Although she had been writing for The Crisis since her undergraduate days, it was not literary aspiration that spurred Jessie Redmon Fauset to write novels, but rather the 1922 publication of T. S. Stribling’s novel about a middle-class mulatto, Birthright. Realizing that there was “an audience waiting to hear the truth about” African Americans, Fauset felt that those who were better qualified than whites to present the truth should do so. In presenting such truth, Fauset wrote about characters she knew best: educated African Americans from respectable family backgrounds who in their values and goals were, as she stated, “not so vastly different from other Americans.” Fauset used traditional literary forms in her writing, such as the sentimental novel, Greek tragedy, and fairy tales, and she was criticized for offering nothing innovative during a time when African American writers were experimenting with cultural forms and themes. In addition, because Fauset’s novels focused on women and women’s issues, they were dismissed in the 1930’s by both white and black male critics. With the burgeoning interest in African American women’s literature in the 1970’s, female critics began to discover the complexity of Fauset’s novels and to note her treatment of gender, class, and race issues. As a result, Fauset’s works have become the focus of increased critical attention.
There Is Confusion
Fauset’s first novel, There Is Confusion—a tale of two families—is structured by three separate but connected plot lines, the first of which focuses on the Marshalls, a well-to-do family. Joanna, the youngest of the four children, encouraged by her father’s thwarted dreams of greatness, wants to become a dancer. The second plot line focuses on Peter Bye, the fourth-generation descendant of a family whose lives are intertwined with the lives of their wealthy white former owners. While Peter’s grandfather, Isaiah, refuses to accept his relative’s offer to serve as their coachman and goes on to found a school for black youths in Philadelphia, Peter’s dreams of becoming a surgeon are thwarted because he longs to be recognized by the white Byes and is not. Meriwether, Peter’s father, deciding instead that “the world owes [him] a living,” does nothing. Influenced by his father’s attitude, Peter becomes entangled in the legacy of racial hatred and aspires to nothing. It is only when he becomes attracted to Joanna and is influenced by her goals of greatness that he decides, in order to win her love, to become a doctor.
The third plot line, the story of Maggie Ellersley, the daughter of a washerwoman, involves a conventional marriage. Aspiring to the middle class, Maggie begins working for Joanna’s father, where she meets and takes an interest in his son, Philip. The interest appears to be mutual; however, Joanna intervenes and tells Maggie that she should marry someone in her own class. A hurt Maggie does so, then becomes a successful businesswoman when the marriage fails. After a second failed marriage, Maggie goes to France to volunteer during World War I and encounters the dying Philip. They marry, and she takes care of him until his death.
Within each plot line, Fauset heavy-handedly reveals the obstacles to the achievement of each character’s dreams: Joanna’s dream of becoming a professional dancer is thwarted by race; Peter’s dream (or lack thereof) is influenced by family legacy; Maggie’s dream is hindered by class. Fauset also reveals how each character achieves despite the obstacles. Unable to dance in a white theater troupe, Joanna starts her own dance class but is asked to dance the role of the colored American in “The Dance of the Nations” when the white woman chosen for the part lacks the technique. Joanna attains instant success and is eventually asked to perform three roles.
Peter, because of his love for Joanna, becomes a surgeon; however, she has no interest in assuming the conventional roles of wife and mother. Therefore, caught in the web of circumstances characteristic of sentimental novels, and through a series of contrived coincidences, Peter ends up in Europe during the war and meets one of his white relatives. Young Meriwether dies in Peter’s arms, but not before extracting the promise that Peter will visit the senior Meriwether. By moving beyond hate, Peter not only receives long-awaited recognition from the white Byes but also wins Joanna as his wife.
As evidenced by the many hardships that Maggie undergoes, Fauset suggests that Maggie’s aspiration—to transcend one’s class through marriage—is the most problematic. Maggie achieves her desired middle-class status not...
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