The Octoroon

by Dionysius Lardner Boursiquot

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

The play’s villain, M’Closky, hates the Peyton family because of their status and privilege. He takes great pleasure in the idea that he will take over Terrebonne and force them from their property. He may be an incredibly unlikable and vicious character—he does murder a young slave named Paul just so that he can prevent Mrs. Peyton from receiving a letter that promises her a large sum of money from an old loan—but his thoughts also seem to foreshadow the eventual fall of the Old South. He says to himself,

Curse their old families—they cut me—a bilious, conceited, thin lot of dried up aristocracy. I hate’em. Just because my grandfather wasn’t some broken-down Virginia transplant, or a stingy old Creole, I ain’t fit to sit down to the same meat as them. It makes my blood so hot I feel my heart hiss. I’ll sweep these Peytons from this section of the country.

He hates them because they look down on him and because he thinks that they feel themselves to be superior to people like him. He hates their airs and graces. They enrage him, and so he longs to get rid of them utterly, ousting them from their home and even from this part of the country. He wants them to feel what he does: to feel as though others think of them as inferior.

Scudder, another Yankee planter, hates M’Closky and feels that M’Closky “mispresent[s] the North to the South.” He calls M’Closky a “knave.” M’Closky is not socially refined or polished in the way that the Peytons are, and he sets a bad example of what Yankees are like. M’Closky hates Scudder in return, especially because they both love Zoe, Mr. Peyton’s “octoroon” daughter, Zoe. She is one-eighth black, the daughter of a “quadroon” slave woman, and is very beautiful and educated. She has been brought up as a Peyton child rather than a slave. M’Closky says to Scudder,

With your New England hypocrisy, you would persuade yourself that it was this family alone you care for; it ain’t—and you know it ain’t—‘tis the “Octoroon”; and you love her as I do; and, you hate me because I’m your rival—that’s where the tears come from, Salem Scudder, if you ever shed any—that’s where the shoe pinches.

Both Yankee men love Zoe, as does George Peyton, Mrs. Peyton’s nephew. This seems to show that, on some level, the tide is turning against the Old South. No one thinks of Zoe as property (though, it turns out, she is—Mr. Peyton thought he’d freed her, but legally she was still a slave), and she is incredibly beloved by all.

At the same time, M’Closky is so awful that his character paints a picture of an imperfect North as well; Yankees are far from faultless. Scudder says to him,

You slew [Paul] with that tomahawk; and as you stood over his body with the letter in your hand, you thought that no witness saw the deed, that no eye was on you—but there was, Jacob M’Closky, there was. They eye of the Eternal was on you—the blessed sun in heaven, that, looking down, struck upon this plate the image of the deed.

In other words, M’Closky’s character may foreshadow the fall of the Old South, but he is not blameless and without sin either.

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