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Jessie Redmon Fauset (1882—1961)

Nella Larsen (1891—1964)


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There Is Confusion

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(1924), by Jessie Redmon Fauset, was the author's first novel and was written in direct response to Birthright (1922), a novel by a white writer, T. S. Stribling. Fauset, along with renaissance writers Nella Larsen and Walter White, believed the mulatto protagonist of Stribling's book to be unrealistic and felt that she was better “qualified” to write about the subject. Thus Fauset deliberately set about revising stereotypical representations of black life.

There Is Confusion centers on two families, the New York Marshalls and the Philadelphia Byes. In delineating their histories, Fauset stresses the significance of kinship and origins. She also shows the interconnectedness of the black and white races within these families in order to challenge the prevailing notion that black is evil and white is good. Making Peter Bye's “strain of white blood” responsible for all his faults reverses the conventional mulatto tales; however, her complicated genealogies sometimes confuse readers. Critics also agree that the book attempts to cover too much ground–too much time and space, too many characters, themes, and subplots.

A particular strength is its focus upon black women's psychological reactions to sexism and racism. Joanna Marshall–beautiful, ambitious, talented, confident, but snobbish–fights to overcome obstacles against her race and gender in her attempt to become a famous singer and dancer. Her attitude that with enough determination “colored” people can be anything they want helps her to achieve at least partial victories. Another woman, Maggie Ellersley, struggles against the same obstacles of race and gender but with the added struggle against classism. Maggie lives in a tenement with her laundress mother and slides further down the social scale when she marries a “common gambler,” after her romance with Philip Marshall is thwarted by his sister Joanna. Eventually Maggie leaves her gambling husband, reunites with Philip, and marries him, but happiness is fleeting for Philip soon dies.

Many critics praise the novel for its revelation of middle-class attitudes; however, There Is Confusion is also important for its depiction of black women who question normative wife and mother roles by pursuing careers and self-reliance. Joanna believes women who give up everything for love are “poor silly sheep,” and Maggie realizes she does not need anyone, not even a man. Maggie describes marriage as not very “interesting” or “picturesque”; and Joanna will not let it interfere with her other interests. By the end, however, Joanna marries Peter Bye and willingly forfeits her career for “pleasure” in “ordinary” things. Maggie, after Philip dies, still feels “bulwarked by the Marshall respectability.” Some critics view the novel's conclusion as Fauset's capitulation to the very values she questions.

Rather than capitulating, however, Fauset seems to advocate men and women putting aside their individual desires and joining in love to fight racism. For Fauset, nothing was so difficult as the “problem of being colored in America.” The didactic narrative voice that presses this thesis is a flaw in the novel, but the sentiment is a hallmark of the Harlem Renaissance.

Carolyn Wedin Sylvander, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer, 1981.Ann duCille, The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women's Fiction, 1993.Jacquelyn Y. McLendon, The Politics of Color in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset and Nella Larsen, 1995.


Subjects: Literature

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