How the Southern Hierarchy “Others” Black Women in Literature: Absalom, Absalom!, “That Evening Sun Goes Down,” and “Desiree’s Baby”

May 2, 2019 by Essay Writer

William Faulkner created Yokopatpua County to constitute a world in which his fictional stories/novels would take place and fit into the southern gothic genre. Within this town is tragedy, death, racism, gender role reversal, and a social hierarchy urging to be broken. Although he did not create this genre, his work certainly made it more noteworthy. Among this genre, other authors portray the real-life hardships of living in the deep south such as Kate Chopin, in the short story Desiree’s Baby. By examining Desiree’s Baby and comparing it Faulkner’s works such as That Evening Sun Goes Down and the novel Absalom, Absalom! one can see that racism is a distinguishing feature among this genre. Specifically, racism towards black women that features the sexualization of their bodies, and violence towards them. In an article in the New York Times by John Sullivan, they say that Faulkner sets up these storylines surrounding the civil war not to just make the story feel more authentically southern, but to add the intrinsic fixation of the south within the stories themselves. Sullivan says “No book that tries to dissect the South’s psyche like that can overlook its founding obsession: miscegenation.” (Sullivan.) From this, one can interpret that within the colonialism and removal of natives by land-hungry plantation owners, lies the mixing of races, a large focal point of southern development. By examining works from two distinctive southern authors it can tie in multiple plots that will ultimately lead to one conclusion; within southern works black women are discriminated against from the white hierarchy of the south. Starting by examining William Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom! Mr. Compson seeks to explicate how women are separated into categories in the south during the 19th century by saying “The other sex is separated into three sharp divisions, separated (two of them) by a chasm which could be crossed but one time and in but one direction—ladies, women, females—the virgins whom gentlemen someday married, the courtesans to whom they went to while on sabbaticals to the cities, the slave girls and women upon whom that first caste rested and to whom in certain cases it doubtless owed the very fact of its virginity…”(Faulkner 87). Mr. Compson separates women into categories he thinks every female at the time falls into. By reviewing character from all three works, Desiree’s Baby, Absalom, Absalom! and “That Evening Sun Goes Down”, each female cannot quite fit into one of his categories during their appearances in the works. For example, Desiree was an example of a lady whom a man would eventually want to marry but would discover to be tainted by African American bloodlines. Nancy would have been seen as a black female of service to white families, specifically white men. A confusing character to place into Mr. Compson’s “hierarchy of southern women” is Charles Bon’s octoroon mistress. While she was married to Bon at one point, she would not fall under the “women gentlemen would want to marry” category, but can’t be equated to a slave at that time. Readers can only understand her character through passed down information from other characters. Stephanie Li in an article called “Resistance, Silence, and Places” she says “Mr. Compson presents us with a fantasy figure who becomes the vehicle through which he expounds his views concerning women, sexuality, and race.”(Li 88). This fantasy figure is the octoroon mistress who is talked about very little, except when Judith finds a picture of the mistress and the child she had with Charles Bon. Although Charles himself is a mixed race, he created a version of himself that would be accepted in the white man’s world, which he then portrayed to the characters that tell his perspective since Charles is never a character in Absalom, Absalom!. Bon creates the character of his mistress basing her on the fact she was easy for procreation retold by Quentin, “For a price, of course, but a price offered and accepted or declined through a system more formal than any that white girls are sold under since they are more valuable as commodities than white girls, raised and trained to fulfill a woman’s sole end and purpose: to love, to be beautiful, to divert…”(Faulkner 93). The Octoroon mistress is not only a service to Bon but also Quentin because Quentin loves to be able to put together the pieces of Bon’s puzzle. From Quentin’s portrayal, we learn that Bon marries her originally to have children but then later when Judith, a woman who a man would want to marry is an option, she becomes Bon’s goal for procreation. Li goes on to say “Neither Sutpen nor Bon envisions a world to which their children can belong. Both create fantasies exclusively for men like themselves, with the requirement, at least on the part of Sutpen, that their heirs be exact versions of themselves.”