The Damaging Effects of an Oppressive Society
Societal oppression persists in many facets of life and forces individuals into imposed roles that drastically determine their mindsets and identities. Those oppressed are not accepted into such societies and instead forced into subservient positions. These roles then become these individuals’ entire identities as they become unable to view themselves as anything but that what they are solely perceived. Charles W. Chesnutt’s “Dave’s Neckliss” depicts several examples of such oppression through both the use of female characters and the background of slavery to the framed story. By viewing the short story through both a feminist and a postcolonial lens, the subservient roles of certain individuals and the detrimental effects of society’s oppressive nature are revealed.
Chesnutt’s short story features only two female characters who receive little focus or development. Despite this apparent lack of women in the text, the plot of both the main and framed narratives depend upon their existence. Without Annie, the wife of the narrator, Julius would not have had the option to dine at John’s house, and subsequently not had an opportunity to tell his tale. Even within Julius’ tale of Dave and his “neckliss” (Chesnutt), Dilsey, Dave’s fiancé and the object of desire for many others, and the want of her cause the process of Dave receiving the punishment for supposedly stealing meat. Although these women are essential to both stories, they are used merely as devices for furthering the plots and never receive development beyond the roles specifically designed for them.
Both women play subordinate roles for men and are defined only by their relationships and necessity to the male gender. Annie’s only appearances throughout the entire narrative all depict her fulfilling the expected societal role as a dutiful and hardworking housewife. At the beginning of the story, the narrator notes that she “had served the dinner” (Chesnutt) and later expects his wife to serve him breakfast, “at breakfast, next morning, it occurred to me that I should like a slice of ham. I said as much to my wife” (Chesnutt). This clearly displays a male expectation of an obedient and domestic wife, and to this role Annie willingly complies. Her character only extends to that of traditional domesticity as she possesses the hospitable nature expected of housewives and women in general, “when he happened to be about our house at meal-times, my wife never let him go away hungry” (Chesnutt). Even Annie’s calling Julius “Uncle Julius” (Chesnutt), which exhibits a greater familiarity and friendliness than her husband, submits to preconceived notions of femininity.
Dilsey also has little character development beyond that what relates to men and submits to society’s conceptions of femininity. Julius introduces Dilsey as a woman who “won’ stan’ no foolishness fum no man” and focuses excessively on her beauty, “Dilsey wuz a monst’us peart, good-lookin’, gingybread-colored gal” (Chesnutt). Julius makes no other note of her character—mentioning only her physical appearance and resistance to most men’s sexual advances. Although this may show a strength in character, this description merely also conforms to traits expected of women—beauty and virtue. These two, and only, characteristics of Dilsey construct her into a type of prize that men can win and own—a notion perpetuated throughout the story. Dave wins her affections, but Wiley continues to try to earn her affections, ultimately doing criminal acts to have her for his own. With Dilsey’s value being only due to men’s desire of her, she becomes both a literal slave and a slave to the patriarchy.
Both women in Chesnutt’s story fulfill the role of a subservient creature to men. While they both literally serve men—Annie serves food to John and Julius and Dilsey is a slave to Mars Dugal—they also figuratively serve the patriarchy by conforming to the idealized concepts of women as conceived by the patriarchal system. Just how the patriarchy perpetuates male dominance, the manipulation both women portrays their intellectual inferiority to men. Julius’ well-crafted story causes Annie to fall prey to his schemes to get the ham. She has no thoughtful take on the story and instead takes it at face value, merely focusing on the ham and not the psychological aspect of the story. Julius aims to exploit the emotions of his listeners and thus subconsciously convince them to do what he wants, however, only Annie, not John, falls for this due to the male-influenced notion of women’s emotional nature.
Dilsey also experiences manipulation by the patriarchy, only more indirectly than Annie. When she returns from her trip, she quickly hears of Dave’s punishment and unquestioningly believes the lies told to her, however, Dilsey does not hear this from a man, but from a woman, “de fus’ nigger ‘ooman she met says ter her… Mars Walker cotch ‘im stealin’ bacon, en gone en fasten’ a ham roun’ his neck, so he can’t git it off’n hisse’f” (Chesnutt). Although man does not directly manipulate her mind, the idea of Dave as a thief originates from two men—Wiley, who causes Dave’s downfall, and Mars Walker, the one who inflicts the punishment upon Dave and announces to everyone Dave’s folly—thus directly influencing the “nigger ‘ooman” (Chesnutt) and subsequently indirectly biasing Dilsey.
