“The Force, the Fire and the Artistic Touch”of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive, United States on 2012-03-10 04:11Z by Steven

“The Force, the Fire and the Artistic Touch”of Alice Dunbar-Nelson’s “The Stones of the Village”

Journal of the Short Story in English
Number 54, Spring 2010

Michael Tritt
Department of English
Marianopolis College, Montréal

Ambiguous of race they stand,
By one disowned, scorned of another,
Not knowing where to stretch a hand,
And cry, ‘My sister’ or ‘My brother.’
(“Near White,” Countee Cullen)

The Stones of the Village” details the successful negotiation of the color line by Victor Grabért, a Louisiana Creole who has Negro ancestry and yet manages, through a combination of luck and subterfuge, to hide his lineage and climb to the highest rung of the social ladder. In developing the narrative of Grabért’s life, Alice Dunbar-Nelson engages a powerful social critique, portraying realistically the endemic color prejudice of white and black alike in New Orleans and its environs toward the beginning of the nineteenth century. Written between 1900 and 1910, yet published posthumously only in 1988, “The Stones of the Village” has been gaining well-deserved recognition ever since as a story of considerable force, especially as a narrative dramatizing the phenomenon of passing. Indeed, since its publication the tale has been included in six different anthologies of short stories, has been dramatized by the Public Media Foundation of Northeastern University on a popular website for teachers and students, and has been made widely available on the Internet through the auspices of the National Humanities Centre. Moreover, recent literary histories and source books related to Southern literature by women, to local color fiction, to Afro-American (and Afro-American women’s) literature explicitly recognize Dunbar-Nelson’s contribution in this specific story. By and large, however, critical commentary has been relatively brief, limited to a focus generally upon theme and various associated autobiographical dimensions of the fiction, as these relate to the author’s ancestry and to the prejudice Dunbar-Nelson herself experienced. There has been, to date, little concentration upon—and certainly no detailed exposition of—the author’s impressive literary technique in the tale. Such a detailed exposition is all the more necessary in the context of apologetic reservations about Dunbar-Nelson’s lack of skill as a short story writer. In her careful foregrounding of early incidents in Victor’s childhood, her masterful use of point of view and other particulars to counterpoint the protagonist’s social accomplishment with his psychological anguish, her notable orchestration of characterization, imagery, symbolism and especially allusion, and through a variety of other means, Dunbar-Nelson renders a remarkably nuanced portrayal of the way emotional conflict determines the tragic course of life for a black Creole in search of a viable identity.

Dunbar-Nelson skillfully structures her tale so as to highlight the childhood turmoil which underlies Victor’s tormented—and lifelong—struggle to control his emotions and to fit into society. Crucial to this portrait of Victor’s early experience is the extent to which the protagonist (and his fellow playmates) are victim to culturally-created prejudices which destroy what Dunbar-Nelson depicts as a type of childhood innocence of color and background.

Several pages into the text, the narrator provides a crucial flashback to Victor’s earliest memory, when, as a mere toddler, he receives a whipping at the hands of his grandmother, the result of his straying from home to play with a group of “black and yellow boys of his own age” (5). Although it is no doubt true, as Jordan Stouck (281) and Marylynne Diggs (13) suggest, that because of the protagonist’s background he does not fit into any of the culturally defined racial categories of his village, nonetheless in this early scene he is pictured: “sitting contentedly in the center of the group in the dusty street, all of them gravely scooping up handfuls of gravelly dirt and trickling it down their chubby bare legs” (5). Clearly, Victor is accepted by the toddlers, included in the narrative description of “all of them” at play. Neither he nor the other children, it seems, yet recognize socially-defined racial and ethnic categories. To be sure, it is the prejudicial action of Victor’s grandmother, (herself imbued with widespread exclusionary social/cultural attitudes) that initially precipitates her grandson’s isolation and exclusion. When she “snatched at him fiercely” and “hissed” at him: “‘What you mean playin’ in the strit wid dose niggers?’” (5), Grandmére Grabért creates resentment (and self-consciousness) in Victor himself and no doubt in the other children as well. In truth, she initiates a tragic reaction, for learning of the incident, the parents of the toddlers with whom Victor was playing “sternly bade [their children] have nothing more to do with Victor” (5). Making matters worse, Grandmére Grabért forbids him to converse in his native Créole patois, forcing him to learn English. As a result, the young boy struggles all the more, speaking a “confused jumble which is no language at all” (5), further alienating him from the “black and yellow boys” and from the white ones as well, intensifying his isolation, confusion and crisis of identity…

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“The Role of Implicatures in Kate Chopin’s Louisiana Short Stories”

Posted in Articles, Literary/Artistic Criticism, Media Archive on 2012-03-09 04:37Z by Steven

“The Role of Implicatures in Kate Chopin’s Louisiana Short Stories”

Journal of the Short Story in English
Issue 40, Spring 2003
pages 69-84

Teresa Gibert, Professor of English
Spanish National University of Distance Education (UNED) in Madrid

