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Anna Elfenbein's book analyzes stories of women on the color line written by George Cable, Grace King, and Kate Chopin during the last three decades of the nineteenth century. The narratives of these fictional women raise questions of social justice and equality that have never found an answer in our national experience.
As Southerners, Cable, King, and Chopin grappled with the problems of race, gender, and class with a devastating realism, exposing a racist, sexist, class society recently shaken by Civil War and going through the trauma of Reconstruction. Struggling with the great issues of their time, they were engulfed by the emotional fury of racism that crested in the last years of the century with increasing virulence after the separate-but-equal decision in the Plessy v. Ferguson case of 1896. The attempt of American mainstream criticism to focus on the unity and continuity of the Great Tradition fails to account for this attack by such white writers as Cable, King, and Chopin on the dominant ideology of the South. The image of the African-American in their fictions was, as C. Vann Woodward pointed out in The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1966), "the perfect literary accompaniment of the white-supremacy and disfranchisement campaign" going on in the years of their publication. In the first three decades of our century America's imperalistic involvement in the Caribbean and the pervasive attitude of rampant white supremacy resulted in the debasement of the image of the Black man in the white mind. It was not until the Harlem Renaissance writers that the image of the "tragic octoroon" and the "tragic mulatta" began to be reconceived. The treatment of the "passer," particularly of the woman of light skin who could "pass" in white society, by Black novelists such as Jessie Redmon Fauset and Nella Larsen in the '20s and early '30s bears a close resemblance to such stories as Cable's Madame Delphine (1881), King's "The Little Convent Girl" (1893), and Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" (1893). In this long continuing dialogue of the plight of the woman of color in a white society, Cable, King, and Chopin offer early and insightful psychoanalytic studies.
Elfenbein discusses first the stereotype of women on the color line: the conventional treatment of the octoroon in ante-bellum fiction. She then devotes a chapter to Cable's stories of New Orleans. Although Cable is often considered a local colorist, his earliest fiction showed the direction he would take in exploring the problems of slavery and the history of miscegenation in the South. Although the racial and sexual views in Cable's stories often seem conventional, his strong sympathy for women on the color line permeates all his work. In his presentation of the tragic situations of women of mixed blood in such works as " 'Tite Poulette," [End Page 365] The Grandissimes, and Madame Delphine, Cable demonstrates that social injustice of any kind destroys both oppressed and oppressor.
Elfenbein then discusses the short stories of Grace King, with special attention to "Madrilène," "Bonne Maman," "Monsieur Motte," and "The Little Convent Girl." Like Cable, King peoples her stories from the mixed racial milieu of New Orleans; but unlike Cable, who located his fiction in the South's romantic past, King uses her contemporary environment—post-Civil War New Orleans—as her locale. Her treatment of the distinctions based on gender, race, and class in the defeated South is highly ironic. She was irritated by the Victorian notion that the only proper female heroine was the "ideal" woman, a sexless, self-denying paragon—the Miss Lily type so frequently encountered in Southern fiction. In most of King's stories social environment restricts the development of her heroines. Her women characters, often ingenues, live thwarted lives; each faces an...