Monday, August 5, 2013

Library of America Story of the Week Read-Along 104: Charles W. Chesnutt, The Bouquet (#3)

Charles W. Chesnutt, "The Bouquet" (1889) from Charles W. Chesnutt: Stories, Novels, and Essays:

Read one way, Charles Chesnutt's "The Bouquet" is a sentimental story about a poor (black) girl who wants to put a bouquet of flowers on her dead (white) teacher's grave. There's a sentimental obstacle--the mother of the dead teacher doesn't want black people at the funeral--and there's the super-sentimental helper--the dead teacher's white-as-wool dog, who has a playful rivalry for the affection of the teacher, but who turns up to help the little girl just in time. Simple, sentimental, heart-warming.

But seriously, this is the sort of story that makes me want to go back to school and write papers. First, it's easy to dislike the racist mother who doesn't want her daughter to teach at the black school, even though the family needs more income post-Civil War. As dear old mom puts it, “It’s a long step from owning such people to teaching them."

But the daughter isn't exactly a peach herself. I mean, you could read this and come away with the idea that the daughter, while not exactly progressive, adapted more easily to the new racial tolerance. And then we get this sentence, about the attention/adoration she got from that one girl who worships her:
[W]hen she grew more accustomed to it, she found it rather to her liking. It had a sort of flavor of the old régime, and she felt, when she bestowed her kindly notice upon her little black attendant, some of the feudal condescension of the mistress toward the slave.
What the what?

Take that along with the steady equation of "little black girl who adores the teacher" and "little white dog who adores the teacher" and we have a sentimental story that's a little thornier than your average "innocent loves attentive and dead teacher." So when the happy end is "girl is kept out of white cemetery, but little white dog helps deliver funeral bouquet, and then resumes position at the grave, while little girl envies the dog," that's the sort of "happy ending" where I think we can feel less than thrilled.

There's a lot more to say about Chesnutt's story, but I want to end with a craft issue, which is that so much of this story is told in summary, not dramatic scenes. But it's still something of a shock when we read the teacher's death summarized like this:
The children made rapid progress under her tuition, and learned to love her well; for they saw and appreciated, as well as children could, her fidelity to a trust that she might have slighted, as some others did, without much fear of criticism. Toward the end of her second year she sickened, and after a brief illness died.
Here's a character who, for the first few pages, might have been taken as the protagonist: she's the first character mentioned, she's potentially risking some social censure by teaching at the black school, she's defying the wishes of her mother, etc. You might have thought she was the heroine here--until her death is taken care of in one line that occurs right after a totally different, much longer line, focused on the children she teaches. So if mean old mom is racist and young daughter is less racist, we might want to look at these children as being the better hope for our future: they are our heroes.

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