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5— Rights and Reason
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The Absolutization of Justice

After the decision against Homer Plessy in the Criminal District Court, the New Orleans Times-Democrat commended Judge Ferguson, "who has completely disposed of the African claim, and shown how little there is in it." It should be clear from now on, the editorial went on to say, that the Louisiana legislature "has the undoubted right to compel negroes to occupy separate cars from the whites." As for those "silly negroes who are trying to fight this law," the sooner they "stop wasting their money in combatting so well-established a principle—the right to separate the races in cars and elsewhere—the better for them."[89]

It might come as a surprise that those who championed segregation should choose to speak in the language of rights, when one would have thought (as Plessy's attorneys did) that the only rights involved here were civil rights, the "rights secured by the 13th and 14th Amendments."[90] And yet it is finally neither illogical nor even ironic that the Times-Democrat should insist on its "undoubted right" to segregate blacks and whites, because the language of rights, as we have seen, is the very language by which one can achieve "undoubted" victory, the very language by which one can "completely dispose of the [opposing] claim, and show how little there is in it." What is being worked out here, then, in this unhesitant language, is something like the "absolutization" of justice, a phenomenon still very much with us in the late twentieth century, but whose features were already traceable in the nineteenth—traceable not least of all in its discourse of moral subjectivism, a discourse at home not only in the novel but also in constitutional law, and instituting, in its wake, not only the figure of a right holder but also the figure of a nonentity, someone who has "no well grounded cause of complaint."

And so, even though the New Orleans Times-Democrat did not forthrightly declare, as Edna Pontellier does, that "nobody has any right," the logical correlative to its "undoubted right to compel negroes to occupy separate cars" is of course a variant of her statement. I make this observation not to show that Edna is a champion of segregation, or that The Awakening is a "racist" book, but to suggest that within a rights-based model of justice, a model entertained, elaborated, but eventually also shattered within its pages, segregation is a possible (and indeed historically proven) outcome. Even in The Awakening we


can still point to the quadroon as a casualty of sorts: not a casualty of racism but a casualty of the novel's subjectivist discourse, which, to the extent that it is centered on Edna, and to the extent that it coincides with her epistemology, must also be bounded by the representational limits of that epistemology, bounded by its texture, its circumference, its sense of the real. Such a discourse can put Edna at the emotional center of the novel only by marginalizing the emotions of others; it can affirm the substance of her grievance only by consigning to insubstantiality any grievance other than her own.

It is not surprising, then, that the quadroon is a shadowy figure in The Awakening . How can she be otherwise? This is a book, after all, where the grievance of the main character is itself shadowy, experienced only by Edna herself and not accessible to anyone else. As Chopin depicts it, "An indescribable oppression, which seemed to generate in some unfamiliar part of her consciousness, filled her whole being with a vague anguish. It was like a shadow, like a mist passing across her soul's summer day. It was strange and unfamiliar; it was a mood" (8). It is a tribute to The Awakening that this shadowy oppression is not dismissed out of hand, that, for all its immateriality and undemonstrability, it is nonetheless given a voice, given substance through the very agency of representation. And yet "oppression" defined through this evidentiary grammar must make any alternative ground for grievance not so much nonexistent as unintelligible, so far beyond its pale as to be unrecognizable within its terms. Concentrating on the "shadow" of Edna's unhappiness, the novel can enlist only such an evidentiary grammar, only such a representational scale, as will accentuate that shadow into substance. To address the quadroon's grievance would have meant a different grammar, a different scale, a different relation between shadow and substance. No wonder she is assigned separate accommodations.

