The House of the Creoles: The Fiction of Four Louisiana Writers

Catharine Savage Brosman

First colonized by the French, then a Spanish possession, again under French rule, then a territory of the young American union, and finally a state, which would join the Confederacy and undergo Reconstruction, Louisiana had an ethnic, linguistic, legal, and cultural history in the colonial period that set it apart and whose legacy has endured sufficiently to give it a distinctive character throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first.1 All of its lasting distinctiveness is not, to be sure, a product of the French influence; the Spanish also left their mark on Louisiana during the eighteenth century, as did other groups then and later, chiefly autochthonous Indians, blacks, whether brought directly from Africa or from the West Indies, Acadians, English-speaking Americans (even before 1803), Germans, Isleños from the Canary Islands, and important waves of Irish, Italians, and other European immigrants, especially from the late nineteenth century onward. But it was the French Creoles who contributed most to shaping the mores and attitudes of southeastern Louisiana, notably New Orleans, in the colonial and immediate post-colonial periods, and whose legacy retained the most prestige thereafter.2

In the four novels to be examined here, by Louisiana writers of the late nineteenth and the twentieth centuries, one finds reflections of this French Creole culture and its evolution after the Louisiana Purchase and into the twentieth century—as seen, that is, by writers who attempted to represent it imaginatively, in part from their own experience. George Washington Cable’s The Grandissimes (1880), Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), Donald Demarest’s Fabulous Ancestor (1954), and Shirley Ann Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street (1961) deal respectively with Creole society in New Orleans around 1803, this same society (and a heroine at odds with it and her feminine condition) at the century’s end, a Creole family around 1930, and a woman of Creole extraction and her daughter in the late 1950s.3 The first of these novels affords glimpses of Louisiana at the end of the colonial period and beginning of the new regime, as changes were already beginning to take place; the other three works depict Creole society shortly before 1900 and its remnants in the next century.4

Not entirely by chance, each of these novels uses the house as a core image. If houses are, as Gaston Bachelard writes, “the topography of our intimate being,” or, in Leonard Woolf’s words, “what cuts the deepest channels in our lives,”5 the Creole house, as social and architectural entity, is part of the collective being; it is a lived space, sanctum, and personal sign, but is also part of a larger cityscape, affectively and socially animated by the close-knit, centripetal Creole identity and manifesting the inhabitants’ difference from whatever barbarians surround them. Thereby, however, it is, to outsiders and to any of its own who take on it the perspective of outsiders, exclusionary and threatening.

Cable’s The Grandissimes portrays New Orleans in 1803 and 1804, just after the signing of the Louisiana Purchase, by which, as old Agricola Fusilier puts it, the “province” was given away. The city, consisting almost wholly in what is now the Vieux Carré or French Quarter, is still French (and Spanish—the Spanish had possesssed the “Isle of Orleans” from 1762 until 1800); and a caste of Creoles rules with all the haughtiness suggested by some of the names Cable chose: Grandissime, Mandarin, Brahmin.6 An American presence is, however, beginning to make itself felt, and the susceptible Creole pride, to which Cable refers often, is already smarting under this change, as illustrated in the episode where the white Honoré Grandissime rides with Governor Claiborne. At the periphery of the dominant French Creole class are the marginalized groups: mulattoes, some of whom are free people but who remain separate from the whites except in sexual matters (where such institutions as Quadroon Balls facilitate relationships between white men and women of mixed blood); blacks, sometimes servants to the mulattoes; Indians; and those of mixed Indian and white blood—although in the case of the powerful Fusilier family, the expected marginalization has not taken place (presumably because the marriage between a Tchoupitoulas princess and a Fusilier occurred as early as 1699).

