In Catherine Carmier, the arrival in a small rural community in southern Louisiana of two outsiders—two natives who have been away—threatens the tentative equilibrium that has been established within the community. Whether that equilibrium can ever be reestablished, and whether it should be, are questions that the novel explores.
Jackson Bradley has come home after being graduated from college in California. His aunt, Charlotte, believes he has come home to stay, that he will settle down to teaching in the community, and that he will probably marry Mary Louise, whose love for him has never faltered during his absence. Although he is not sure where he does belong, Jackson realizes that this backwater community can no longer satisfy his needs. As far as he is concerned, he has returned for a visit of only a few weeks.
Lillian Carmier arrives on the same day as Jackson. She is welcomed by her sister, Catherine. When Catherine and Jackson encounter each other, it is clear to Lillian that there is something between these two.
The Carmiers’ skin is so light that they could easily pass for white, and Lillian, who has been reared by relatives of her father in New Orleans and who therefore has no strong ties either to the community or to her parents, has decided to do just that, a long way from Louisiana. Catherine has no such intention, and she tries to encourage a greater closeness between Lillian and Della, their mother. Their father Raoul’s insistence that they have nothing to do with dark-skinned men, however, has left Catherine in a position of emotional isolation.
Her father cannot so easily dictate Catherine’s feelings. In fact, she has had a son, but Raoul drove the dark-skinned father away before he could marry her. She has also loved Jackson, whose skin color makes him just as unacceptable. Now Jackson’s return threatens whatever peace Catherine has been able to find.
Among those with whom Jackson renews acquaintance, he finds understanding especially from his former teacher, Madame Bayonne. She lends him a sympathetic, but not uncritical, ear as he tries to work through the emotional confusions arising from his sense that he must carry on his spiritual quest, from his reluctance to inflict pain on Charlotte, and from his renewed feelings for Catherine.
With the support of Lillian, who, for reasons she never examines, wants Catherine to make some sort of break from the family, Jackson and Catherine become lovers. As soon as their relationship has been consummated, however, Catherine resolves to send Jackson away. She cannot bring herself to betray her father, whom she loves, she realizes, more powerfully than she could ever love any other man.
Jackson tries, with limited success, to convince himself that he wants nothing further to do with Catherine. He is still dealing with those feelings when he tells Charlotte of his intention to leave. At first Charlotte is unable to accept what he tells her, and her collapse makes him the target of the community’s anger. Her minister, though, helps her to recognize the difference between loving and possessing. She realizes that her Christian faith compels her to let Jackson go. Ironically, Jackson, who has left the church, does not understand Charlotte’s change of heart.
When Lillian and Catherine decide to attend a dance in nearby Bayonne, Lillian makes sure that Jackson will be there as well. Raoul, who has escorted his daughters to Bayonne, is told by two black men that Catherine is fooling around up at the dance; Raoul does not know that the informers are carrying out the orders of Cajuns who covet Raoul’s land.
After Raoul has torn Catherine away from Jackson, Jackson pursues them back to the Carmier house. The two men finally and inevitably confront each other. Jackson is the victor in the bruising fight that ensues, but his victory seems empty when Catherine says she must look after her beaten father. However, she says she will come to Jackson if he will be patient....
(The entire section is 1,809 words.)