow of her chest, hard and heavy as stone. The multitude of her sins—anger, covetousness, thievery—created a tension in her body, and all that could ease the pressure was movement, finding something to occupy her wicked hands and her tempted mind” (2).
The first paragraph of James Scott’s The Kept presents many of the main themes in the novel: sin, religion, love, family, and tension. All of these things are extremely important later on in the novel, and Scott gives us access to them right away. He makes the reader think about these themes early on so that he can track and appreciate Elspeth’s transformation. Similarly, by alerting the reader of these themes, Scott allows us to make important judgments about Elspeth’s decisions that drive the meaning of the novel. Elspeth is immediately presented as a conundrum, a sinner who quotes the Bible and wears a cross. Though her intentions may be pure, Elspeth’s changed identity shows that her emotions and motivations are much more complex than they seem.
The notion of “keeping busy” is important in The Kept because it allows the reader to make judgments about Elspeth’s subconscious decisions. When she comes home to find that her family is murdered, Elspeth “keeps herself busy” instead of letting her emotions take her over. While remaking the bed where Jorah’s body lies, Elspeth recalls that she “used to retreat into the fields to think or to pray or to worry over the growing thrum of temptation in her body” (9). At this point in the novel the reader does not yet know that Elspeth is obsessed with motherhood and steals infants from other families, so this image seems vague. Upon finishing the novel, however, it becomes clear that Elspeth copes by isolating herself from situations that may trigger her into sin or emotional vulnerability. She does the same thing when she loses her family. Instead of going to look for Caleb, whose body cannot be found, she does housework and ignores the bodies (11). In this way she gets used to seeing her family members as bodies, but Elspeth does not have time to properly accept the loss of her family before she is shot. Elspeth struggles with accepting that her family has been lost to such an extent that she does not look for her son. The disinterest she shows in Caleb is strange considering her history of kidnapping children to keep for herself. The tension between her inherent need to be a mother and her failure to search for the child who may still be alive is immediately evident, as is the complexity of her character.
Even though Elspeth’s morals and identity seem to change for the better, Scott’s details show that she may not be very different from the Elspeth of her past. Scott explains that Elspeth used to “[marvel] at her forked tongue, which could lie with no effort to other passengers about her reasons for forcing a newborn to endure such a journey” (71). Scott uses the phrase “forked tongue” early on in the novel in a direct reference to the Devil (5). Though a subtle reference, it is certain that the author used this phrase again deliberately to compare Elspeth to Satan himself. Similarly, one of the first things we learn about Elspeth once her health has been restored is that Margaret has cut her hair (112). However, it is not until much later that Scott reveals the significance of this. He writes that, while cutting his children’s hair, Jorah would
“recite Psalms, ‘For innumerable evils have compassed me about: mine iniquities have taken hold upon me, so that I am not able to look up; they are more than the hairs of mine head: therefore my heart faileth me’. . . and tell the children with a smile that by cutting their hair he was ridding them of enemies and iniquities at the same time (172).
The same idea is applied to Elspeth. However, it is important to note that her head is not shaved—that is to say, her iniquities are not necessarily erased or forgiven. Her hair is simply shorter than it was before, suggesting that her selfish tendencies and the sins of her past still linger, though they are not as strong as they once were. Furthermore, the haircut allows Elspeth to assume a new identity to protect Caleb from her past. She does so by working and living under the guise of a man. She lives as a man to protect her family, but by hiding her gender identity, she again subverts her maternalism. Though her newfound care for her son may seem selfless and motherly, it is in fact, self-preserving, since Caleb is the only remnant of Elspeth’s happier life.
Even though Elspeth seems to embrace her new maternal role in Caleb’s life, it is clear that she does not understand him. After Caleb reveals that he shot Elspeth, she forgives him and realizes that despite his bravery, he is still a young boy. Scott describes, “Elspeth heard his breath even out, and his hand slipped form his lap and she saw that he was no more than a boy” (231). She takes care of him by ordering him dinner and giving him a bath, just as she did when he was an infant. Taking care of her child is one of the most maternal things Elspeth can do, but it shows that she does not really know Caleb. Though he enjoyed his meal and being taken care of, he muses that “he could not be changed into a boy again for the convenience of his mother” (232). His situation has forced him to mature quickly, to the point where he does not need to be taken care of in such a way anymore. When Scott writes, “for the convenienve of his mother,” it is clear that Caleb himself realizes Elspeth’s motivation for treating him like a child is self-serving. Furthermore, after reflecting on their loving interaction, Elspeth realizes her own selfish motivations. Scott reveals, “Only a few hours prior she’d counted her money, bent on escaping and replacing [Caleb]” (243). This suggests that Elspeth’s maternal actions were not motivated by her love for Caleb, but instead triggered by seeing the baby in Wallace’s office. She told herself that “the infant kept calling to her, needing her, and she knew she had to remove herself from that very small, very hot office” (227). The tension between wanting to be a mother and the ability to know and protect her own child is particularly prevalent. Elspeth’s desire to know and care for her son is not based on him, but on the fact that he is in need of care. She is incapable of true maternal love, since she feels no connection to the child himself, only a need to nurture him.
Even though Elspeth is self-motivated, she is able to act selflessly. Caleb’s goal is to get revenge on the Millards by killing them. The pursuit is a dangerous endeavor both physically and emotionally, but Elspeth permits Caleb to try. It is unclear whether her intentions are to help Caleb fulfil his promise to his family or to exact revenge for herself. However, when Caleb is in danger, she literally jumps to his aid. Scott describes,
She put herself between Caleb and the Millard, drawing herself up to seem bigger, like a bear lifting onto its hind legs. The bullets ripped into her body… She collapsed back against Caleb. She fought to stay on her feet, to keep him as long as possible, but she could not combat the sudden weight of her body. She tried to move her mouth but it was too far away from her thoughts… His mother draped over him and he yelled for her to get out of the way (347).
Elspeth commits the most selfless act of all in order to save her son whom she loves despite the fact that they are not biologically related. The nature of Scott’s description is particularly interesting in this passage. In art, a scene called the pieta is often depicted, in which Jesus is “draped over” his mother. It represents the divine love between mother and son, which Scott is clearly referencing in this scene. Though her motherly actions are often motivated by maternal obsession rather than love for her son, Elspeth still finds it in herself to end her own life to protect Caleb. Her selfish nature gives way to love. This illustrates the complicated nature of the human conscience intentionality.
Human nature often seems contrary. Why would Elspeth sacrifice herself for the son that she raises to quell her own maternal needs? She is self-motivated, but the implications of those self-motivated actions seem to turn to real love. Elspeth’s obsession with infants does not go away. She still needs to “keep herself busy” around babies to stifle her emotional reaction to them, even at the end of the novel. But by spending time with Caleb and caring for him, Elspeth begins to care about him, perhaps subconsciously, perhaps not. Human emotions are complicated and nuanced. They are fluid, and they change us. By the end of the novel, Elspeth was able to control herself and even sacrifice herself for another. In the act of caring for Caleb, Elspeth learns that she loves him. She undergoes a great deal of emotional tension for him, which, while difficult to navigate, is a necessary part of the human experience. The Kept is a story about conflict. Physical, emotional, or ideological, there is no definitive right or wrong in Elspeth or Caleb’s life. Whether her intentions are selfish, selfless, or both, Elspeth’s transformation from woman to mother teaches us more about human nature than it does about her.
- Scott, James. The Kept. New York City: Harper Perennial. 2014. Print.