Enumerating these groups allows me to make the point that Cable’s novel, while depicting New Orleans in 1803, is the work of one writing nearly eight decades later, from a highly critical point of view. Although a native of the city, Cable condemned the racial policies and attitudes that had underlain colonial and post-colonial society alike and still persisted past Reconstruction. Indeed, as an early reviewer pointed out, despite cession, political crises and economic changes, the war and its aftermath, attitudes and practices had evolved so little since 1803 that the novel in effect dealt with Louisiana in Cable’s own time.7 Donald A. Ringe observes, “The narrative voice makes clear that his theme applies as much to Anglo-Saxon attitudes in his own day as it does to Creole New Orleans at the time of the American accession.”8 Indeed, Cable specified as much in his diary.9 While part of his concern in Les Grandissimes is to depict the mores of old New Orleans—what the French city looked like, how people dressed, spoke, carried on social discourse, what views they held—he lays bare the flaws at its foundations, including the greatest, racial injustice and persecution, which he castigates in the name of the “one flesh” of which all are made (23), and the persistence of dueling and “affairs of honor,” by which whole families were decimated and impoverished on the slimmest of pretexts. His Southern contemporaries, resembling by their attitudes those Creoles portrayed in the book, found his social views offensive and generally did not forgive him.

All those who know the novel will recall that Cable uses various devices to deal with the themes of race and caste and with the Creoles’ fear that under American rule Agricola’s principle that “the man makes the crime” will be discarded: “If the different grades of race and society did not have corresponding moral and civil liberties … this community, at least, would go to pieces!” (298). Cable boldly and directly treats the issues of mixed blood and racial injustice in the plot of the two Honorés—the white son of Numa Grandissime and his half-brother, a free man of color—whom caste separates forever despite shared blood and wealth. The story of Bras-Coupé, the African chieftain sold into slavery and treated brutally, brings out even more dramatically the criminal nature of racial oppression and the social disorder it signifies. Other threads of the plot, involving the black Clémence and the quadroon Palmyre, similarly illustrate the oppressive power exercised by the Creoles. What was to Cable the moral failure of racial policy was also a practical failure, since the ostracizing of quadroons and blacks created dissension, detracted from the economy, and led to the disasters later in the century. All these issues are brought out by dialogue and in the plot, often as seen through the eyes of Joseph Frowenfeld, the outsider newly arrived in the city, whose puzzlement, questions, and candid judgments afford Cable opportunities for examining Creole society critically.

Along with shedding critical light on the class and racial foundations of Creole pride, the novelist denounces the code of honor, principally through the story of Aurore Nancanou, who lost both her husband and her fortune when Agricola Fusilier killed him in a duel over a gambling debt. Contrasted with these flaws at the heart of Creole life are its appealing features: the joie de vivre of the Creoles, illustrated so well by Aurore and her daughter; their handsome features; the charm of their language, mores, even their superstitions; their fidelity to the France of their ancestors. Moreover, while most of the Grandissimes and Fusiliers cling to their customs and views stubbornly and uncritically, in what was already—in 1803—an unrealistic refusal to recognize the legitimacy of the new, the white Honoré, while seeing the appeal of tradition, undergoes an intellectual and moral conflict as he recognizes the moral failures of his class.

Although the public space of the Place d’Armes, streets, and levees as well as Frowenfeld’s shop are the theater of much of the novel’s action, the Creole houses often serve as setting and have symbolic value—underlining the use of house to mean lineage. The simple Creole cottage shared by Aurore and her daughter bears witness to her poverty—but also her good taste and ingenuity at masking her very straitened circumstances. The great house—the “mother-mansion” (203)—of the Grandissimes, where all repair for the fête de grand-père and the wedding of Honoré’s sister, serves conspicuously to proclaim their wealth and prestige and to polarize them in distinction to others.

Chopin’s The Awakening is not, of course, principally a novel of manners, nor was her chief purpose, to judge by the book, that of deconstructing Creole society; clearly, her design was rather to examine and assess the feminine condition in its social, economic, sentimental, and physical dimensions. This last is everywhere the same, basically: through sexuality and childbirth, nature has provided for the continuation of the race; but childbirth is torture; hence being born female is a curse. To be sure, nature and society have both provided what is to be compensation for the torture: sexual pleasure, the affective thrill of romantic love, the satisfactions of maternity (physical, sentimental, social, which are all illustrated by Adèle Ratignolle), the ostensibly privileged status of receiving the protection, through marriage, of a superior, stronger figure, whose prestige radiates to the spouse. But in the heroine’s view, this status is merely enslavement—indeed a double one, since the wife is subject both to the husband’s will and the child’s demands, as made both by nature and society. Moreover, if one is to judge by her case, the satisfactions of maternity are overrated, and do not outweigh the physical burden of being a breeder of men and the social burden of remaining subordinate to the husband. The pleasures of the senses are, for women, unacknowledged, at least according to propriety, and in practice are unemphasized.

