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"YOU . . . COULD NEVER BE MISTAKEN": READING ALICE DUNBAR-NELSON'S RHETORICAL DIVERSIONS IN THE GOODNESS OF ST. ROCQUE AND OTHER STORIES Thomas Strychacz Mills College The title story ofAlice Dunbar-Nelson's The Goodness ofSt. Rocque and OtherStories (1899) tells ofyoung Manuela's romantic quest to win the heart ofThéophile, who has, as the story begins, temporarily transferred his affections to Claralie. Manuela recites nouvenas for his love and the story ends happily. Manuela weds Théophile; Claralie says that she "alwayspreferred Leon"; andthe narrator, attemptingto answerthe question of "how it happened," concludes with this sweet admonition: "St. Rocque knows, for he is a good saint, and ifyou believe in him and are true and good, and make your nouvenas with a clean heart, he will grant yourwish."1 It is the kind ofmoment that Gloria T. Hull, the scholarwho resurrected interest in Dunbar-Nelson, finds hardest to swallow: in her view Dunbar-Nelson "buttresses the traditional and romantic view of women," and readers today find that "her plots often seem predictable, her situations hackneyed or melodramatic, her narrative style unsophisticated ."2 To this day, Hull's evaluation exercises a powerful hold on approaches to Dunbar-Nelson's work—even those that are otherwise commendatory.3 It should give uspause, however, that "The Goodness ofSaint Rocque" contradicts almost every assertion of its sweet concluding paragraph. The tone ofreligious piety is complicated by the fact that the "Wizened One" to whom Manuela goes for help appeals to the supernatural, giving her "one lil' charm" (9) to wear round herwaist beforemakingher nouvena. Since Claralie has already "mek' nouvena in St. Rocque [the church] fo' hees [Theophilé's] love," it would appear that either St. Rocque fails to grant Claralie's wish or that the tie-breaker between the pair is the charm and not the nouvena. The narrator has already forestalled the possibility that Manuela deserves to win because she, not Claralie, is "true and good, and [makes] her nouvenas with a clean heart." Her primary motivations are jealousy, possessiveness, competitiveness, and pride. The "bitterness ofspirit" (5) at the party where Théophile deserts Manuela is occasioned by the fact that "Théophile was Manuela's own especial property" and sharpened by the fact that he deserts her, the girl with "dark eyes," for "Claralie, blonde and petite" (3). The phrase in apposition implies that interwoven issues ofrace, class, and color play a central (though unac- 78Thomas Strychacz knowledged) part in Creole culture and in the struggle between the two girls. The tensions between the two finally erupt at the church of St. Rocque—whose patron saint looks for nouvenas made with a clean heart!—where the two exchange "murderous glances" (13). From this perspective, the insouciant final paragraph seems designed to provoke reflection on the ironic discrepancies in the storybetween various tonal registers. This essay argues in part that in The Goodness ofSt. Rocque DunbarNelson constantly modulates between tonal registers, creating in the process what I call narrative strategies of"rhetorical diversion." That phrase is intended to suggest what is entertaining ("diverting") about her stories —an important consideration when a reputation for hackneyed romanticism has prevented a fuller appreciation of her work. More importantly, I use the phrase to denote the way Dunbar-Nelson typically juxtaposes or shifts rhetorical modes in such a way as to make acts of diversion and negotiation a constant feature ofour interpretive experience .4 This happens within stories, as when "St. Rocque" combines romantic material with hard-edged cultural analysis. It also occurs as readers move from, or look back from, one story to another, as we shall see when "St. Rocque" modulates to "Tony's Wife"—a tonal shift repeated in varying ways throughout the collection. An important effect is to engage readers in an ever-shifting series of decisions about tone and about the significance oftone. We must adjudicate, for example, between the blithe sweetness of"ifyou believe in him ... he will grant your wish" and the murderous glances Claralie and Manuela exchange in church. To a hitherto unnoted extent, the meaning of these stories depends on how we engage in that process ofadjudication. Does one rhetorical stance modulate to another that supersedes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 77-94
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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