Devil in a Blue Dress
The Representation of Femininity and Class in Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress
Traditional qualities of a feminine women usually include a beautiful physique, a gentle, nurturing nature, and a degree of sexual reservation. Throughout literature and film, women that embrace typical ideas of femininity are also portrayed as members of the upper class and the elite, while women who are less feminine and beautiful are represented as lower class or even uneducated and poor. One may not typically consider views of femininity and class as correlating ideals, yet they are often portrayed as such in contemporary art and literature. In Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress (1990), there exists a dichotomy between two ideas of femininity embodied in a single female in order to show how different portrayals of femininity are associated with class and status.
In the novel, the character Daphne Monet at times embraces and at times rejects traditional ideals of femininity. The reader is introduced to the character as a white woman with a possible French heritage. When the protagonist, Easy Rawlins, is hired for a job which leads him to search for Daphne, he expects to find a soft, delicate woman who has gotten herself mixed up with the wrong crowd. The two eventually meet and form a connection. She is mysterious and seductive, serving to boost Easy’s ego with her need to be rescued. He dreamily describes her with eyes that “were just a little closer than most women’s eyes; it made her seem vulnerable, made me feel that I wanted to put my arms around her- to protect her” (89). As long as Daphne plays the character of a timid and vulnerable girl in need of rescuing, she keeps her power. Her sexual appeal and inability to remove herself from troubling situations becomes so attractive to Easy that he forgets he is supposed to see her as a job and not as a sexual conquest. As a white woman who associates with politicians, gangsters, and businessmen, Daphne is a member of a higher class than Easy. Easy desires to be associated with her, and though he prides himself on being a loner, he seems to be falling in love with Daphne, and becomes willing to risk his life for her.
As Easy gets to know her, however, he discovers that many of her traits reject typical ideas of femininity. This is represented in her promiscuous sexuality, that she speaks frankly in a way many women would not, and she is even vulgar enough as to urinate in front of him. All of these incidences suggest that Daphne is not who she seems to be, and Easy soon learns that she is actually a black woman who has been passing in an upper class white society. When Easy confronts Daphne she explains to him, “I am not Daphne. My given name is Ruby Hanks and I was born in Lake Charles, Louisiana. I’m different than you because I’m two people. I’m here and I’m me” (203). After she describes how she contains such a dichotomy within herself, Easy no longer wants to be with her, or to even associate with her. He realizes that he was not saving Daphne in a heroic way; she was just using him. The mystery she was once shrouded in is gone, and Easy finds himself even more disassociated with his surroundings and alone than he was at the beginning of the novel.
Once Easy learns that Daphne is Ruby, a black woman who is only disguising herself as a white woman, the notion of her belonging to a higher class is gone. Instead she is on the same class level, if not lower, than Easy himself. While she might have acquired more money than Easy through her escapades with gangsters and rich men, Easy sees her lies as something to be ashamed of, not a testament to her ability to harness her femininity in an empowering way. Though he also tries, with difficulty, to rise above his class, Easy seems to have some notion that he was honest about this, while Daphne used her femininity to rise above her class in a dishonest way. The two part ways, and the reader is left with the sense that this departure is a close on their relationship.
Through the dichotomies of two representations of femininity that Daphne and Ruby simultaneously embody, Mosley seems to offer an explanation on how femininity are associated with class. While Daphne Monet pretended to be exceedingly feminine and high class, this ideal ended up being fleeting. Once Daphne was discovered for who she really is, her high class standing disappeared. As Ruby, she falls short of a feminine ideal and sinks into the recesses of lower class urbanity.
Mosley, Walter. Devil in a Blue Dress. New York: Norton, 1990. Print.
Complicated By Color
There are several subtle images in Walter Mosley’s detective novel Devil In a Blue Dress that suggest the unusual ending. Throughout the novel, the main character, a black man named Easy Rawlins, sees people as either black or white. He is especially aware of the white people around him and constantly comments on their color. This distinction is a common theme throughout the novel and both puts the novel in the context of post-WWII America and also helps to complicate the ending by showing that the binary world of black and white is just a matter of perception.The character of DeWitt Albright is introduced in the first paragraph of the novel. Upon seeing Albright for the first time Rawlins considers, “It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks.” (45) It not only describes Albright as a Caucasian man, but he is literally, in every aspect, a white man. The word “white” is used three times in just this one sentence. As the novel continues and more characters are introduced, Mosley continues describing them in terms of their skin color. In a scene where Easy goes to see Albright in his office, he is confronted by a “little white man wearing a suit that was also a uniform.” (58) Though this encounter with the security guard is brief, Rawlins notes his skin color four times. The constant focus on skin color reminds the reader of the time period that the novel takes place in. This repetition makes it clear to the reader that race will be an issue and will play a part in the story.Rawlins’ mission in the novel is to find a woman named Daphne Monet, and often throughout the story she is referred to as “the white girl.” The reader does not find out until the end of the novel that Daphne Monet is half black and passes for being white. In every scene involving Daphne there are subtle clues as to her true identity that might not be easily inferred without knowing the ending. For example, Daphne lives in a duplex which implies being split in half. The color choice is also indicative of this. When he first meets Daphne, Easy describes her “half living room. It had brown carpets, a brown sofa with a matching chair, and brown walls. There was a bushy potted fern next to the brown curtains.” (135) The repetition of the word “brown” and the idea that it is used in relation to the one half of the duplex suggests that the author is attempting to give the reader a subconscious clue. In the same scene, Rawlins comments on “the soap she used, Ivory.” (135) The image of ivory is obviously white and in this case seems to be used to contrast the surroundings of Daphne’s apartment.In the next scene involving Daphne there is another clue to her secret duality. Easy later describes her as being “like the chameleon lizard.” (230) This metaphor is apt because though Easy uses it in regard to her actions toward men, it is also a reference to changing color of skin. Though her skin doesn’t literally change color, the idea of color not being a static quality can be seen through Easy’s observation of Daphne’s eyes. Easy constantly comments on other characters’ eyes so it is no surprise that he mentions Daphne’s several times. He goes to meet her and “Her eyes were green right then.” (222) However, later in their rendez-vous as she is bathing him, Easy describes how “she looked into my face, with eyes that had become blue over the water.” (229) Then later on, “her eyes flashed green for the first time since the bath.” (231) Toward the end of the chapter, once again Easy notes that “Her eyes turned blue” (234) and at the very end “She turned green eyes on me.” (235) This constant change between blue and green eyes is chameleon-like and is a subtle way of showing that Daphne’s character encompasses a dual quality which puts her at odds with Rawlins’ binary view of people.Color is a constant theme throughout this novel both because of the time period and, ultimately, the ending. It is not until the end that the reader is faced with the fact that all of the problems that developed were caused by the secret fact that Daphne is half black and passing as a white girl. This is a surprise ending, yet in retrospect Mosley offers some subtle clues that suggest her true identity.