As for the pleasures of the heart, these too would seem to be overrated, both in the recognized social arrangements for them—love, courtship, and marriage (after all, Edna could not marry any of the men for whom she felt romantic attraction, and married instead one she did not love)—and in extramarital form. Indeed, Edna’s worst realization is that the love of Robert—hers for him, his for her—would inevitably be changed and degraded through time, by the very nature of the human experience (partly because, as the doctor points out, sexual love is a device of nature: when its aims are met, desire declines). Women’s physical and affective condition thus has a metaphysical dimension: the world, in the form of biology and custom as well as the structure of human desire, having conspired against them, happiness is impossible; to dream of it is delusion, and those acts intended to produce it undermine themselves.

In The Awakening, this critique of woman’s physical, affective, and metaphysical condition takes place in a social context that exacerbates everything else; as I have indicated, the maternal functions are carried out within the context of marriage and the family, which are part of a larger social structure—polite society, city, church, and state, all ostensibly facilitators of individual happiness (even the church has that pretention, with the claim of overseeing the soul’s eternal welfare) but in fact oppressive. Chopin’s novel, it is true, could have been set almost anywhere in the Western world of her time (and many other periods); but since the particular society to which Edna belongs is the Creole society of New Orleans, it is this world that the novelist examines critically, baring its flaws, comparing it also on occasion to the Anglo-Saxon, Protestant society dominant elsewhere in America.

Like that depicted in The Grandissimes, this Creole world is characterized by a self-conscious pride and sense of its past. French is still spoken (and although Chopin, herself not a Creole but only married to one, wrote in English, she flavors the dialogue and descriptive prose with expressions and lexical items from local French). The author speaks repeatedly of “Creole women”—their physical characteristics, their habits (to which the heroine, born to a Presbyterian family in Kentucky, feels alien). The suggestion is made more than once that Creoles, being of Mediterranean extraction—olive-skinned, dark-eyed—are passionate. The Creole world, centered in the French Quarter, seems enclosed upon itself; the novelist makes allusions to the business world beyond Canal Street, but it is marginal, inconsequential in the plot except for the financial ease it provides for the Pontelliers and others. There is a veneer of culture: artistic undertakings appear to be valued—musical soirées, painting, opera, and so forth; yet the one person who is portrayed as genuinely artistic, Mademoiselle Reitz, is condemned to a marginalized life of poverty and solitude (and her light and airy, but shabby apartment, affording a fine view of the Quarter and the river, symbolizes this marginalization as well as her preference for aesthetic values).

Creole society is marked also by both considerable freedom of action, without prudery (and this may be the Latin legacy), and concern for appearances: decorum is all.10 Cardplaying, betting at the race-track, walking by oneself are all acceptable conduct for the Creole woman. Robert Lebrun can accompany Edna freely, and she him, at the resort of Grand Isle, where it is customary for a young man to idolize a married woman (as was long the case in society in France—the Creole model); Mr. Pontellier, occupied with his own interests and in New Orleans often while she is on holiday, gives her the sort of freedom granted by a husband well pleased with himself and his wealth and lacking in imagination. Edna risks blame, however, by consorting with the roué Arobin, whose reputation as a seducer is such that, while men may receive him, a woman is tainted by association with him.

The life that Edna leads, as Mr. Pontellier’s spouse and mother of his children, is centered on and symbolized by two locations: their house on Esplanade, on the boundary of the French Quarter, with their servants and nurse, where they dine formally each evening, and Grand Isle, specifically the Lebrun pension, which receives Creole society in exile during the hottest months. The residence, of course, belongs to Mr. Pontellier, who takes care that it is well furnished; he likewise pays for the holiday at Grand Isle. That he looks upon his wife as of a piece with the property and wealth it signifies is clear, particularly when he insists upon her social duties: she is to keep her at-home Tuesdays, return cards to callers, dress properly.

From the emphasis given in the novel to the Esplanade house and other settings, one is led to understand—or to believe—that the mores of the upper-class Creoles, and those of their servants, who are their dependents, grow from the milieu as a plant from the soil. Thus, although it is concerned with genteel society rather than the working-classes, the novel is not without connection to French and American Naturalism and its emphasis upon both individual and collective human lives as a product of their environment. Edna’s swimming in the Gulf—away from the pension and its cottages—clearly constitutes a rejection of the society they shelter, just as her rejection of social routines and niceties and her decision to leave the Esplanade house and settle in a little cottage of her choice, taking with her only those possessions she acquired with her own funds and making it reflect herself, are a rejection of her husband and the condition of chattel.11 Only her husband’s ingenuity at masking her capricious conduct by having the great house closed for renovation allows him to save appearances.