It is the segregation of the quadroon, her off-centeredness within the story, that enables Edna to see herself, with almost no irony, as being "dragged into the soul's slavery" (151). True to her compositional utility throughout the novel, the quadroon has once again made herself available, available in this case as a metaphor, which, reflecting upon Edna's condition and substantiating it in kinship, would also give a name to her "indescribable oppression." Appropriating that name, Edna can see herself as a slave, a sister to the quadroon, indeed figuratively to be equated with her.[91] This sisterly


equivalence can be asserted, however, only by draining the quadroon of her substance and turning her into an abstract category, a category of injury, which Edna can symbolically try on, symbolically claim as her own. The quadroon is doubly desubstantialized, then, rendered shadowy both by the novel's discourse of moral subjectivism and by a metaphoric structure which translates her onto a different scale, using Edna as her measure. It is this metaphoric translation which gives the quadroon her peculiar weightlessness, just as it is the weight of the metaphor which lends substance to the "shadow" of Edna's grievance. By the force of the metaphor, mistress and servant are now commensurate, although that commensurability, we now see, can be secured only at the quadroon's expense. If Edna is a slave, the quadroon can only be a nonentity.

Edna's identity is thus very much the effect of a symbolic exchange. It is this exchange, in fact, which rationalizes her world, giving her a grievance answerable to her complaint, underwriting both her feat of semantic equation and her feat of subjective adequation. Unlike many of the female characters we have encountered in the course of this book—unlike Judith in The Deerslayer , Deborah in Life in the Iron Mills , and Irene in The Rise of Silas Lapham , none of whom can be said to inhabit a fully matching universe—Edna, to her credit but also to her misfortune, has indeed achieved full rationalization by the end of her story. Thanks to the book's evidentiary grammar, she has found a name for her condition, matched herself with an identity which equals her sense of being. But having thus made herself equatable with a slave, Edna would seem also to be subsumed by that identity, exhausted by it, so that, again unlike the other characters we have studied, she alone lends herself to an integral verdict, a verdict that admits of no qualification, no margin of discrepancy, and thus no possibility of residue. She is a slave, no more and no less, and it is the absoluteness of that equation that now renders her life "complete," in the most chilling sense of that word, in a way that the lives of Judith, Deborah, and Irene will never be. Not altogether accidentally, then, it is at this juncture that Edna is visited with an apparition, a haunting image of those who, she thinks, are on their way to enslave her: "The children appeared before her like antagonists who had overcome her; who had overpowered and sought to drag her into the soul's slavery for the rest of her days" (151).

The children, who have been insubstantial throughout the book—


in much the same manner as the quadroon—now materialize before her. Of course, their appearance here is in one sense only a phantom appearance, a trick in the eye of the beholder. (The actual children are in Iberville, being taken care of by their grandmother.) But that apparition is in another sense a necessary apparition for Edna, a necessary corollary to her newfound identity as a slave. In a completely integrated world, as Edna's world has now become, the making of the slave must be matched by the making of her masters, and it is to fit that bill that the phantom children are now summoned forth. They are her "antagonists"; they have "overcome" and "overpowered" her. And so, what H. L. A. Hart calls "the figure of a bond" is once again at work, except that, of course, it is Edna who is now in bondage, the chain of enslavement being firmly lodged (or so she imagines) in the hands of her children.

Edna is a slave, then, nothing but a slave, just as her children are slave masters and nothing but slave masters. In that residueless description, in the numbing completeness of its all-or-nothing verdict, the epistemology of moral subjectivism has come full circle. Having metaphorically turned herself into a slave, Edna can only see herself now as absolutely powerless, absolutely tyrannized, absolutely without rights. This language, the language of absolutism, is the only language Edna speaks, and she is a slave to it in more senses than one. A slave to that language, there is nothing left for her to do but to claim for herself the only freedom legible in its terms, and to head out toward that realm which is as absolute as her enslavement is imagined to be absolute: a realm where her right to herself can indeed be undisputed, where her husband and children "need not have thought that they could possess her" (152).

If The Awakening begins with an ambiguous gesture toward the language of rights, it ends, in the death of Edna Pontellier, with a gesture no less ambiguous. But a rights-based model of justice is perhaps always about endings, always about a verdict that dissolves all conflict, clearing away all lingering doubt, all lingering messiness. The Awakening , in giving its ending that summarizing and crystallizing weight, would seem to embody the language of rights up to the last. Embodying that language, it must remain a discourse of subjectivism even as it chronicles the demise of its moral subject. And indeed that demise, unfolding in its luminous detail, its sense of ceaseless yearning and ceaseless endeavor, its sense, in short, of being


anything but a suicide, is a fate reserved only for Edna. The quadroon would have been an unimaginable candidate.