It is tempting, in interpreting a literary text from an author one respects, to look further and further for hidden implications. Having found an interpretation consistent with the principle of relevance—an interpretation (which may itself be very rich and vague) which the writer might have thought of as adequate repayment for the reader’s effort—why not go on and look for ever richer implications and reverberations? (Sperber and Wilson 1996: 278)

The popular renown and the critical praise that Kate Chopin received during her lifetime resulted essentially from her Louisiana short stories, published first in various magazines and subsequently collected in the volumes Bayou Folk (1894) and A Night in Acadie (1897). After her death in 1904, a few of these stories were included in various anthologies and thus became virtually the only pieces of Chopin’s literary production available to the general public, whereas her later works went out of print or remained unpublished. For several decades her name was almost invisible in the field of literary criticism, except as a “local colorist,” a term that nowadays some scholars are reluctant to apply to her (Forkner and Samway xxii), partly because it has so often been used derogatorily, although there have been recent attempts to reappraise it, emphasizing its positive value (Ewell and Menke xvi). Others have taken into account her own ambivalence towards the local-color movement, from which she unsuccessfully tried to detach herself (Papke 24, Staunton 203, Steiling 197, Taylor 156). Indeed, for many years the status of Kate Chopin was that of a marginalized local colorist because she was associated exclusively with her early narratives set in Louisiana, which were taken to exemplify local-color fiction, a genre that captivated American readers in the 1880s and 1890s but which experienced a decrease in popularity during the twentieth century.

When modern scholarship rediscovered Chopin’s writings in the 1970s—following Per Seyersted’s publication of Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography and his edition of her Complete Works, both in 1969—they were mainly analyzed from feminist perspectives. Consequently, attention was focused on her most mature works, with a particular emphasis on The Awakening (1899) and those short stories which were labeled “proto-feminist.” When A Vocation and a Voice—Chopin’s third collection of short stories, which she had begun writing in 1893—was finally published in 1991, it was also warmly welcomed by feminists. Meanwhile, her early Louisiana short stories became comparatively neglected. Not until recently have they been subjected to close scrutiny in the light of various theoretical frameworks, some of which are unrelated to feminism…

…Due to its explicitness, “The Storm” has not generated any contrasting interpretations, in spite of the close critical attention to which it has been submitted. Likewise, another of Chopin’s mature short narratives, “The Story of an Hour” (composed and first published in 1894) does not allow for much conjecture. Little effort of elucidation is needed to understand that it is about the sense of freedom enjoyed by a woman during the hour she mistakenly thinks that she is a widow, until she discovers that her husband is still alive. Both “The Storm” and “The Story of an Hour” exemplify maximum explicitness, and consequently, maximum consensus on the author’s intentions and readers’ interpretations. In order to illustrate the opposite end of the spectrum, that is, maximum implicitness, and therefore, a wide range of diverging opinions, I would like to focus on Chopin’s most famous Louisiana short story: “Désirée’s Baby.”

Désirée, a foundling raised by Monsieur and Madame Valmondé in their Louisiana plantation as if she were their own daughter, “grew to be beautiful and gentle, affectionate and sincere.” At eighteen she married Armand Aubigny, the heir to another plantation, and was cruelly rejected by him after giving birth to a mixed-race baby whose black ancestry derived in fact from the child’s paternal grandmother. We learn this at the very end of the story, once we have been told that Désirée and the baby have disappeared forever into the bayou. This is an extremely brief outline of the plot, which is almost impossible to summarize in a satisfactory manner because Chopin’s text resists further reduction. The richness of the story is based on the accumulation of significant details, and thanks to its concise prose, the author managed to compress into 2,152 words the contents of what she could have expanded into a whole novel. Chopin’s verbal economy partially accounts for her need to implicate, rather than explicate, but apart from the requirements of condensation inherent in the short fiction genre, there were also other reasons for her preference to communicate through veiled suggestions and resort to understatement. At the time of composing “Désirée’s Baby,” Kate Chopin was striving to be accepted by northern editors as a serious professional writer in the carefully regulated market of magazine and book publishing, controlled by censoring eyes, and consequently she could not work as spontaneously as she claimed (Complete Works 722), but under constraints that inhibited her treatment of socially sensitive topics.

This story was composed in 1892, and when it was published by Vogue in January of the following year under the title of “The Father of Désirée’s Baby,” it was an immediate success. It was included in Bayou Folk (1894), Chopin’s first collection of twenty-three short stories and sketches which received over two hundred reviews and press notices. “Désirée’s Baby” was frequently singled out for praise, and as it was often anthologized, it remained continuously in print while most of Kate Chopin’s work was virtually unavailable. Among the reasons that may account for such acclaim, we should mention the fact that Kate Chopin’s main themes—marriage and motherhood—are explored here through a submissive and vulnerable female protagonist who is far from being like the emancipated heroines that people her later fiction. A third theme, that of miscegenation, which is rather unusual in Chopin’s fiction, was particularly controversial when the story was first published, but thanks to the author’s “masterful phrasing and subtle word-choice” (Reilly 1942: 135), her audience, far from feeling offended, was delighted. It was indeed a period of “latent and massive social antagonism against miscegenation […] among both blacks and whites” (Williamson 90)…

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