Just how men manipulate Dilsey and Annie, the patriarchy itself forces them into their roles as submissive, traditionally feminine women. Society convinces the women how they must act, thus keeping them from developing past the type of woman that men have idealized. Such oppression is what keeps Annie and Dilsey from becoming dynamic characters, forcing them forever into a subordinate, domestic, and prize-like role. This role society has coerced them into allows for their perpetual manipulation and use by men which they cannot escape due to years of mental conditioning into believing their own inferiority.
In conjunction with an oppressor conditioning their subordinates into believing they are that what they are perceived, the racial disparity that backdrops both the main and framed narratives of Chesnutt’s story reveals many layers of oppression that affect the outcome of both tales. Within both stories a white man holds power over those he deems inferior to himself—Mars Dugal owns his slaves and treats them as property that he can control and mistreat and John, the narrator, is Julius’ employer and views him as a moocher and childlike, “his curiously undeveloped nature was subject to moods which were almost childish in their variableness” (Chesnutt). Both have preconceived notions of how they believe those deemed inferior to them should behave and act which influences the plots of both stories.
In Julius’ story, the white men oppress their slaves both physically and psychologically. While Mars Walker asserts his dominance by beating and physically harming his slaves that disobey him, the most potent weapon is the power Mars Dugal holds over the minds of the blacks. As Mars Dugal embodies southern society, he too keeps his slaves from any form of education aside from that which may help enforce the idea of the white man’s superiority, “’it’s ‘g’in de law ter l’arn niggers how ter read, er ‘low ’em ter hab books” (Chesnutt). Mars Dugal’s psychological oppression is subtle as he treats his slaves fairly well and acts fairly friendly with those he favors, however, the juxtaposition between the two “mars” and Dugal’s ability to quickly turn on even his favorites keeps the slaves submissive and in fear of his wrath.
This power dynamic between the oppressor and the oppressed creates an imbalance where the thoughts of those in control directly influence the culture and mindset of their subordinates. The whites convince the blacks of their own inferiority and also convince their slaves to act as they do. When Mars Walker labels Dave as a thief and ties the ham around his neck, he lowers Dave’s status lower than before as a merely a slave. Just how the whites oppress those they deem inferior, their slaves emulate that exact quality by marking Dave as inferior to them and thus oppress him as well through isolation and mockery, “de niggers all turnt ag’in’ ‘im” (Chesnutt). While the white man holds power over them, the slaves look for someone they can claim superiority over in order to feel less inferior and to emulate those they subconsciously deem superior.
By forcing Dave into an inferior and even further oppressed role, Dave becomes an “other” within his own community and becomes an outcast among those who once revered him. This “other” becomes solely based around the ham, which becomes Dave’s only association and, consequently, his only source of identity. This “other” he becomes has very little power and social standing. Everyone treats him as an outcast and a type of abnormality that does not belong in their society. Although Dave tries to fight his new label, he finds the literal and figurative mark of an “other” and outcast inescapable and develops a double consciousness. In this Dave views himself on two separate planes, one being his old identity and old life, and the other his new life as a labelled thief who’s only mark of identity is a ham around his neck. This double consciousness between two separate and conflicting identities slowly drives Dave insane and once Dave loses all that of his old life: his fiancé, his leadership position within the slave community, and respect, “de las’ one he had ‘pended on fer ter stan’ by ‘im had gone back on ‘im, en dey didn’ ‘pear ter be nuffin mo’ wuf libbin’ fer. He couldn’ hol’ no mo’ pra’r-meetin’s, fer Mars Walker wouldn’ ‘low ‘im ter preach, en de darkies wouldn’ ‘a’ listen’ ter ‘im ef he had preach’. He didn’ eben hab his Bible fer ter comfort hisse’f wid, fer Mars Walker had tuk it erway fum ‘im en burnt it up, en say ef he ketch any mo’ niggers wid Bibles on de plantation he’d do ’em wuss’n he done Dave” (Chesnutt), he begins to lose his sense of self and fully gives in to the new identity dictated to him by the slave community. As he has nothing else to define himself by, he begins to view himself how others perceive him, associating himself with the ham and essentially becoming the ham itself.