Because it is so unimaginable, however, it is also helpful, for a brief moment, to entertain this unlikely candidacy. What might have prompted the quadroon to kill herself? What would have been the circumstances of her heroic (or not so heroic) decision? And what sort of response might it have elicited? These questions cannot be answered under the auspices of The Awakening , under its too closely guarded emotional center of gravity, its too tightly knit fabric of the world. But some indirect answer, some intimation of an answer, is perhaps suggested by another exemplary "suicide" which would also unfold in New Orleans, only one year after the publication of The Awakening . Unlike Edna's idyllic demise, however, this act of self-destruction brought with it no "hum of bees" or "musky odor of pinks" (153). It took place, rather, on the unidyllic Saratoga Street, in the midst of the most fanatic manhunt New Orleans had ever known.

On the night of July 23, 1900, a black man named Robert Charles got into a scuffle with the police while sitting with a friend on the doorstep of a house that belonged to a white family. When more officers were dispatched to arrest him, he killed two of them. And before he was himself shot and trampled into the ground four days later, on July 27, he would kill five more people, including two more officers, and leave eight others seriously wounded. A race riot, meanwhile, quickly spread across New Orleans.[92]

Anticipating Native Son by some forty years, Robert Charles might be seen as a precursor of Bigger Thomas, especially in Richard Wright's generic description of that figure: "The Bigger Thomases were the only Negroes I know of who consistently violated the Jim Crow laws of the South and got away with it, at least for a sweet brief spell . . . [before they were] made to pay a terrible price."[93] Robert Charles was, of course, more deliberate and deadlier in his plan of execution and, in that regard, also more resolutely suicidal. He was universally branded as a "demon," a "devil in embryo," and a "lawless brute, only in the form of human."[94] Amid this denunciatory fervor, however, it occurred to the New Orleans Daily States that some sobriety might be advisable after all. "If the wild and heroic stories of his bloody triumphs are continued," that journal warned, "some Yankee scoundrel will write his life and depict him as the negro


Coeur de Lion."[95] But the bloody triumphs of Charles were so riveting that hardly anyone (least of all the Daily States itself) was able to heed that warning. In an editorial called "Making of a Monster," the New Orleans Times-Democrat tried to put the monster into perspective and ended up conceding that it "involv[ed] one of the most remarkable psychological problems of modern times":

It is only natural that the deepest interest should attach to the personality of Robert Charles. What manner of man was this fiend incarnate? What conditions developed him? Who were his preceptors? From what ancestral strain, if any, did he derive his ferocious hatred of the whites, his cunning, his brute courage, the apostolic zeal which he displayed in spreading the propaganda of African equality?[96]

Whatever it was, the subjectivity of Robert Charles was at least not dismissible. Still, for all its fascination, his life would not be written for many years: not by the journalists of New Orleans and not by Kate Chopin. Indeed, a subjectivity such as his is not so much repugnant as unintelligible within their language of rights, a language in which the likes of him will never find accommodation, because its evidentiary grammar, its map of shadow and substance, will give credence only to one sort of feelings, one set of claims, one image of Reason. But even though that language refuses to make room for Robert Charles, even though it refuses to grant him substance in its account of the world, his response to that erasure is, all the same, a response strictly within its terms. For his attempt to do justice, in all its violent absolutism, is perhaps no more than an exaggerated mirror image of that violent absolutism which, then as now, has cast such a large shadow over the idea of justice. This instance of commensurability, at once grotesque and grotesquely recognizable, is itself a plea for an alternate language, a language that, responsive to the many shades and meanings of reason, will perhaps bring to our awareness not only the absolute claim of rights, not only the absolute claim of justice, but also what is not resolved by these concepts.


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