(Li 89). Without it being possible to have an heir be accepted in a white man’s world, the octoroon mistress is further othered and evermore expendable. This situation is similar to the experience Desiree goes through with her husband Armand in Desiree’s Baby. Desiree is introduced as a character with unknown genealogy, having the readers infer she is of a mixed race. This causes intense speculation after the birth of her child, from which he then uses to his advantage. He is worried his mixed genealogy will be found out and risk losing his “design.” A white man’s ideal design during this time includes land for a successful plantation, wealth, and heir to the family line. Armand, who takes pride in his inheritance and home, has to produce the lineage of his family with a male heir. He also likes to be in control which is shown when the slaves say how he runs the plantation differently than his father. By using Desiree for a test trial of how his children would look, he is in control of his lineage. In “ Fear and Desire: Regional Aesthetics and Colonial Desire in Kate Chopin’s Portrayals of the Tragic Mulatta Stereo” by Dagmar Pegues, he points out an obsession with using a black woman’s body in narrative and stories: “In the context of the examination of the work of Kate Chopin, the fetishization of the black body, i.e. the fear of the racial Other and a coexistent desire projected toward the body of the tragic mulatta, embodies the complex and paradoxical nature of stereotype as a confluence of knowledge and power.”(Pegues 6). Armand agrees to marry her while knowing her background may have octoroon blood in it, shown right before they get married “Monsieur Valmonde grew practical and wanted things well considered: that is the girl’s obscure origin. Armand looked into her eyes and did not care. He was reminded she was nameless.”(Chopin 403). If their child looked obviously black he would be able to direct the blame to the mother rather than himself, whom he knew was of mixed race. Ellen Peel says “In addition, namelessness has a particularly female cast in this society, since women, including Desiree, lose their last name. What did it matter about a name when he could give her one of the oldest and proudest in Louisiana?”(Peel 226). He does not care what Desiree’s past could be because he thinks his name can erase it for their son who is a necessity for Armand to carry on his family name. He tried to associate the blame on Desiree for the color of their child’s skin. “That the child is not white; it means that you are not white.”(Chopin 403). He knew she would be too embarrassed to stay knowing she was the reason he had a black child, thus she felt she has ruined his family when she begs for her mother to tell her it cannot be true. “For God’s sake tell them it is not true. You must know it is not true. I shall die. I must die. I cannot be so unhappy, and live.”(Chopin 404). Desiree is sexually and racially othered by Armand because she does not fit into his white patriarchal system that she had believed to be pure. Pegues also points out an obsession with using a black woman’s body in narrative and stories: “examining one plateau of the sexualized stereotype of the dusky-eyed, exotic quadroons and octoroons, i.e. the desirability of their bodies for their white masters, which paradoxically underlies the perpetuation of the white southern hierarchy, as well as by examining portrayals of (sexual and non-sexual) violence and victimization of the black body”(Pegues 2). Armand, as the master in this scenario, was attracted to Desiree knowing that she was adopted with an unknown background making her more mysterious and attractive to him. He made use of her body and fertility, but when his son was black she was no longer of use. William Faulkner’s short story “That Evening Sun Goes Down” shows the victimization and sexualizing of the black female’s body through Nancy’s character who is sexually exploited by her white male clients and violently victimized by her husband. Nancy seeks to threaten the southern hierarchy by standing up to her white counterparts in the story. She is victimized by white men while they use her body sexually as a prostitute, manually by doing their laundry, and mentally as she begins to understand place within the black/white divide during the story. In an article by Laurel Bollinger called “Narrating Racial Identity and Transgression in Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun”, she explains that while Nancy challenges the hegemony, she is met with violence that highlights the racial divide even more. At first when Nancy stands up to Mr. Stovall and requests her payment for her services she does not take his no for a final answer. She persists by saying “When you going to pay me, white man? It’s been three times now since you paid me a cent-” which is where her speech is interrupted by him hitting her (Faulkner 295). Nancy continues to challenge him and ask for her money until she is put in jail by a white police officer. Both her getting hit, then being put into jail retracted any power she had within the hierarchy. In an article from the Journal of American Studies, Drik Kuyk explores Nancy using the Compsons from protection of violence by offering the interpretation that “Nancy’s plans to use the Compsons to shield herself from the badman Jesus – to have them walk home with her, to have the children stay with her in her cabin, or to take sanctuary in the Compsons’ kitchen or even in the children’s bedrooms – were thus unlikely to succeed.”