Edna’s suicide is not, however, principally a rejection of Creole society as such and its beliefs; she is not a socially or politically liberated woman, whose line of conduct would, more reasonably, be like that of nineteenth-century French feminists such as Flora Tristan and Louise Michel, who cast off the shackles (sometimes also the clothing) that oppressed women and led free, independent, if difficult lives, often embracing anarchism. The suicide, motivated in the text by more than one factor, indeed too many—Robert’s departure and what that signifies, but also the lack of meaningful occupation for her time, an uncertain commitment to her children, dissatisfaction with the status of wife, dismay at Adele’s confinement and what it indicates about women’s condition—is more a romantic suicide, that of the character whom life has disappointed and who lacks the inner resources to go beyond such disappointment. (This multiple motivation, pointing to the novelist’s lack of control over her material in its problematic dimensions, since too many reasons are less good than one, is not the sole weakness in the novel, which is marred sometimes by implausibility, poor transitions, overused symbolism, and an excessively affective style, fitting the heroine’s temperament, which betrays its Romantic antecedents and feminine modes of writing.) However, the role of Creole society in producing this suicide is not insignificant: the importance of proprieties and appearances, the predominance of form over substance, the references to tradition and the past, the role of women as incubators all affect Edna’s position and constitute a failure of society with respect to one of its members.

Fabulous Ancestor by Donald Demarest, which can in some ways be considered a re-writing of The Grandissimes, is much more clearly focused on Creole society, specifically during the post-World War I period, but with constant reference to the previous century.12 It is also strongly centered on a house, called the house on Felicity Street (but really based on a residence at 1225 Milan, where the author’s grandmother lived; like Felicity, it is in Uptown New Orleans). The choice of Felicity as a substitute address must surely have been dictated by its lexical value. The house itself, where the main character’s affective drama is played out, is almost raised to the level of presence, and within it, the parlors, the kitchen, the carriage house, where he acts out his fantasies among debris of the past, and especially the room he shares with his grandmother—a particularly strong topos and affective center, in which he wakens, literally and figuratively, after a long journey and an illness. This central presence then serves as a means of organizing and integrating, for the author as for the characters, the city and the whole of Creole culture. The multiple themes and motifs of the novel are interwoven very deftly with each other through the image of the house; Demarest is a skilled novelist, and this work contains the finest, most sensitive prose of the three novels of intimate development treated here, along with a probing of the realities behind appearances that is matched only by Cable’s.

The eponymous ancestor—the grandmother of the ten-year-old boy and animating spirit of the house—stands as a representative of her society and her generation, but also of an idealized and fabulous past, which the author calls a myth (110), like the past to which old Agricola Fusilier clings in The Grandissimes, and the entire Creole cultural inheritance, to which present-day Creole society remains allied and which it wishes to preserve. When she recounts episodes from long ago, “it was more like the room itself talking” (100). The whole complex of family, house, mores, and the past is strongly flavored with nostalgia, as the middle-aged writer projects onto his text, through the affectivity of his adult characters, his own nostalgia for a childhood lost.13 To what degree the past the grandmother has inherited and wishes to keep alive still endures, and to what degree it was, and is, valid and legitimate are central questions of the novel, associated with another central issue, that of a boy’s identity and his moving toward the moral autonomy of adulthood.

“Le vieux Paris n’est plus,” lamented Baudelaire in his poem “Le Cygne.” In Demarest’s book—which he labeled as a novel despite its being highly autobiographic—a corresponding lament is the refrain of Granny and most of her kinsmen. Daily at the house on Felicity Street there are complaints over the changes that have come about in New Orleans: those wrought by the Civil War, especially emancipation and the presence and economic power of Yankees (whose influence is, surprisingly, almost unnoticed in The Awakening, although years of Reconstruction had not been without effect), with their pernicious Protestantism; new social changes after 1900 and 1918; further decline in the prosperity of the Creoles, and the sense that they have become subject to forces beyond their control; the changing position and attitudes of blacks, which have as one consequence the gradual disappearance of the servant class; the vanishing of Southern chivalry, which, in the mode of jest and play (but the ludic mode is always a repetition, rehearsal, or refashioning of acts that belong to the life that has consequences, and is thus significant) the central figure and his uncle Bob reenact, in the explicit terms of Arthurian legend—thus tying Southern history not only to the courtly tradition but also to medieval Christendom, and thereby validating it.

