Lydia’s Loopholes: The Garret, Trapdoor, and Gimlet Holes as Escape Mechanisms

To begin approaching an analysis of the chapter title “The Loophole of Retreat,” I asked a couple friends what their associations with the word “loophole” are. Words like “legal,” “white collar,” “politicians,” “corporations,” and “universities” were prevalent responses, confirming my original perspective of the word having a legal or professional connotation—implying someone in a position of power using their societal, fiscal, or social advantages to get out of a crime, or other problematic situation. Since Lydia Brent is in a subordinate position rather than a powerful one, the reader must consider the word “loophole” in the title “The Loophole of Retreat” as a claiming of her own power to achieve freedom, rather than employing it as an advantageous strategy of escape. In other words, Brent has found power to forge her own destiny where societally, fiscally, and socially there is none—effectively finding her own kind of “loophole.”

The word “loophole” appears in the text on page 94, in reference to the literal holes Brent makes with the gimlet she finds in the garret. “I was thankful when there came a day sufficiently mild for me to wrap myself up and sit at the loophole to watch the passers by,” she writes (Jacobs 94). This is followed by, “Southerners have the habit of stopping and talking in the streets, and I heard many conversations not intended to meet my ears” (Jacobs 94). These physical holes she creates allow her to see her children, to breathe fresh air, and to listen to the happenings in the town—including conversations regarding Dr. Flint, herself, her situation, and her children. The townspeople gossip about Lydia and the reward the Flint family is offering for her return to them, and most of them say she must be in the Free States. “Very rarely did any one suggest that I might be in the vicinity,” she writes, which serves as a reassurance of her relative safety, despite her very close physical proximity to danger. Her spot in the garret and the “loopholes” she creates within it allow her exposure to the life she led before, while simultaneously granting her distance from that life. 

Trickery and deception are prevalent components of Lydia’s escape. Her uncle Philip conceals the space with a “trap-door” leading to the storeroom (Jacobs 92), which serves as an avenue to pass food and conversations through. As a hidden object separating her from the outside world, this trap-door is both a physical and metaphorical “loophole,” like the three rows of holes made with the gimlet. When Dr. Flint goes to search for Lydia in New York, she writes, “I peeped at him as he passed on his way to the steamboat. It was a satisfaction to have miles of land and water between us, even for a little while; and it was a still greater satisfaction to know that he believed me to be in the Free States” (Jacobs 93). Here, she is using her “loophole” to watch Dr. Flint go search for her in another state, which is possible only because of the larger “loophole” method she employed to escape within the state (and town) in the first place. In the familiar and familial spot of her grandmother’s house, she successfully created an escape; while not yet free, she effectively freed herself from the life she led in the Flint household—although she remained right in their vicinity the entire time. She tricked them through a “loophole”-like scheme, while using physical holes as “loopholes” to maintain in touch with her family and observe her community.

How could thinking about the “loophole[s]” in both an abstract way and a physical way be reflected in performance/staging considerations?

How can we understand the word “retreat” in the chapter title? Does it seem more accurate to imagine it as a withdrawal evocative of a battle or war or as an ironic referral to a secluded place of relaxation?

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