(Kuyk 40). In this particular part of the story, race roles are reversed in the fact that her black husband is the antagonist and she is trying to seek shelter from a white family. The only issue is the Compsons feel no obligation to keep her safe due to her not being devoted to the Compson family, only coming to their aid once Dilsey fell ill. Nancy’s power is ultimately relinquished when she gives herself up and refused Mr. Compson to chaperone her to Jesus’s mother’s house. The author of the “Black Culture in William Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun Goes Down.” in Journal Of American Studies, also offer up an explanation of Jesus’s name and how it correlates to Nancy power deterioration. Dirk Kuyk says “Jesus’ attack, if it comes, will stem from sexual jealousy and will take exactly the same form as Nancy herself threatens against him. Finally, Nancy reports that Jesus has said that she has “woke up the devil” in him, hardly a remark from a Christ figure. Christian morality suggests that the reason for her feeling that she is to be punished comes from her relationship with Mr. Stovall.”(Kuyk 43). If Nancy is not being punished by a figure of Christ, but the opposite, Nancy will assume that God is no longer with her, therefore, the reason she no longer fights for protection at the end letting the white family return to their home where they will be safe, and her violent black husband come back for her. The violence explicated towards Nancy by not only Mr. Stovall, and Jesus, but also the Compson family is relative to the violence Ellen Peel depicts towards Desiree in “Semiotic Subversion.” She says “Neither has a “proper” name, only a descriptive one.” (Peel 226). During the scene in which Armand rejects his wife, he explicitly points out the physical resemblance between the women: “As white as La Blanche’s,” he returned cruelly.”(Chopin 403). While it does not clearly state that he is abusive to Desiree, Armand is not portrayed to be sweet loving towards her until after the baby is born making it seem that is the only reason he grows more loving. This violence toward the black body is explicated within Desiree’s Baby when it is known Desiree’s husband is a violent slave owner, who also takes advantage of Desiree’s unknown background. “I believe, chiefly because it is a boy to bear his name; though he says not,- that he would have loved a girl as well. But I know this isn’t true.” (Chopin 402). Desiree admits she is scared of her husband’s violence, possibly showing he has been violent towards her. She then goes on to say “He hasn’t punished one of them-not one of them-since baby is born. Even Negrillon, who pretended to have burnt his leg that he might rest from work- he only laughed and said Negrillon was a great scamp. Oh, mamma I’m so happy; it frightens me.”(Chopin 402). Although Faulkner does not give the details about the relationship between Clytie’s mother and Sutpen, his character can be equivalated to Armand just the same. After dismissing Wash Jones, while sleeping with his granddaughter Sutpen’s irresponsibility and cruelty are represented. Another time is while Sutpen asks Rosa Coldfield to marry him, but only after they have a child so he can have an heir. Linda Dunleavy in “Marriage and the Invisibility of Women in Absalom, Absalom!” examines the situation as Rosa being the only woman who cannot give men the ability to belittle her, although she wants to be the woman or the lady that Mr. Compson earlier said gentleman will marry. She explains the situation by saying “Aware that she is inscribing herself into absence, Rosa agrees to marry Sutpen because she wants to have a sexual life and wants to have access to the female experience.” (Dunleavy 458). This specific event correlates to the women’s inability to have control over themselves and if Rosa would have agreed, she would have been in Sutpen’s power. To explore the othering of black women incorporated in these stories, looking into the relationship between “white masters and their slaves” would help develop these ideas further. In the south, having slaves during this period was not uncommon and are often incorporated in the stories. While Nancy is a free woman, she lives to serve white families by doing their laundry, watching their children, and giving sexual favors to white men. When she tries to cross the barrier of separate white and black stereotypical roles, she is met with violence from the white men scared of her gaining a higher stance within the southern hierarchy. Janet Barnwell explains this situation in “ Narrative Patterns of Racism and Resistance in the Work of William Faulkner” by saying Faulkner uses a poor black character such as Nancy to be abandoned and show the position of the poor black class itself. She says “In the earlier texts, Faulkner sets in motion plots in which an excluded character, a “black” character, is abandoned “when the crisis of[his or] her need came” by a white male character who could be called a “moderate” With “That Evening Sun” so these narratives could be said to emphasize the position of the one who is poor, black, and excluded”( Barnwell 129). Moreover, Thomas Sutpen who was a slave owner is Absalom, Absalom! worked with his slaves to create his plantation, within his design. But, he also had Clytie with a slave woman he impregnated, returning to the idea that white men have a desire for their slave’s bodies. Similarly, in Desiree’s Baby, La Blanche is a slave on Armand’s plantation who could possibly have a child with Armand. While Desiree is coming to terms with her son’s skin color, she compares his to La Blanche’s child, making another connection between Armand and La Blanche. La Blanche works on the plantation and just like Nancy in “That Evening Sun