These same complaints could generally have been heard anywhere in the South after the war and Reconstruction and up through the 1930s; but in the New Orleans setting they are distinctive, related not to the demise of a plantation economy and culture, which roughly imitated the lives of English gentility, but to the loss of an ethnic culture, with its own language, its own religion (a very French-centered Catholicism), its peculiar traditions such as Mardi Gras and the New Orleans All Saints’ celebration, its foods and architecture and city design. The dissatisfaction Granny displays with her sons and particularly her daughters-in-law is related to what she considers deplorable social changes. Ironically, the least successful of the sons is also the one who holds most tightly to an ethic of nobility that has disappeared, suggesting that the old ways cannot make common cause with the new. His marriage finally to a Yankee woman from the merchant class constitutes a compromise with practicality that is also a defeat of his chivalric Southern idealism. “Tante” Bébé, the grandmother’s friend (one of the most successful portraits in a novel that includes many), herself a Creole and even more attached than they to what is beyond reach, since she looks to Paris itself as the locus of culture, provides nevertheless a critical contrast to the others; she, at least, is capable of identifying the sham in her society and judging it.

The boy’s coming into the consciousness of early adolescence, as he moves through his eleventh year, is connected to the cultural watershed around him. For the question of values arises explicitly: how and how much should he be shaped by the past, to what good should he hold fast, and what should he try to be? The Sphinx of adulthood, which the boy must confront, requires that he choose between acceptance or rejection of his patrimony. The self is seen throughout (if less mechanically so than in Chopin’s novel) as related to the world of others, to which it must conform or from which it must set itself apart, according to its own choices. It is significant that the boy, whom family members call “Sonny,” has been sent from the Philippines, where his father, an army officer, is stationed, to spend a year with his grandmother—an initiation to his past, thus, by implication, to himself.14 The entire Creole culture around him conspires to alert him to differences: class differences within the city, and differences between New Orleanians and Yankees, a group to which his father belongs, in manners, ceremonies, speech, education, ways of eating, worshipping, and marrying, in ways of thinking about the past, in treatment of family members. What the value of these differences is for the boy and what he is to do with them in his future are not so easily decided within the terms of the dialectic presented to him and the reader.

This is true chiefly because of what Demarest exposes as the flawed ethical foundations on which Creole culture was built. While Granny claims that during the Yankee occupation most of the former servants remained faithful to the family, and she does not mistreat Cleo, her black cook, who has authority over her kitchen and is allowed great independence of mind and behavior (the portrait of Cleo, with her motley religious views and her malapropisms, is, let it be noted, a comic masterpiece), the boy cannot be insensitive, nor can the reader, to the racial question, whose dark side devalues the glories of the Creole past even as Granny and her sons and friends, and the house itself, bear witness to them. Nor is the issue of blacks versus whites the sole one to bring questions of justice to the boy’s attention: his friendship with Mr. Ligurno, the Italian tailor across the street, to whom his grandmother will not even address a word and whose single visit to the house is exceptional even in his own eyes, poses every day the problem of class and value of the boy’s Creole ancestry.

While Demarest does not make the black-and-white racial issue central to the plot, as Cable did in The Grandissimes, it is frequently raised through conversations, the boy’s questionings, the presence of Cleo in the house, and, most significantly, in connection with the question of Christian doctrine. Not a novel of edification, and often permeated with the carnival atmosphere and pagan attitudes that characterize New Orleans, Demarest’s work is nonetheless the product of a religious vision, which is indicated first of all in the paratexte,15 that is, material outside of the narrative: in this case, the epigraph (from Ezechiel) and the table of contents and part headings of the novel, which come from the terminology of the Divine Office—Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers, Compline—and which provide a symbolic structure for the boy’s initiation process. This religious framework is supported by numerous textual references and episodes such as the All Saints’ Day cemetery visit, Ash Wednesday, and the St. Joseph’s altar, and by the chivalric model, which, as Sonny and Uncle Bob relive it, has a strong vein of medieval mystical piety. To these elements are added the dialectic established by two contrasting priests: the worldly Jesuit Father Dagobert, the boy’s tutor and friend of the family, whose behavior is tailored to fit the standards of the Creole class to which he ministers; and the displaced Breton Father Sebastien, a chaplain to sailors and workingmen and other marginalized, most of all to blacks, whom he takes in at a shelter on Rampart Street. The episode in which the boy, who has already been greatly impressed by the Breton, discovers this shelter and the man’s inspired charity toward the most ill-favored of the city constitutes a splendidly-wrought moment of discovery.

