Jessie Redmon Fauset’s Comedy: American Style opens with a description of Olivia Cary (née Blanchard), at the age of nine before she “had attained to that self-absorption and single-mindedness which were to to stamp her later life.” Preceding her “self-absorption,” Olivia thought about a text she read in Sunday School: “Behold how great a matter a little fire kindleth” (James 3:5b). At first, the passage perplexes Olivia, but thinking about it further, she comes to the conclusion “that ‘the little fire’ was a match and ‘the great matter’ of course was a great fire.”
After that day, the narrator tells us that Olivia probably never thought about the verse again, letting it slip unnoticed from her mind. Even though she didn’t think back to this verse, a few years after that Sunday School lesson, “a little fire kindled for her a great matter with which she was destined to combat all her life.” The “little fire” that arose to spark a great flame was Olivia’s confronting the social constructions of race in a society steeped in white supremacy and ideals of success centered on race. Two incidents in her childhood led to this: a girl calling her a racial slur and a teacher, thinking Olivia is Italian, treats her negatively due to her supposed ethnicity.
Following these incidents and others, Olivia talks to her mother Janet about race, asking Janet if anyone in the mill town knows that they are “colored.” Janet and Olivia are phenotypically white and can pass through white spaces without anyone considering they are Black. After Janet tells her daughter that no one at the mill or in town knows she is “colored,” Olivia decides to do everything in her power to access whiteness by being “white.” She asks Janet, “Well, then . . . since the girls, and the teachers too, at school think I’m white, don’t you think I’d better be white?” This spark turns into a raging fire over the course of Comedy: American Style, leading to Olivia’s estrangement from her husband and children, the suicide of her son, and her daughter’s loss of her own identity.
In his review of Fauset’s novel, Theophilus Lewis commented on Olivia saying, “Few women have wrought so much destruction in pursuit of a chimera.” Cherene Sherrard-Johnson compares Olivia’s desire to access whiteness, which includes a desire to become upward mobile and access not just whiteness but also higher socio-economic levels, to literary characters such as Lady Macbeth and Emma Bovary who sought to increase their social standings through any mean necessary. Initially, Olivia does not think she can access whiteness, so she settles for marrying Christopher Cary, a Black medical student who is phenotypically white. However, she would not let her desire for whiteness go, and that small fire began to roar.
All of this brings me back to the verse that Olivia thinks about at the start of the novel. The broader context for that verse lies in the entire chapter, James 3. The chapter focuses on the taming of one’s tongue, pointing out the ways that the tongue, a small part of the overall body, acts like the rudder of a ship or the bit in a horse’s mouth, creating large movements and actions. James 3:5–6 reads, “Likewise, the tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. Consider what a great forest is set on fire by a small spark. The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole body, sets the whole course of one’s life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” The tongue can corrupt the body, leading it to destruction, and Olivia’s tongue does just this with her family.
There are multiple moments in the novel where Olivia’s tongue and her actions cause destruction; however, one of the most damning moments occurs at the end ofher son’s Oliver’s section. Olivia, while with her daughter Teresa in France, sends a letter home to her husband and Oliver finds it and reads it. In the letter, Olivia gushes over the scenery on the French Riviera and about the cost of property, claiming she could see herself living the rest of her life in region. Olivia tells her husband that he and their son Chris, who is phenotypically as white as his parents, could live as whites there, “if it just weren’t for Oliver.”
Olivia despises Oliver because of his complexion. He cannot pass for white, so she shuns him. At one point, she has him serve as a butler during a gathering she hosts for white women at her house. She tells the women he is Filipino, and Oliver, in his desire for his mother’s affection, plays along. Christopher catches this act and chastises his mother, leading Oliver to realize the violence in his mother’s actions. Olivia continues in her letter by writing to her husband, “I know you don’t like me to talk about this . . . but really, Chris, Oliver and his unfortunate color has certainly been a mill-stone around our necks and lives.” After reading his mother’s words, the sixteen year-old Oliver walks somberly to his room.
Since Teresa’s trip to France and her marriage to Aristide Pailleron, Oliver hoped that she would send for him to come live with her where he could be happy. However, Teresa’s marriage will not allow that because Pailleron does not know that Teresa is Black and his racism keeps her from disclosing her true identity to him. A few days after reading Olivia’s letter, Oliver recieves a letter from Teresa, and she tells him that she has thought about how to get him to France but now she cannnot do that because, as she says, “Oliver, my husband doesn’t know I’m colored. Perhaps I might have got around that. But just the other day he talked to me very bitterly about people of mixed blood, especially Americans. So, darling, you see with your tell-tale color . . .” Oliver drops the letter, leaving the rest of Teresa’s words hanging on the page. The fire that kindled itself in Olivia has engulfed him in flames, and he cannot douse them.
Oliver looks in the mirrors and touches “his beautiful, golden skin” and see he is not ugly, yet his skin “had separated him from his sister,” and “Teresa had failed him,” Teresa’s actions stem from Olivia who pushes her daughter to reject herself and embrace whiteness, and this movement leads to a raging, unquenchable fire. Teresa’s letter, coupled with Olivia’s actions towards him and his coming to terms with his sexuality, lead Oliver to shoot himself. The tongue consumes Oliver. It becomes a tool, as James 3: 9 states, to “curse human beings.” Ultimately, Olivia destroys her children and herself in her pursuit of the mythological chimera that could turn her into something different from herself.
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