Fear and Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin's Portrayals of the Tragic Mulatta Stereotype
Pegues, Dagmar, The Southern Literary Journal
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.
As a result of the suggested theoretical framework, it is also becoming increasingly evident that the racial discourse, as it is present in the fiction of Chopin, distinctly differs from the appropriation of questions of racial issues by her literary predecessors, the (white, northern) abolitionist authors, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe (Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1852) or Lydia Maria Child (The Quadroons, 1842) who exploited the tragic mulatta stereotype in their fiction. Both Stowe and Child adopt the tragic mulatta stereotype primarily as a rhetorical device for the purpose of abolition of slavery. Arguably, the main objective of these fictional portrayals of the tragic mulatta within the genre of domestic/sentimental tradition was to address the questions of national identity, and to promote the idea of national unity by exciting the readers' feelings of pity and sympathy by showing how slavery was becoming "whiter." As Eve Raimon points out, "the trope of the 'tragic mulatto' embodies and dramatizes [the] profound tensions and paradoxes of race and nation. At the same time as these seemingly contradictory currents were manifesting themselves in the social order, the literary mulatto emerged as a favorite theme of antislavery fiction" (93).
Such parallel interrogations of race and nation, as they are illuminated by Stowe's analogy between family reunion and national reunion, which utilize the black/white binary, are incongruent with the coexisting local hierarchy in the New Orleans region in the late-nineteenth century. This is mainly due to a strong Creole presence in New Orleans, a truly multicultural city. As Robert Alexander explains, quoting from Arnold Hirsh and Joseph Logsdon's Creole New Orleans: Race and Americanization: "Numbering nearly 20,000 in 1840 and 11,000 as late as 1860, these free people of color 'composed a fully articulated community with complex class structure, that occupied far more than the fringes of society'" (Alexander 125). The existence of free people of color thus disrupts the idealized national binary notions of race. Chopin witnessed Creole power and integration into the community, not as second-class citizens but as equal members of the community. The paradigm shift from the utilization of the tragic mulatta as an abolitionist trope to the ambiguous stereotype functioning as a tool of the specific Louisiana "colonial" discourse is thus motivated by the specific Creole threat, the fluidity of race, the breach of boundaries, and ultimately by the competition between the southern belles and New Orleans octoroons.
The works of Kate Chopin's literary predecessors, who invoked the tragic mulatta stereotype primarily to support the cause of abolition, are therefore seen as incongruent with the regional appropriation of this stereotype in "Desiree's Baby" and "La Belle Zoraide." In fact, the Louisiana ideological framework constitutes the tragic mulatta figure primarily as a threat to the southern hierarchy. For instance, Zoraide's refusal of assimilation of whiteness is seen by her mistress as a subversive action that deserves punishment; yet, paradoxically, it is precisely Zoraide's close resemblance to the ideal of beauty that empowers her and that allows her to "disappoint" the expectations of her mistress.
Nineteenth-century readers could more easily relate to the tragic mulatta heroine and pity her if she closely resembled them in her visage and behavior. As Sterling Brown argues, it is a "curious piece of inconsistency on [the abolitionists'] part, an indirect admission that a white man [and woman] in chains was more pitiful to behold than the African similarly placed" (159). This inherent paradox partially disregards the darker-skinned slaves and supports the perpetuation and appropriation of the privileges of whiteness. Another important difference constituted by Chopin and her appropriation of the tragic mulatta from her abolitionist predecessors is the lack of the identification of the "white female liberators." As Kathy Davis examines the history of the tragic mulatta figure that was introduced into the literary canon by Lydia Maria Child, she exposes the role of the doubling white female figures who function as potential liberators in the tragic mulatta stories, and she argues that
this trope of sisterhood [can be interpreted] as a sign that these …
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Publication information: Article title: Fear and Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin's Portrayals of the Tragic Mulatta Stereotype. Contributors: Pegues, Dagmar - Author. Journal title: The Southern Literary Journal. Volume: 43. Issue: 1 Publication date: Fall 2010. Page number: 1+. © 1999 University of North Carolina Press. COPYRIGHT 2010 Gale Group.
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