Style and Technique

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 567

As a black writer at the turn of the twentieth century, Dunbar had a problem, to some extent imposed on him by William Dean Howells—whether to write in dialect and meet certain expectations of a white audience, or to write in standard English, which he preferred, because he wanted to deal with “serious” issues. Although he could not see dialect as a medium for serious poetry or fiction, he did write numerous stories in the plantation tradition, concentrating on rural blacks. Most are pleasantly nostalgic (though even here he does reveal his concern with racial injustice in the South). His identification with the rural poor and his feeling for their plight are also in the urban tale “The Scapegoat,” but well in the background. In the foreground are a language that is standard American English and an argument that is serious enough, perhaps, but mild-mannered and apparently innocuous.

It should not be surprising to find a black writer at that time, a writer anxious to succeed as a professional, choosing indirectness rather than an overtly revolutionary style. If he were to register a protest or assert any political ambition in the name of black people, he would do it subtly. If such thoughts are in “The Scapegoat” at all, they would be hidden. As with almost all black literature in America, not only with that of Dunbar’s, there is an underlying irony, a second perspective that lies just beneath the surface. One is tempted to see it even in the name of the hero as a whimsical play on words: the man who is “black as a berry” and the living man who acts as though he were buried.

The story’s title leads one to expect death or suffering, but instead one gets ultimate victory in this life: an ironic incongruity. Dunbar also uses verbal irony within the story. In one notable instance, as Asbury plots with Bingo, he actually plots against him. Asbury’s language reveals one thing to Bingo and another to the careful reader: “I don’t want to appear in this at all. All I want is revenge. You can have all the credit, but let me down my enemy.” Although Bingo applies “enemy” and “revenge” to Isaac Morton, his opponent, Asbury is actually referring to Bingo himself.

However, the main ironies in the story lie in the incongruities of the story and the character of Asbury. The surface calm in Dunbar’s tone and the quiet confidence of a man betrayed do not jibe with the realities of such a situation. The ultimate victory may be at a deeper cost after all. Asbury allows the public to see only what Dunbar himself allows the reader to see. In this short sketch of Cadgers’s life, the real face of Asbury never appears from behind the mask. Dunbar remains true to the words in his most famous poem, “We wear the mask that grins and lies” (which is itself an ironic violation of the deception principle), by not permitting his audience to “be overwise.” In “this debt” that Dunbar “pays to human guile,” one wonders what “tortured soul” might have resided in that “news-and-cigar stand”; one wonders what resemblance there was between Asbury’s hermitlike existence and Dunbar’s own private thoughts. Perhaps the irony turns back on itself, and “The Scapegoat” turns out to be an acutely appropriate title.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 119

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