The boy observes other customs and attitudes in the episodes that take place in Biloxi, on the Gulf Coast, where, although some family members continue to hold to New Orleans ways, even exaggerating them, others have parted ways with their caste, notably Uncle Charley, who married a Protestant and has become indifferent to Creole views and decorum. The boy’s long holiday on East Beach in Biloxi affords a range of experiences going beyond those in the city: fishing trips with the roughest, though the finest, of men; group play with young cousins; the marvelous scene of the shrimp-boat blessing. It also brings disillusion, with the death of Tante Bébé (surely symbolic of an order’s passing, even though she was critical of Granny), a first disappointment with a girl, and the unmasking of Uncle Bob, wild with desire for the Yankee woman. While these episodes constitute to some degree the rituals of Creole life, transplanted but authentic, they also illustrate alternative modes and values and show how easily Creole culture can be, and is being, eroded by competing ways. In this sense the Biloxi episodes act to heighten the novel’s central themes of illusion and disillusion, past and present, caste and individual.

Grau’s The House on Coliseum Street, the only novel of those under examination here to put the house in its title, is the least dense, the least significant of the four as a depiction of New Orleans and social criticism. The Creole culture represented by Aurelie, the owner of the titular house, and which is embodied to a lesser degree in her daughter Joan Mitchell, the heroine, is not really essential to the plot: this story of the love life of a rather jejune, perhaps neurotic young woman, including her abortion and its mental consequences, could easily have been set in another locale. To be sure, Creole attitudes (dislike of Protestantism, for instance, and a certain moral laxity, joined to a punctillious concern for appearances and finesse in maintaining them) are visible throughout the novel, mainly in the character of Aurelie; but the manners vs. morals distinction characterized society elsewhere in the South also. Likewise, while Grau displays sensitivity to particularities of the New Orleans setting—weather patterns, trees, winds, skies and air, temperature, storms—and provides touches of local color, such as mentions of characteristic architectural features, St. Charles Avenue, streetcars, restaurants by Lake Pontchartrain, the causeway, a university partly of Gothic design (and one recognizes Tulane and Newcomb, although they are not named), such ingredients, often found in fiction set in New Orleans, do not constitute either an examination or a critique of Creole society in its mid-twentieth century form. Such questions of values as what to do with one’s life, especially as a woman (the core problem for the heroine), how to deal practically and morally with sexuality and its consequences and with other human beings are not posed in explicit terms of the girl’s Creole heritage (indeed, her father’s Italian origins and his dubious, mafia-like business practices may be seen as more influential).

The house itself, which is mentioned almost excessively, does function, however, in the heroine’s drama and reminds readers that in the New Orleans tradition the family dwelling has played a considerable symbolic role, as the novels previously discussed illustrate. Built in the style fashionable shortly before the War between the States, bequeathed to successive generations of Aurelie’s family, altered only slightly by her successive husbands (a fountain from the first spouse, Joan’s father, and remodeled attic rooms and a fire escape from the most recent, who was banished upwards), the house on Coliseum Street represents a continuous blood line and a tradition of gentility, which has become, however, almost shabby and parasitically dependent on the wealth of the deceased Italian immigrant. Because it is associated most closely with Aurelie, the house seems particularly feminine, unlike the house on Felicity Street in Fabulous Ancestor, which retains masculine character despite the grandmother’s reign there.16 The location of Aurelie’s house—a very few blocks from St. Charles Avenue—is important as a symbol of status; its current deterioration is less significant, since, whatever the present lack of luster, it speaks for the money that once was there. “The memory of wealth is still a kind of power in New Orleans” (24). Symbolizing the past and a dominant caste, the house in turn is symbolized by its odor: “the smell of the people and the things. Of the living that had gone on between the walls . . . . of the generations being born. Dying” (230-31). To the house one retreats when social disorder threatens, as in one of the novel’s early scenes, when a drunk from the slums a dozen blocks away wanders past and collapses: everyone goes inside, hides behind curtains, waits until the police come. Great freedom in conduct is allowed outside of the house, as long as it need not be acknowledged; but Aurelie banishes from its sanctum another daughter’s suitor when he violates the proper standards of behavior under her very roof, and thus she shows how the house stands for authority.17

