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In the last post, I spoke some about the “legal fictions” that Charles Chesnutt highlights in Paul Marchand, F.M.C., specifically with the relationship between Paul and Julie and with the terms that the narrator deploys throughout the novel. Today, I want to continue this discussion by looking at the ways that Paul’s cousins respond to the news that he is white and not a quadroon. Within these exchanges, we see the same critique of the ways that the legal system and words construct identity and serve as a means of subjugation.
As Matthew Wilson notes, to drive home that the idea of race is a social construct, Chesnutt uses the word “caste” eighteen times throughout the novel and sets the text in antebellum New Orleans, a setting and city where the color line was malleable considering that there was a large free person of color population who resided in New Orleans and the surrounding area.
The Beaurepas cousins expected, upon the death of their uncle Pierre, that one of them would inherit his wealthy estate. This expectation causes them, once they find out that Paul is Pierre’s son and that he will inherit the estate, to try and maintain a position of superiority over Paul because he was raised within the quadroon caste. This is the same viewpoint that Julie has when she hears that she will have to marry Paul because he is the heir. She 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.”
Like Julie, the Beaurepas cousins, sans Philippe, fear that Paul’s upbringing will bring shame to the Beaurepas family name. When the M. Renard informs the cousins of the facts surrounding Paul’s parentage, Philippe comments that “[Paul] is a Beaurepas of pure blood” and that he could have sat for the portrait of Pierre just above his head. To this, the other cousins bring up Paul’s education. One of the cousins states,
He has been bred a quadroon, and blood without breeding is not enough to make a gentleman. He would disgrace the name by some Negro trait. He has been trained to subordination, to submission. How could he resent an insult? No such manner can maintain the honor of a Beaurepas.
Interestingly, it is unclear which cousin says the above words. It can be assumed that Henri Beaurepas says them because the next paragraph notes, “If Honor ever blushes . . . she must have done it then. Only the day before, Henri Beaurepas had sold the mother of his unborn child, to whom he had promised her freedom, to pay a gambling debt!”
There are two things we need to consider with the above quotes. They both work together to show the social construction of race and how far individuals will go to maintain a position of power, deploying race as a tool. They highlight that race exists as nothing more than a system that raises individuals either in a position of power or keeps individuals in subjugation. They highlight that Henri Beaurepas cannot see the contradictions in his own actions when he sells the mother of his unborn child to pay off gambling debts. Ultimately, they highlight how power rests on legal fictions.
Later, when Paul meets with his cousins to inform them that he seeks revenge, through a duel, for their treatment of him when they thought he was a quadroon, the issues of the legal fictions that support whiteness come into focus again. The mere fact that he proposes a duel with each cousin shows them, according to the narrator, “proof. . . of his purity of race. No quadroon could have taken such a course, it was foreign to the quadroon nature.” Here, what does “nature” mean? Looking back at the previous quote, does it mean something “in born” like “Negro trait”? I would say yes; however, I would also say that Chesnutt is making clear, as he does with what Henri says following this quote, that race is socially constructed and that nurture and environment, not “nature,” lead to perceived differences between individuals.
Explaining the Beaurepas family motto–“Coup for Coup” (“Blow for Blow”)–Henri tells Paul that his decision to seek revenge, while honorable, should be null because there should be exceptions to the “unwritten law of the family.” To explain, he provides two lengthy examples that are worth quoting at length. He tells Paul,
By the law, as I have been advised, the intention is an essential element of the offense. If perchance in passing through a crowded street I accidentally brush against a gentleman and cause him to loose his footing and fall, judged by my lack of intent I have committed no offense for which an apology would not be ample satisfaction. If, on the contrary, I have set purpose and with hostile intent but laid the weight of my little finger upon a man’s person, I have committed him an assault which the law would punish with by fine and imprisonment, and which by the code of honor could only be wiped out by an abject apology or by blood, and, by the Beaurepas code, by blood alone.
For Henri, intent constitutes the action. If intent is present, then the action can be punished. If not, then the perpetrator cannot, legally, receive punishment or seek retribution under the guise of honor. Paul responds by echoing Henri stating, “By blood alone.”
Henri continues by stating that when he and his cousins inflicted physical and psychological pain on Paul they did not have any intent because, as Henri claims, “To us Paul Beaurepas did not exist; and we could not insult one who had not come into being. The acts of which you complain were directed to a certain soi-distant quadroon, who, in turn, no longer exists. A white man could not insult a man of color, and therefore there was no insult.” Henri’s maneuvers here show the ways that language, not biology, create race. He claims that Paul did not exist before he was Paul Beaurepas. That, of course, is a fallacy.
Paul goes on to tell Henri that he was born 25 years ago, not a few days ago. His cheek received the blow from Raoul. His ears burned with epithet of “cochon” that Hector lobbed at him at the cotton exchange. His body was battered and bruised by Henri and others outside of the quadroon ball. All of these things, he tells Henri, happened. No matter what, he has lived and is alive. Henri cannot erase him, even though he tries to linguistically dehumanize and subjugate him.
Again, these are only a few more examples of the ways that Chesnutt shows the legal fictions and language that create oppression. What are your thoughts? Please let me know in the comments below. Make sure to follow me on Twitter @silaslapham.