Watching It Burn: Eliza Hamilton and Narrative
Like most of the internet, I’m currently completely obsessed with Hamilton. And since I’m a sucker for meta about narrative and perspective… let’s talk about Eliza, shall we?
Eliza’s story is preoccupied with her place in the musical’s narrative. As the story progresses, she moves from asking Alexander to “let [her] be a part of the narrative” of his life, to erasing herself from the narrative after his betrayal, to finally creating the narrative herself after his death.
You can see how Eliza’s story in the musical grew directly from the fact that there isn’t much left of her story in real life. Women are often left out of historical accounts, leaving us to scrape together the tiniest pieces of evidence to guess at their feelings and actions. None of Eliza’s letters to Alexander survive, even though she worked hard to ensure that Alexander’s correspondence, including his letters to her, were preserved. She left her own feelings out of the narrative of Alexander’s life, even though she was its main curator. So what is a musical to do when representing her?
Hamilton deals with this problem by facing it head on — Eliza’s place in the narrative is a major part of her narrative, as she grows from outsider wanting in to the person who directs it, and from someone who asks permission to be recorded to the person proactively recording it herself. You can almost hear Lin-Manuel Miranda interrogating the problem of Eliza in every scene, in how to reclaim the story of a woman who is only included in the historical narrative as the sidenote of a wife and betrayed woman.
Because Hamilton is all about reclamation. It’s a musical concerned with the people left out of history, even as it tells the story of familiar names, one that reclaims America’s origins from this idea of all white-male-ness.
So, with the song Burn, Hamilton turns Eliza’s anonymity into an empowering act, a decision that she herself gets to make.
I’m erasing myself from the narrative. Let future historians wonder how Eliza reacted when you broke her heart.
The lyrics are pretty darn on the nose, but they’re a huge turning point for Eliza in the musical. Eliza has always said it would be enough to be let into Hamilton’s narrative, and this is the narrative legacy that he’s left her with, a legacy of cruelty done to her. A legacy of betrayal, of her naivety, and of her not being enough, despite her repeated begging to the contrary. The Reynolds Pamphlet caused a huge scandal, and Eliza was dragged through the mud in the media, with one newspaper famously attacking her with the words, “Art thou a wife? See him, whom thou has chosen for the partner of this life, lolling in the lap of a harlot!!” The world has its judging eyes on her, all because of Alexander’s obsession with his legacy.
So, in the musical’s interpretation of events, Eliza does the only proactive thing she can — she erases herself from the narrative altogether.
The world has no right to my heart…. they don’t get to know what I said.
This feels like a reaction to the specific form of her humiliation, where Maria Reynolds’ letters were immortalized in the press, but also a general act of empowerment against the way that women’s legacies have usually been recorded. Either they’re erased from the narrative, ignored as unimportant, or they’re judged, torn apart, with the unspoken belief that every part of them should be open for public consumption and debate. And Eliza refuses that. Her absence from the narrative is a choice, to prevent people from prying into her life and judging her for it against her will.
Contrast that with the very end of the musical, when Eliza sings, “I put myself back in the narrative.” In fact, she doesn’t just put herself back into the narrative, but puts herself in control of the musical itself, as she is the one to create this narrative, interviewing people and gathering letters to make sure that Alexander’s story can be told. As bibliographer Ron Chernow said, it would be almost impossible to have written his biography without her efforts.
But, importantly, the musical doesn’t stop there. The final song moves on, and we finally get to hear her tell her story, outside of Alexander. We hear of her raising funds for the Washington Monument, fighting slaving, and opening the first private orphanage in New York. And notably, none of these have anything to do with her feelings. The world still has no right to her heart, but it needs to know about her accomplishments. She will no longer be part of a narrative where she is a betrayed woman, but she will create a narrative as an accomplished one.
This post owes a lot to the Genius.com Hamilton page, where a lot of really clever people, including Lin-Manuel Miranda himself, have annotated the musical’s lyrics with fascinating insights. It really helped me learn more about the relevant history and sparked my thoughts on this topic. If you enjoy the musical, check it out.