Tragic No Longer: Charles Chesnutt Reclaims the Mulatta Tradition

Joanna Mary Boyce. Head of Mulatto Woman. Painting. 1861. �

Joanna Mary Boyce. Head of Mulatto Woman. Painting. 1861.

This paper was presented at the College of William & Mary’s 12th Annual Graduate Research Symposium on March 22, 2013. Video available below.

About:
This paper came about as a result of an independent study in Multicultural American Literature. I was interested in reading Chesnutt’s novels after studying (and enjoying) his Conjure Woman Tales. I had no specific agenda when I began reading his novel The House Behind the Cedars, but quickly decided that I really wanted to write about the racial implications of the female character Rena. Most of the scholars I read suggested that Rena was passive, and followed the trope of the tragic mulatta, but I disagreed. This then lead me to read his other novel, Mandy Oxendine, considered more inflammatory of the two, and I further decided that Rena was more subversive than Mandy, but in a more subtle way. This gave me a way into the academic discussion about the two novels with a fresh perspective to add to the conversation.

Abstract:
In order to approach issues of nineteenth century racial construction in a manner that would not alienate his white audience, Charles Chesnutt both adheres to and deviates from the tragic mulatta tradition in his novels Mandy Oxendine and The House Behind the Cedars. Chesnutt’s mulatta in both of these novels deconstructs racial boundaries and threatens the white dream of racial purity through the subtle use of shadow narrative. In using the shadow narrative of the white masculine gaze, which sexualizes and objectifies the mulatta figure, Chesnutt exposes the sexual weakness of the white male and empowers the mulatta to become an active figure of subversion rather than a passive figure of tragedy. For example, Rena enters the novel through the gaze of her brother John, and throughout the rest of the novel, the male gaze defines Rena’s identity. Once her brother decides she will pass for white, the rest of the characters view Rena as white. Similarly, once Tryon’s gaze defines her as the paradigm of white femininity, others follow suit. Yet, as soon as Tryon discovers Rena’s secret—that she has attempted to pass as a white woman—his gaze returns Rena to the status of a colored woman. She remains as such throughout the rest of the novel. In the instances of Tryon, Wain, and Doctor Green, the gaze is always sexualized. Like Rena, Mandy also passes for white, and the male gaze turns her into a sexualized object as well. The scoundrel Utley explicitly desires her sexually; the church elder Gadsen and her sweetheart Lowrey also gaze at Mandy in a manner that turns her into an object of matrimony and thus sexuality. All of these sexualized male gazes give Mandy opportunities for entry into the white world; through either Utley or Elder Gadsen, Mandy has access to white society and an elevation in social/economical caste. While on the surface, Rena appears to follow the tragic mulatta trope much more closely than Mandy, the underlying shadow narrative present throughout the text subverts it. For example, although the plot structure in Rena’s narrative follows the melodramatic tradition, Rena influences Tryon to change his ideology regarding race. Her exploitation of Tryon’s sexual weakness forces him to face the unrealities of his racial beliefs, to come to terms with their falsity. The fact that Rena changes a wealthy white Southern man’s perceptions of race is highly subversive. Mandy, on the other hand, inspires no real change. Although the men are punished for their sexual attraction to her (Utley through death and Gadsen through prison) Mandy returns to her mulatta identity and everything goes back to the way it was. Therefore, although critics often view Mandy Oxendine as the more subversive of the two novels, Rena from The House Behind the Cedars inspires real social change, making her the most dangerous mulatta figure of all. This challenges the stereotype of the tragic mulatta, reclaiming her as a figure symbolizing resistance rather than a tragic acceptance.

View the Presentation:

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About alycemsustko

Reader, writer, catmom extraordinaire
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