George Washington Cable sets Jean-ah Poquelin in the deep southern state of Louisiana in the early nineteenth century. This was a time of intense turmoil, as Cable establishes in the novel’s opening:
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. (1)
Here, Cable begins to show the cultural divide between the old south and the new south as the government transitions from French rule to American. Jean represents the heritage and traditions of southern Creole culture, particularly as a once-wealthy plantation owner. For example, although his plantation home is described as dilapidated, musty, and in need of repair, he refuses to sell it to make way for the building of new homes. When Jean loses his wealth and power, it is symbolic of the Creoles’ loss of power in the new south.
Moving on to cultural depiction, Cable deftly paints a vivid picture of the Creole and Southern ethos. Cables writes of Jean’s plantation,
Around it was a dense growth of low water willows, with half a hundred sorts of thorny or fetid bushes . . . and the impassable mud below bristled with chevaux de frise of the dwarf palmetto . . . Two lone forest-trees, dead cypresses, stood in the centre of the marsh, dotted with roosting vultures. The shallow strips of water were hid by myriads of aquatic plants, under whose coarse and spiritless flowers, could one have seen it, was a harbor of reptiles, great and small, to make one shudder to the end of his days. (1–2)
Subsequently, Jean returns from his two-year voyage without his brother, Jacques. Cable uses this incident to illustrate Creole customs regarding witchcraft, voodoo, and the supernatural, as seen in the following excerpt:
The few were silenced, his former friends died off, and the name of Jean Marie Poquelin became a symbol of witchery, devilish crime, and hideous nursery fictions . . . Among both blacks and whites the house was the object of a thousand superstitions. Every midnight they affirmed, the feu follet came out of the marsh and ran in and out of the rooms, flashing from window to window. The story of some lads, whose words in ordinary statements were worthless, was generally credited, that the night they camped in the woods, rather than pass the place after dark, they saw, about sunset, every window blood-red, and on each of the four chimneys an owl sitting, which turned his head three times round, and moaned and laughed with a human voice. (Cable 3–4)
Cable employs the supernatural quite well, especially in the mention of Jean's witchcraft. The townsfolk believe that Jean used witchcraft or voodoo to bring his beloved brother back from the dead so they could remain together. We can see how Cable uses this to portray Jean’s solitary life, in isolation from society. Cable’s intertwining of the new and old, the supernatural, French-Creole terms, and colorful descriptions exemplifies the influence of society on his characters, and vice-versa.