Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

When Lina crosses the “color line” to marry Richard Tracy, the son of a slave owner, Richard acts on his antislavery and antiracist beliefs by challenging the social order that has privileged him and his family. Collins suggests that social change can begin on an individual level, and she depicts a fulfilling marriage in the United States between a woman of color and a white man. According to scholars William Andrews and Mitch Kachun, Collins’s novel argues that African American women should have the right to marry whomever they choose, regardless of prejudice or laws, and that they can be effective, responsible wives and mothers.

Andrews and Kachun have written two alternate endings to the novel. The first is a happy ending that rewards Claire for her good character and allows her to speak out against slavery. In the second, tragic ending, Isabelle Tracy kills Claire with a pistol. Collins did offer some foreshadowing to indicate that there might be a violent ending, but no conclusive evidence of how she planned to end the book.

The Curse of Caste also participates in a literary tradition involving narratives of schools and teachers. Collins worked as a teacher in Pennsylvania, and she presents Claire Neville Tracy and preceptress Miss Ellwood as positive teaching characters. Scholar Gabrielle Foreman argues that the novel represents school as a place of refuge and encourages education as essential for black female liberation.