George Washington Cable Critical Essays

George Washington Cable Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

By the 1880’s, much of the passion that had divided the country during the Civil War had been displaced by a growing interest in life in other regions of the newly rejoined republic. No longer separated by political and economic differences, people began not only to accept cultural differences but also to express keen interest in them, and the fiction of local color was perfectly suited to these readers. Stories of the day tended to emphasize verisimilitude of detail within scenic elements: Settings were often colorful extravaganzas; characters were typically drawn to emphasize peculiarities of their region or culture yet were often poorly developed; and plots were often thin.

These characteristics are reflected in George Washington Cable’s stories of New Orleans: Settings sparkle with picturesque detail and rich imagery, and character descriptions emphasize the cultural or regional peculiarities of speech, manner, and thought. Cable’s characters are rarely developed beyond the superficial, being distanced by narrative perspective, vague in motivation, and frequently shrouded in mystery. Plots are sketchy events, lacking causal relationships and frequently relying on melodrama. Given these general characteristics, Cable’s stories could be pigeonholed as merely more local color; but then much that is specifically Cable’s richness would be lost. Deeper elements of Cable’s unique literary perspective, however, play an important role in the total artistic impact of his stories. His New Orleans still retained much of her international flavor and embraced a unique mixture of races, clashing cultures, opposing values, old loyalties, and old hatreds; poverty and wealth coexisted; and caste systems were accepted and propagated. Cable’s strongly developed social consciousness directed his writing talents to portray these elements sensitively. Thus, while preserving the picturesque, Cable probed the ramifications of racial juxtaposition and of social problems, capturing more completely the spirit of his literary domain. This added dimension of circumstantial reality, born out of Cable’s personality and New Orleans’s uniqueness, distinguishes Cable’s powerful stories from the mass of local-color fiction of his day.

“’Sieur George”

Cable’s first story, “’Sieur George,” reflects characteristics typical both of local-color fiction and of Cable’s fiction. The standard picturesque setting, in this case an old tenement building, rises before us as the narrator masterfully describes it: “With its gray stucco peeling off in broad patches, it has the solemn look of gentility in rags, and stands, or, as it were, hangs, about the corner of two ancient streets, like a faded fop who pretends to be looking for employment.” The simile of inanimate object to animate one is precise, and the images reinforce each other to create a subtle atmosphere of age and decay. Through its doors are seen “masses of cobwebbed iron overhung by a creaking sign” into a courtyard “hung with many lines of wet clothes, its sides hugged by rotten staircases that seem vainly trying to clamber out of the rubbish.” The neighborhood has been “long since given up to fifth-rate shops.” The setting is thus vividly drawn by a composite of details each artistically contributing to a subtle atmosphere of time and ruin vital to the story’s texture.

It is not unusual for Cable’s characters to echo the atmosphere of the setting, giving it an organic quality that continues the link of inanimate to animate. When ’Sieur George first appeared, both he and the neighborhood were “fashionable.” At the time of the story, some fifty years later, he is a reclusive “square small man” draped in a “newly repaired overcoat.” No longer fashionable and usually drunk, ’Sieur George stumbles homenever careening to right or left but now forcing himself slowly forward, as if there was a high gale in front, and now scudding briskly ahead at a ridiculous little dogtrot, as if there was a tornado behind.

The descriptive detail is visually vivid and continues the image of time and its erosion.

As is typical of local-color fiction, however, ’Sieur George is rather superficially portrayed, and this weakens the story. His actions are related to us by the omniscient narrator, whose detached perspective never allows us to experience any genuine sympathetic involvement with ’Sieur George. The reader hears about him but never knows his thoughts or feelings; consequently, he seems little more than a cardboard cutout. His motivations are vague, and his daily drunks continue only to be interrupted unexpectedly by surprising events. One day ’Sieur George shocks the neighborhood as he emerges from his apartment in full regimentals and marches off to the Mexican War, leaving his sister behind to become the new occupant of his rooms. Several years later, he suddenly reappears with battle scars and a tall dark companion. ’Sieur George and the stranger visit the sister weekly until her marriage to the stranger is announced by her appearance in bridal array. With the newlyweds gone, ’Sieur George returns to his rooms and drunken habits until the pattern is again interrupted when he returns home with the couple’s infant. Since her mother had died and her drunken father had drowned in the river, ’Sieur George attentively raises the girl until it would violate proprieties for her to stay; finally, in a senseless moment, he blurts out that the only way for her to stay is for her to become his wife. She utters a mournful cry, runs to her room, and early the next morning leaves for a convent. ’Sieur George returns to drunkenness and finally becomes a penniless, homeless drifter searching the prairie “to find a night’s rest in the high grass”—“and there’s an end.”

Not only are his motivations vague, but also he is shrouded in Cable’s frequent cloak of mystery. After ’Sieur George has lived in the neighborhood for about a year, “something happened that greatly changed the tenor of his life.” “Hints of a duel, of a reason warped, of disinheritance, and many other unauthorized rumors, fluttered up and floated off.” Soon he begins to display the “symptoms of decay” stumbling home, and “whatever remuneration he received went its way for something that left him dingy and threadbare.” The artistically interwoven pictures of him recycle the images of decay and ruin, but the only thing the reader knows that ’Sieur George cares about, and strongly so, is the mysterious small hair trunk he carefully guards. Even ’Sieur George’s implied heroism is dubious and unconvincing. The reader hears about him marching off to war, returning with battle scars, and bravely directing the infant to womanhood; yet each admirable event on the one hand is treated only summarily, and on the other is undercut by his return to drunkenness. He is not a great man who, in a weak moment, has fallen prey to vicious evils; neither he nor his vices...

(The entire section is 2863 words.)