"You ... Could Never Be Mistaken": Reading Alice Dunbar-Nelson's Rhetorical Diversions in the Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories
Strychacz, Thomas, Studies in American Fiction
The title story of Alice Dunbar-Nelson's The Goodness of St. Rocque and Other Stories (1899) tells of young Manuela's romantic quest to win the heart of Theophile, 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 Theophile; Claralie says that she "always preferred Leon"; and the narrator, attempting to answer the question of "how it happened," concludes with this sweet admonition: "St. Rocque knows, for he is a good saint, and if you believe in him and are true and good, and make your nouvenas with a clean heart, he will grant your wish." (1) It is the kind of moment that Gloria T. Hull, the scholar who 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 us pause, however, that "The Goodness of Saint Rocque" contradicts almost every assertion of its sweet concluding paragraph. The tone of religious 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 her waist before making her nouvena. Since Claralie has already "mek' nouvena in St. Rocque [the church] fo' hees [Theophile'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 of spirit" (5) at the party where Theophile deserts Manuela is occasioned by the fact that "Theophile 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 of race, class, and color play a central (though unacknowledged) 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 story between various tonal registers.
This essay argues in part that in The Goodness of St. Rocque Dunbar-Nelson 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 of our 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 of tone. We must adjudicate, for example, between the blithe sweetness of "if you believe in him . …