The house on Coliseum Street has as a double the home of the heroine’s great-aunt Ethel in “the Pass” (called “Pass Rigaud,” based presumably on Pass Christian on the Mississippi Coast). One is reminded of the place Chopin and Demarest give to resorts—Grand Isle in The Awakening and Biloxi in Fabulous Ancestor—which act partly as extensions of the city and Creole life, partly as avenues of escape. Ethel’s house is merely another locus and image of Creole propriety, indeed a strong one, since it is where Joan goes for the abortion, and Ethel is a chief player in the conspiracy to disguise the girl’s condition to everyone, including servants.

The heroine’s rebellion—an indecisive, colorless, uncertain revolt that turns into action only when it has the motive of sexual spite—can be seen in terms of the Coliseum Street house (and by extension that at the Pass), because it is rebellion against caste and maternal figure as well as act of spite against a former lover. Her attitude toward the structure as dwelling and symbol is ambiguous throughout: sometimes she wallows in it (and in the bed, an enclosure-within-enclosure), finding it charming, feeling herself “propped up” by the ancestors it represents (210); sometimes she is loath to return (and rides around the streetcar circuit or drives for hours in her car to avoid going home). “I’m back and caught just where I was four months ago. Where I said I wouldn’t ever be again,” she reflects upon returning home after the abortion. At the story’s end, when she has successfully taken her revenge on her erstwhile lover through denouncing him to his superiors as a seducer and party to an abortion, she returns at dawn to the house only to find herself locked out; she knows, moreover, that, given her conduct, she will have to go away for an undetermined period, although she also imagines returning to the house and owning it someday. Her act thus has brought about what she did not have the courage to accomplish otherwise: a significant, if temporary, separation from the old and unauthentic symbolic center of her life, toward which her ambivalence remains, however, unresolved.18

In these four works, which are all principally or peripherally novels of manners, critical light is shed on the past and on the present alike, as the foundations on which Creole culture and society rested are brought into confrontation with realities and moral imperatives they ignored. Already at time of cession, as Cable depicts it, the social and political order that had been in existence for a century or so in Louisiana was seriously flawed, as measured by the principles of the European Enlightenment and the American Constitution as well as what Cable considers to be moral law; whereas the Creoles struggle against the historical fate that has made them Americans, the novel points to the illegitimacy of their social order and its inevitable failure. Although dramatized less, decline is visible similarly in the other novels, accompanied by a stubborn resistance to recognizing it and the inability to go beyond it by creating a just society. “That old house is mighty hard to get out of,” says Uncle Bob in Fabulous Ancestor. “The doors are locked and there are no keys and the windows are shuttered . . .” (191). The Southern dilemma, whereby a class built its economy on and drew its identity from what came to be seen as a collective injustice and innumerable individual injustices, is heightened for the Creoles, who represent a culture-within-a-culture, grounded on opposition to more than one adversarial group and, ultimately, to the entire nation of which they were ostensibly a part. The relationships between this dilemma and individual destinies, as Creole society endured and yet changed, are the burden of these four novelists. “You should come back,” says Granny to the boy, “if only to see what can be salvaged” (260).


1. It is clearly beyond the scope of this article to address, even in a cursory fashion, the problems involved in identifying and defining cultural differences, and the larger question of what culture is. I shall use the term culture simply in its ordinary anthropological sense: the ensemble of arts, attitudes, customs, rituals, language, and other mores of a people or sub-group. The four authors treated here all stress the distinctiveness of Creole life in New Orleans, one of whose sources, they imply, is ethnic: Gallic blood, mentioned frequently, and signifying a passionate nature. The Creole taste for pursuing pleasure is also a repeated motif, starting with the very first scene in The Grandissimes. It is known that one of the early governors, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, was famous for his lavish parties and balls, and such pursuits as gambling and heavy drinking are reflected in early records as well as these novels.

