Fear and Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin's Portrayals of the Tragic Mulatta Stereotype

Article excerpt

The interrogation of the category of face in Kate Chopin's fiction represents an essential dimension of regional aesthetics, and it offers an alternative view to previous interpretations that focus primarily on feminist themes. This article examines the role of Louisiana as a specific region in the construction of the tragic mulatta stereotype in the fiction of Kate Chopin, primarily in her stories "Desiree's Baby" and "La Belle Zoraide," and by analogy in her most successful novel The Awakening. I propose to extricate Chopin's work from the virgin/whore dichotomy so often applied to white and non-white characters respectively. (1) From a new perspective, an illumination of the portrayals of the tragic mulatta figure in Chopin's texts invites a reconsideration of the stereotype of the tragic mulatta that typically oscillates between evocations of the exotic and the sentimental. Attempting to reclaim the category of race in regionalist fiction by examining the tragic mulatta stereotype in the selected texts, I see parallels between this pervasive image of southern local color fiction and the post-colonial paradigm, i.e. the dichotomy of the colonizer versus the colonized as it is suggested by Frantz Fanon in Black Skin, White Masks as well as the notion of stereotype as a form of normalizing, yet contradictory, judgment in Homi K. Bhabha's The Location of Culture. From this perspective, the trope of the tragic mulatta appropriated by Chopin in her fiction represents an essential point of concurrence of the issues of gender, race, and region, and it points to the underlying racial anxiety manifested by the existence of ambivalent feelings of fear and desire toward the racial Other. Consequently, the internalization of colonial commodification of the racially Other can be interpreted as the true tragic element in the tragic mulatta stereotype, with allusions to Bhabha's theory of colonial discourse and Patricia Yaeger's "reconfigurations of southern body politics" (2). Above all, such a paradigm shift effectively displaces the role of this stereotype as a form of warning against miscegenation. While displacing the virgin/whore dichotomy applied to the white and black womanhood respectively, this examination uncovers the paradoxical nature of the tragic mulatta stereotype in the nineteenth-century Louisiana regionalist discourse that shifts the interpretative framework from the virgin/whore dichotomy to the fetishization of the black body, which is rooted in the (strongly sexually charged) feelings of power over the racially Other, which simultaneously coexist with the feelings of anxiety and fear directed towards racial Otherness.

Furthermore, this article interprets the portrayals of the tragic mulatta stereotype in Chopin's stories "Desiree's Baby" and "La Belle Zoraide" as indications of the ambivalent economy of (sexual) fear and desire, rather than as strict applications of the virgin/whore stereotypes. This ambivalence is exemplified primarily by examining one plateau of the sexualized stereotype of the dusky-eyed, exotic quadroons and octoroons, i.e. the desirability of their bodies for their white masters, which paradoxically underlies the perpetuation of the white southern hierarchy, as well as by examining portrayals of (sexual and non-sexual) violence and victimization of the black body--whipping, rape, drowning, neglect, and so forth--which resulted from the fear of the visible racial Other as well as hybridity and invisible blackness.

Moreover, I suggest that Kate Chopin not only acknowledges the sexual desirability of the tragic mulatta, but also allows Edna Pontellier, a white middle class wife from New Orleans, to appropriate the sexuality that is traditionally associated with the racially Other. However, since Chopin has been exposed to the unique local perceptions of race, her short fiction offers an engagement with the issue of race that ultimately transcends the exoticism of the genre of local color precisely by expressing, in different degrees, the ambivalent feelings of fear and desirability of the racially Other characters that are informed by the Louisiana regional epistemology of race. …