Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
In the first sentence of this story, George Washington Cable establishes the time and place of his story: “In the first decade of the present century, when the newly established American Government was the most hateful thing in Louisiana . . . there stood, a short distance above what is now Canal Street . . . an old colonial plantation-house half in ruin.” In addition to giving the setting, Cable here establishes his theme, which is the clash of two cultures.
Representing the old world is Jean Poquelin, the aristocratic Creole. He lives in an old house that he refuses to tear down or modernize, despite the urging of his neighbors. He can speak some English but prefers to use French, even when he confronts American officials. Believing in a government by aristocracy rather than by bureaucracy, he goes directly to the governor with his problem: “I know not the new laws. I ham a Fr-r-rench-a-man! Fr-r-rench-a-man have something aller au contraire—he come at his Gouverneur.” A Creole goes to his governor because he believes in personal loyalty, in ties of community and kinship. Poquelin visits the graves of his parents every day, and this same impulse drives him to shield his brother so that no one will learn of his disease and force him to go to the leper colony.
Cable sympathizes with the plight of the Creole represented by Poquelin. He has White say that Poquelin was “a better man” than his persecutors. At the same time, though, Cable realizes that Poquelin’s world is doomed. His house is decaying, and so, too, is his brother. The aggressive, industrious Americans are physically transforming the city, bringing new values with them. They cannot understand why Poquelin should resist improvements to his property, because these will make money for him. Cash, not community or tradition, concerns them, and they corrupt the native residents with their outlook. The lower-class Creoles stage the charivari, but only at the prompting of the Americans.
In the clash of cultures, the old falls before the new. Poquelin dies; the mute slave and Jacques retreat into the swamp, which is itself retreating before the onslaught of outsiders. The Poquelins have yielded to a more successful but less humane world.