This deep-rooted oppression that builds upon many layers of an inferiority and superiority dichotomy and Dave’s ultimate suicide because of it reveals the damaging effects society and biased discourse can have on one’s mind. These aspects of colonialism applied to race and those deemed inferior lead to a misconstrued notion of one’s self. Dave’s becoming of the ham in death by hanging himself just how the ham was hung around his neck, “hangin’ fum one er de rafters, wuz Dave; dey wuz a rope roun’ his neck” (Chesnutt) represents how severely society influences one’s identity. While a person can view themselves a certain way, how others perceive them greatly affects their identity and what they do. Society’s oppression of a person by forcing a new identity upon has detrimental effects as seen through “Dave’s Neckliss.”
Using a feminist lens on Chesnutt’s short story showcases the powerful impact of a lack of female characters. The noticeably brief descriptions and presences of the two named female characters despite their direct involvement in the furthering of both plots display how women are merely considered only when necessary for men. This adds to how women are seen as servants to men as the only purpose they serve in this story is to cause a conflict. Neither Annie nor Dilsey are developed further than what is appealing to men, exhibiting once again how from a male perspective women are not dynamic and need not have actual personality beyond that which attracts men. This lens also offers insight into the patriarchy and its effects on women and how they operate in a phallocentric society. By analyzing these two women’s position in the story the theme of the damaging effects of societal oppression and perceptions of how one should be or is gains another layer and more meaning beyond individual identity.
Despite the many benefits of analyzing through a feminist lens, this lens, as applied to this story, can lead to blindness to anything besides the oppressive patriarchy as well as overcomplicated conclusions due to lack of material to inference from. Only viewing through this lens also limits the perspectives that can be seen in text. Another drawback of this lens is drawing upon one cultures definitions of masculinity and femininity which may vary depending on the culture. This lens also relies upon femininity as an abstract construct while some of the notions behind this paradigm are based in scientific and indisputable facts such as anatomy and biology. The feminist lens relies heavily upon theory and the idea of everything as a societal construct while it is rooted in some truth.
Just how the feminist lens has both advantages and drawbacks, the postcolonial and racial lens also possesses both. This type of lens allows for an acute look into the roles of those forced under the rule of a more powerful oppressor. This lens brings forward the true horrors of such a system and how it continues to pervade even when such an imbalance is supposedly destroyed. This lens also focuses on the after effects of oppressive systems and how those ethnically and racially different from the “superior” group are treated with very specific and often stereotypical or romantic discourse. Postcolonial and Racial criticism open up the conversation about how oppression affects both those oppressed and how it continues even into modern society.
Although a postcolonial and racial lens allows for a critic to gain much through a text, certain aspects of a text are lost when viewed solely through this type of criticism. As with the feminist lens, viewing through one lens cuts of any other type of perspective that might be discovered about the text. This lens also through its desire to display racism and its effects tends to reinforce racial stereotypes and beliefs. As this lens focuses predominately on the oppression of blacks and non-white ethnicities, it can become extremely anti-white and project a prejudice on whites and white culture. By using a postcolonial and racial lens, it’s very efforts can backfire and create even more racial problems instead of fix them.
While these two lenses have their benefits and disadvantages, together they can create an even broader, more enlightened perspective on a text. As both women and non-white peoples have both experienced oppression from the white man, comparing their types of oppression within a single text can both reveal patriarchal dominance and racially prejudice of a society. In conjunction with one another the oppression upon both types of people is heightened and brought further forward. In “Dave’s Neckliss”, with a postcolonial and racial criticism of the story, the way how one’s society actually assists in the making of an individual’s identity would be less clear and not apply to how women face similar problems. By using the feminist lens this notion is supported and adds the element of the idealized identity and how mental conditioning causes one’s oppression to become unescapable.
Chesnutt’s short story details the terrible effects of a society that oppresses its members into becoming that which it believes them to be. The forcible suppression of who one could be by the identity thrust upon the individual psychologically damaging and allows for easy manipulation and insanity. By using feminist and postcolonial and racial lenses the true nature of oppression and its pervasiveness reveals itself. The characters ostracized by society or forced to become that what is expected creates a terrible burden that one must bear and can only escape through death. The oppression of society on an individual can have extremely damaging effects that continually impact the individual as the system is designed to forever imprison those it deems inferior.
Chesnutt, Charles W. “Dave’s Neckliss.” Dave’s Neckliss. N.p., n.d. Web. 09 Dec. 2016.
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