2. I use the term French Creole to indicate New World, specifically Louisiana, residents of French extraction and their culture. Other uses of the word Creole, e.g., for those of Spanish ancestry or persons of mixed blood in the colonies, or dialects of French spoken by whites or blacks in Louisiana and elsewhere, are not pertinent here.

3. Paul Schlueter has established 1959 as the probable date, using internal references. See his Shirley Ann Grau (Boston: Twayne, 1981), 40.

4. Parenthetical references in the text will be to the following editions: George W. Cable, The Grandissimes (New York: Scribner’s, 1928); Kate Chopin, The Awakening (New York: Norton, 1976); Donald Demarest, Fabulous Ancestor (Lafayette: Levy Humanities Series, 1991); Shirley Ann Grau, The House on Coliseum Street (New York: Knopf, 1970).

5. Gaston Bachelard, La Poétique de l’espace (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1967), 18; Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again (New York: Harcourt, Brace, & World, 1964), 62. See chapter one of Bachelard’s study for a number of viewpoints pertinent to my interpretation of Demarest’s novel.

6. Most of the male family members bear names of Greek and Roman heroes—a practice (having nothing to do with the Napoleonic empire) that designates them as anachronisms.

7. Hjalmar H. Boyesen, “Cable’s Grandissimes,” Scribner’s Monthly Magazine, 1880, reprinted in Arlin Turner, ed., Critical Essays on George W. Cable (Boston: G.K. Hall, 1980), 10-11.

8. Ringe, “Narrative Voice in Cable’s The Grandissimes,” in Thomas J. Richardson, ed., “The Grandissimes”: Centennial Essays (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1981), 21.

9. It contained, he wrote, “as plain a protest against the times in which it was written as against the earlier times in which its scenes were set.” Quoted in Richardson, 6.

10. Per Seyersted draws a contrast between the supposed freedom of nineteenth-century American women and that of the French (and elsewhere in Catholic countries). See Seyersted, Kate Chopin: A Critical Biography (Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1969, 1980), 139. This distinction is, I believe, exaggerated, perhaps false: in France, many women of means married under the séparation de biens arrangement and thus retained control of their personal wealth, and the custom of marrying for practical reasons precluded certain illusions and encouraged sentimental connections on the side. In short, considerable freedom was allowed to married women of the upper classes, providing certain proprieties were honored. The Creole society that Edna has joined follows this model more than the American one, but does not, to be sure, offer her the personal fulfillment she desires—nor has she been prepared to achieve it by herself.

11. “The pigeon-house pleased her. It at once assumed the intimate character of a home, while she herself invested it with a charm which it reflected like a warm glow” (93).

12. Demarest acknowledged the resemblance between the society and characters portrayed by Cable and what he knew of his Creole ancestors and and their circles. See his Author’s Note to the 1991 edition.

13. The psychic origins and dimensions of nostalgia, which psychoanalytic critics have alleged, are beyond the scope of this article.

14. The child is never referred to by name. This omission probably was inspired by reluctance on the novelist’s part either to identify the boy with himself (as Proust declined, finally, to use the name Marcel for his hero, with few exceptions) or to separate the character from himself. The nickname “Sonny,” used in dialogue but not by the narrating voice, has the effect of underlining the boy’s place as a scion of the family.

15. The term is from Gérard Genette, Seuils (Paris: Seuil, 1987).

16. Demarest calls the house on Felicity Street “female-haunted” (135). One sees, nevertheless, a remarkable vigor of character there, partly because of the boy himself, also due to Father Dagobert and various male family members.

17. Cf. 145: “She had no word from the house on Coliseum Street.”

18. Schlueter accepts (44-46) the author’s statement that the conclusion is to constitute rebirth; Joan has ended her dependence on the house, and can move toward a sound selfhood. Yet neither her previous conduct nor the pattern set by her mother, whose apparent autonomy conceals emptiness and dependence (a new suitor may become her sixth husband), encourages one to believe that she is truly prepared for moral independence and responsibility. It is unclear, moreover, how an act that will destroy the career of a sometime lover—the person who has most attracted her—can constitute the foundation on which to overcome moral inadequacies.