Themes and Meanings

(Survey of Dramatic Literature)

Dion Boucicault’s drama was inspired by his visit to the American South and The Quadroon (1856), a novel by Thomas Mayne Reid. Ironically, The Octoroon premiered in New York four days after famed abolitionist John Brown was executed for his October 16, 1859, raid at Harpers Ferry, Virginia. Boucicault’s play, which focuses on the denial of liberty, identity, and dignity, opened during a period in American history when antislavery and pro-slavery sentiments were at near-zenith level.

The play is subtitled Life in Louisiana. Boucicault’s portrayal of antebellum life is an indictment of slavery. Thus he crafted a drama of social criticism. As an Irishman from a subjugated country, Boucicault was more sympathetic to the plight of the enslaved than many of his American contemporaries. Like Boucicault, George is an outsider who cannot fathom slavery’s complexities. His love interest, Zoe, is a young, compassionate, educated, beautiful woman who merits love and respect. George is sensitive to the way others interact with her; he cannot understand why some people act in a condescending manner to her. Although he has lived a shallow lifestyle in Paris, he redeems himself in Louisiana. His love for Zoe causes him to ignore material concerns and empowers him to eagerly defy barriers imposed by race, class, and tradition. Zoe, who has been raised and educated as a proper southern lady, rejects his marriage proposal because she is...

(The entire section is 453 words.)