Failing Fictions: The Conflicting and Shifting Social Emphases of Kate Chopin's "Local Color" Stories

By Holtman, Janet | Southern Quarterly, January 1, 2004 | Go to article overview

Failing Fictions: The Conflicting and Shifting Social Emphases of Kate Chopin's "Local Color" Stories


Holtman, Janet, Southern Quarterly


IN "UNLINKING RACE AND GENDER: The Awakening as a Southern Novel," Barbara Ewell points out the importance to Chopin criticism of an understanding of Southern ideology and its particular system of hierarchies: "Chopin's proposed interrogation of gender roles implicates a complex web of southern identity, one whose designs on women could not easily-if at all-be detached from notions of race and class" (31). Joining Ewell with similar observations is Michele Birnbaum, who also takes issue with past critical efforts that have privileged the sovereignty of white middle-class female selfhood without questioning how such a self came to be constructed in opposition to racial, class, and cultural Others (302-03). While Ewell and Birnbaum both show an interest in determining how Southern ideology takes part in the formation of middle-class white female identity, and in how this operation necessarily involves placing such identity in opposition to that of blacks and lower-class whites, both authors, like the critics with whose work they take issue, focus their critical gaze on Chopin's novel The Awakening, in which race and class issues are present only on the furthest horizon.

This is not to say that such critical operations are not of great importance, nor is it to say that because race and class are not often overtly present in the text that they do not maintain a crucial formative function; as Toni Morrison points out: "Certain absences are so stressed, so ornate, so planned, they call attention to themselves, arrest us with intentionality and purpose . . . " (qtd. in Birnbaum 316). Birnbaum's argument demonstrates well that notions of race are of great importance to The Awakening. But it does seem that if one wishes to gain insights into the ways in which the interwoven Southern discourses of race and class provoked and influenced Chopin's fiction, one might do well to examine more closely her "local color"1 short stories in Bayou Folk and A Night in Acadie, in which lower-class white Acadian characters along with black characters, drawn with varying degrees of complexity and detail, take center stage. This essay will focus on the more numerous and foregrounded Cajun characters and their relationships to other social groups, but a similar study focusing more on the less frequently appearing black characters could be an important avenue for future study.

Before examining the stories, however, it seems necessary to take Barbara Ewell's admonition seriously and note the traditional place of the Cajuns in the Louisiana social structure. Michele Birnbaum states:

Within the codified hierarchies of race and class in post-Reconstruction Louisiana, Acadians were considered "lesser" whites. Their lower class status and rural lifestyle set them apart economically, ethnically, and linguistically from Creole society; in Chopin's fiction, they are often represented as both primitive and passionate. (311)

Such a description will sound familiar to anyone accustomed to researching Southern class structures. "Primitive" or "lesser" whites, often referred to as "poor whites," or, more derogatorily, as "poor white trash" in both the antebellum and postbellum South, occupied a contradictory and frequently misunderstood social position, one that was often figured in opposition to both blacks and upper-class whites.2 While the Cajuns were a separate and distinct group in Louisiana, and not simply to be conflated with other groups of "poor whites," especially as their class status was more variable, the notion of the "poor white," its significance and its general social valuation, is still a useful one to keep in mind when considering the Southern social body and Chopin's short fiction. It is with such a marginalized white identity in mind, and arguing along the lines of ideology critique, that critic Duane Carr has sketched out what he believes is a fairly simplistic and conventional portrayal of Cajuns in Chopin's work, one that takes part in a continuation of the discourse of "poor whites": "Chopin seems to look upon this group of disadvantaged whites rather condescendingly as simple folk . …

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