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Charles Chesnutt’s Paul Marchand, F.M.C. highlights the legal fictions constructing race in America and the absolute absurdity of such constructions. Today, I want to look at some of the ways that Chesnutt illuminates the construction of race through legal fictions in the novel. Chesnutt explores these issues, specifically, through Paul and Julie’s marriage, and it is within this relationship that Chesnutt shows that race exists as nothing more than a social construction used to maintain power.
I’ve written about Paul Marchand, F.M.C. before, and I find it, along with The Quarry, an important book in a myriad of ways. The narrative is pretty straight forward. Paul Marchand is a free man of color in New Orleans in the 1820s. He was raised as a quadroon and endured subjugation due this fact. However, it turns out that Paul Marchand is white. We discover this when his father Pierre Beaurepas dies and leaves his estate to Paul. Paul did not know that Pierre was his father because Pierre and Paul’s mother decided to give him up when he was a child. (I do not want to elaborate here because it is an important plot point and does not really serve the rest of this post.)
Throughout the novel, the pen serves as a means of constructing race and position within society. At multiple points, the narrator notes how the pen has the power to either raise someone’s position or decrease it. The pen makes Paul white through Pierre’s will and it also nullifies Paul’s marriage to Julie, a quadroon woman. At the end of the novel, the narrator reinforces the countless references to the pen by stating, “In one moment, by the stroke of a decrepit old man’s pen, he was raised from a man of color to a white man.” This ascension created a dilemma for Paul.
By his accession to the white race, Paul Beaurepas, formerly Marchand, f.m.c. became, ipso facto, and unmarried man, and by virtue of his wealth and position as the head of a great family, an eligible aspirant for he hand of any unmarried white woman in Louisiana.
As such, Paul’s whiteness means that Julie becomes, in essence, his mistress in the institution of placage. Surrounded by this new information, Paul begins to think of their children as “her children” when a few weeks ago he thought about them as “his children.”
As part of Pierre’s will, his heir must marry Josephine, the daughter of Don José Morales, the owner of Trois Pigeons. After meeting with Paul about the marriage, Don José rides away and thinks about Julie. He muses, “It is a pity about the other woman, but–what of it? She is a quadroon and that ends it. She can be provided for; it is done every day.” For Don José and the rest of the white, Creole community, Paul’s whiteness nullifies, even in the eyes of the church, his marriage to Julie and his parental duties to his children simply due to legal constructions of anti-miscegination laws.
The above are only two examples of the conversations that arise around Julie and Paul’s marriage. These moments, along with the other references to the pen, lead to broader discussions of identity and the construction of identity. After musing about Paul, Julie, and Josephine, Don José has a conversation with his daughter. She had hoped Philippe, Pierre’s youngest nephew, would be the heir and she would marry him. The two talk, and Don José tells his daughter that she will probably marry Paul and that he is “no quadroon.” Josephine then asks about Paul’s wife and children to which Don José simply comments, “A quadroon wife, my dear, who neither the law nor the church recognizes . . . Quadroon children, my daughter, bastards.”
Don José proceeds to forbid her to love Philippe and demands that she focus her love towards Paul. That night, Josephine thinks “if her father married her to this white-quadroon, or this quadroon-white, she would give him cause to regret his choice” (emphasis added). Through the words “white” and “quadroon” in conjunction with one another, Chesnutt points out that they are nothing more than terms constructed to create caste distinctions based on race. The two terms are, legally, contradictions that do not go together. It is only society that gives them meaning based on their beliefs and laws.
Chesnutt drives this point home even more throughout the novel when he refers to Paul either as Paul Marchand mostly in the first half of the novel or as Paul Beaurepas throughout much of the second half of the novel. The movement between Marchand and Beaurepas highlights the ways that race and identity exist as constructions of power and as means to maintain that power.
When Paul comes to Trois Pigeons to save Don José and Josephine from a slave insurrection, he approaches a mulatto carrying Josepine away. Paul’s education, as a quadroon, allows him to see see the mulatto’s position. At this point, the narrator slips between Marchand and Beaurepas:
Paul Beaurepas–for the moment Paul Marchand–saw, beyond the evil countenance of the man who faced him, the long night of crime had produced this fruit–the midnight foray in the forest, the slave coffle, the middle passage, the lash, steady process of imbrutement which the careless endowment of white blood had intensified by just so much vigor and energy as the blood of the master had brought with it.
Here, Chesnutt makes, through Paul’s names, a multilayered point about legal fictions, environment, and understanding the views and perspectives of others. This comes up, as well, in Don José and Josephine’s conversation earlier when Josepheine tells her father, “He has been brought up as a Negro. He must feel as a Negro, think as a Negro; I could never be sure of him.” What Josephine says, essentially, is that environment and legal fictions, not blood, create identity. Even though Paul is legally white now, he was reared as a quadroon.
When she first sees Paul, after he saves her during the insurrection, she thinks, “[h]e did not look in the least like a quadroon.” Before meeting Paul, her perceptions and the legal constructions of race informed her image of him. However, once he saves her, these aspects get challenged. She does not necessarily disavow what she said earlier, but she comes face-to-face with he realization that what she thought was noting more than a legal construction.
This is not all that could be said. Next post, I’ll delve a little into how Paul’s cousins deploy these legal fictions to try and maintain their own positions. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.