Goes Down”, serves the white families and their needs dominated by their hierarchy. In “Narrating Racial Identity and Transgression in Faulkner’s ‘That Evening Sun.” Laurel Bollinger says, that once Nancy’s strong character has been silenced, the male hierarchy that she challenged at first, becomes her ultimate demise but not just through her husband, white male clients, or Mr. Compson but through Jason who is still a child. Eventually, Jason will be the one in control she says, “Jason’s efforts at establishing a binary opposition of racial categories invokes the claim to interpretive authority implicit in his eventual position as an adult white male.” (Bollinger 62). Jason challenges her placement in their world due to his eventual place in the Faulknerian hierarchy, this is another loss for Nancy’s character that will lead her to her lowest point of giving into the male supremacy. Nancy struggles at the end of the story to keep her sanity and tries to use the whiteness of the Compson family to protect her. To elaborate more on the white men within these stories dominating the hierarchy, Thomas Sutpen in Absalom, Absalom! tells General Compson that in order to achieve his design he would require the following things: money, a house, a plantation, slaves, a family incidentally, of course, a wife. Just as Armand required the same to be content with himself, both portraying the southern male ideals of success and happiness. After Desiree leaves Armand, he may decide to follow in Sutpen’s footsteps and remarry in hopes that he has an heir that can be socially accepted. Thomas Sutpen needed to marry Ellen in order to produce his heir and gain the respect of the town to complete his design of becoming a true southern man with respect within the community, the same as Armand. His desire to marry Judith stems from that, and the hope to make Henry proud. Stephanie Li in the article “Resistance, Silence, and Placées: Charles Bon’s Octoroon Mistress” talked about Bon and Henry’s intricate relationship which added complications to Bon. “Although Bon’s mistress embodies a chaos of identities that overturns all pretense of order, Henry perceives her primarily through the lens of sexual desire. For Henry, issues of race and class are irrelevant in a social order that grants white men the freedom of sexual dominance.”(Li 92). confirming that the male characters within these southern stories all feel a dominance over the women especially black women. To conclude, by examining the works of William Faulkner, and comparing them to another southern gothic text, such as Desiree’s Baby, one can see similar qualities attributed to the era and location of the stories. The stores that are being presented in the south created the tensions of class difference, racism, sexism, and a constant theme of othering, without including the conflict of the plot. In “Narrative patterns of racism and resistance in the work of William Faulkner” Janet Barnwell said, “Rather than familiarizing oneself with southern community, a reader should read more of Faulkner’s texts to understand not Faulkner’s “community”—there is not only one community–or even “the South,” but instead to comprehend the narrative oppositions that Faulkner repeatedly sets up.”(Barnwell 50). This explains the constant othering of black women in the south shown through not only “Faulkner’s community”, but through the facts of what “the south” itself represented at the time. This theme progressed with Faulkner’s short stories such as “That Evening Sun Goes Down”, by using physical symbols represent the segregation of the town. To further separate the race, and class division within the story, Nancy is oppressed by the white families. Within the southern narrative, one can see that racism and class division is obvious and straightforward and authors each represent it with similar conflicts their characters endure. Charles Bon’s octoroon Mistress is othered by Bon who like other male characters has a white man’s dream to fit in the hierarchy of that society. Her story is not told first hand, giving the males the power to fantasize and sexualize her character in a way they seem fit. John Sullivan explains the narrative of Absalom, Absalom! such as “Faulkner needed Sutpen’s story to be not just authentically but intrinsically Southern this way, less a symbol than an instance of the Southern principle ”(Sullivan). To make these narrative feel more intrinsically southern the women not only are ostracized to their roles of black women but face violence and abandonment in each story. Desiree, in Desiree’s Baby, was abandoned and victimization due to her not fitting Armand’s original idea of how their relationship would turn out ultimately giving into the male supremacy. Each black woman in the three stories struggles with the southern hierarchy and where they fit into it. Relating back to Mr. Compson’s explanation of the female hierarchy, all three characters do not quite fit into a category giving a reason for them being victimized even further. After recognizing the colonialism, greedy plantation owners, and the social divide, one is left with the racism that is a large focal point of each story. Southern authors aim to depict the real south within southern gothic works that reveal the concern of discrimination and acknowledgement of black women being discriminated against inside of the white-male hierarchy.

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