The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Curse of Caste focuses on Claire and her romantic prospects. Collins builds sympathetic identification with the mother and daughter. These educated, genteel ladies fit the character type in antebellum literature of the “tragic mulatta,” who is young, innocent, beautiful, light-skinned, raised as a white person, and unaware of her true racial identity. Juno Hays, a wise African American nurse, is a central figure who holds secrets and is loyal to Lina and Claire. Probably a former slave, Juno has a happy marriage to a successful man. Juno says in chapter 25 that she sees no difference between people based on race, because black blood is as good as white blood. Juno gives Claire her mother’s ring, which holds an inscription that helps prove Claire’s identity.

The book’s antagonist characters are George Manville, who may have predatory intentions toward Claire, and Claire’s young aunt Isabelle Tracy. Antagonistic forces include class-and race-based prejudice and the slavery system in antebellum America. In chapter 6, the hero Richard Tracy is outspoken in favor of social equality and in opposition to slavery. In chapter 22, Richard meditates on the injustice and crime of “the curse of caste.” The author implies that distinctions based on race, money, and appearances should be erased. The story was published at the end of the Civil War and participated in ongoing nineteenth century debates about the proper legal and social roles of African Americans.