In “Reconstructions of Racial Perception: Margaret Mitchell’s and Frank Yerby’s Plantation Romances,” Mark C. Jerng argues that Frank Yerby’s The Foxes of Harrow “engages with the specific techniques of deploying racial signification in [Gone With the Wind], in particular by when race appears in the background and when it is foregrounded.” Jerng looks at the ways that Yerby challenges and reverses the racial associations deployed by Mitchell and others, including Thomas Dixon. When discussing Odalie’s visit to a voodoo priestess in the hopes of winning Stephen back, Jerng notes that the scene “calls attention to the role that explicit racial associations are used to generate pleasure, closure, and coherence for the sexual tensions necessary for romance.”
Today, I want to expand upon some of Jerng’s observations by looking at the primitive language that Yerby deploys as he describes Mike Farrell, the riverboat captain who rescues Stephen from the sandbar at the beginning of the novel and becomes a close friend. Continually, Yerby describes Mike in animalistic terms, commenting on his “hairy paw[s],” his savageness, and his power. Specifically, I wan to look at the scene where Mike attempts to rape Suzette in his bedroom.
This scene highlights the precarious situation that Suzette and other enslaved women existed within. As property, they were under constant surveillance and lived with the constant threat of sexual violation. Throughout the scene, Yerby reverses the racial associations and classifies Mike as the predatory, hypersexualized beast only concerned with fulfilling his sexual appetite. In this manner, Yerby confronts the stereotype of the oversexed, predatory Black male head on by having Mike, not Achille, in the rapacious position.
Waking up from his sleep, Mike raises up on his arms as Suzette dusts the room. He looks at her and tells her, “Come here, gal.” Suzette “fearfully” hesitates, then after Mike repeats his request, she walks towards him timidly, maintaining a distance from the bed. Mike tells her that he wants to tell her something by whispering in her ear, and Suzette gradually walks towards the bed where Mike quickly shoots out his arm “with all the speed and power of a grizzly striking” and takes hold of her (emphasis mine). Here, Yerby compares Mike to a bear through the use of “grizzly,” thus making him appear not as a human who wants a relationship with Suzette but as an animal who just sees her as a means to satisfy his carnal desires.
When Suzette screams, “Mike clamped a hairy paw over her mouth” (emphasis mine). Again, the implication here is that Mike is not a man but a beast, preying on the innocence of Suzette as he tries to violate her. Suzette manages to scratch Mike and escape his grasp, and she runs out of the room like “a doe, buckpursued” (emphasis mine). If we did not pick up on Yerby’s use of animalistic terms to describe Mike and his purpose for using them, this last phrase makes it explicitly clear that through this short scene (about half a page) Yerby works to dismantle and reverse the pervasive stereotypes of Black men as predatory figures and white men as chivalric and genteel. Yerby does not refer to Achille as a buck; rather, he uses that appellation for Mike, a white man.
Mike’s attempt to rape Suzette comes almost immediately after Stephen buys La Belle Sauvage at the slave auction. Stephen proclaims that he wants to buy Sauvage as a wife for Achille and the slaver grabs her mouth to let Stephen inspect her. Sauvage clamps her mouth shut, and the slaver, frustrated, slaps her in the face. Sauvage opens her mouth, baring her teeth, “filed to little dagger points,” as her neck looks “like serpent” before striking at the slave trader, biting down on his arm. It takes three men, including Mike, to wrest Sauvage’s mouth off of the trader’s arm. The men then begin to beat Sauvage.
In this scene, Yerby uses animal imagery to describe Sauvage. She has a serpentine neck and her eyes look “yellow like a leopard’s.” These images, though, do not serve as predatory or dehumanizing. Rather, they highlight a defensive positioning, as a serpent, backed into a corner, will strike back as a means of self-preservation. The reference to the leopard could correspond to its symbolic nature as a ferocious and courageous Great Watcher. Elsewhere, Yerby refers to Sauvage as a panther, symbolic of rebirth and/or protection.
Carrying Little Inch in her arms, Sauvage climbs the levee overlooking the Mississippi River “like a black panther” running away from Stephen. Here, she strives to protect Little Inch from a life of slavery and servitude. When Stephen says that he wants Little Inch to be a servant to his own son Etienne, Sauvage flees with him, willing to kill Little Inch before allowing him to succumb to the life of a slave. In this manner, she works to protect Little Inch from a life of degradation and servitude.
This correlation differs from the ways that Yerby describes Mike and even Stephen. Throughout, Mike has “hairy paws” and Stephen even takes on animalistic and primitivistic qualities. Upon meeting Desiree at a quadroon ball, Stephen becomes predatory in the same manner that Mike does with Suzette. As they kiss, “something like madness flamed in Stephen’s veins” and he “tightened ferociously” his arm around her waist until she released a “little cry of pain” eventually “bruising her flesh.” Stephen’s manner here recalls Mike’s attempts to rape Suzette in the violence and ferocity of his movement.
Along with the overt animal imagery, Yerby flattens racial differences by having Odalie realize that sexual desire does not exist differently amongst Suzette, Achille, Sauvage, Mike, Stephen, or herself. Race does not matter; stereotypes, created to juxtapose and create derision among groups, formulate that Blacks are hypersexualized whereas whites are more reserved. On her wedding night, Odalie, who is afraid to be touched, realizes that she and Stephen are nothing more than animals. She ponders, “Then human beings were animals after all and no better than other animals despite all the lace and perfume and poetry . . . lace and perfume and poetry leading up to this [sex].” Odalie’s realization dismantles the stereotypes. She comes to the conclusion that whites, as well as Blacks, are sexual beings with sexual desires. Through this, Yerby calls upon readers to question the stereotypes that perpetuate our culture and to challenge them.
This is not all that could be said. I have written about this some in regards to a couple of Yerby’s later novels, and you can read that piece here. What are your thoughts? As usual, let me know in the comments below, and make sure to follow me on Twitter at @silaslapham.