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complicity in the novel Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor and the short story The Sleeper Wakes by Jessie Redmon Fauset in a collection of the same name. The paper examines complicity in issues of race, gender and class in these two contrasting works - the former a tale of the descent into hell in an affluent suburb and the latter concerned with the redemption of an individual.
Complicity in issues of race, gender and class in Linden Hills and The Sleeper Wakes
In this paper we will examine two very different works. Naylor's novel Linden Hills is based around the life of an affluent black suburb and the downfall of its residents through their pursuit of advancement above humanity. In contrast, Fauset's short story The Sleeper Wakes describes individual redemption - the homecoming (in both a literal and figurative sense - i.e. achieving maturity) of the central character Amy. We will look at issues of gender, race and class in turn and the degree of complicity of various characters in both works. Critics such as Kimberle Crenshaw (Smith XVII) use the term 'intersectionality' to show how each category (gender, race or class) operates in conjunction with the others to create an individual's sense of identity, but it is also important to show how each category operates separately if we are to effectively chart the eventual fall or redemption of the characters in both works.
There are several female characters in Linden Hills but we will focus on Mrs. Nedeed when looking at gender issues in the novel, since she is the one who brings about her husband's demise. The latest Mrs. Nedeed is imprisoned by her husband in the basement and finds hidden records of the women who have before her and how they met their ends. Initially, she finds the diary of the first Mrs. Nedeed - Luwana Packerville who was bought by Luther Nedeed. This charts Luwana's isolation - being first cut out of her son's life and then out of running a household, while at the same time being unable to mix with the community in Linden Hills for reasons of status and race. When Luwana in the first chapter is described as "octoroon" (Naylor 2) this emotive word from the days of slavery sums up the attitude of the various generations of Nedeed men towards their wives - that they are simply property. Willa next finds the recipe books of the second Mrs. Nedeed - Evelyn Creton. Evelyn goes from baking to win her husband's favor to secretly adding herbs to woo him. She then finds Evelyn's recipes for cream to darken her skin and finally the records of the large amounts of laxatives Evelyn ordered and took to lose weight. These are all desperate measures to reverse the distance of her husband as her own identity is subsumed. The next wife, Priscilla McGuire, gradually erases her own face from family portraits with her son and husband. Willa is the final Mrs. Nedeed, who brings about the downfall of the family who have all seen their wives as property with the function of producing a single son. She ends up in the basement for the 'crime' of producing a son that does not look like his father but instead resembles his grandmother and the wives before her. "Yes, you looked like your grandmother. And the mother before that. And the mother before that. Oh, my baby, what have I done to you? With horror she saw the answers forming" (Naylor 93). Luther holds family records not shared with the wives that set down rules for continuing the father's line in the same way as the generations before. Although Luther breaks tradition by not marrying a pale-skinned bride, "he knew those women had been chosen for the color of their spirits, not their faces" (ibid. 17) and relies on his wife's complicity - that she will be as shut out and compliant as the wives of the generations before.
Throughout Fauset's story, the main character Amy is the sleeper of the story's title, going through life oblivious to the world outside herself. She is described as having an "airy, irresponsible way"(Fauset 3) that appeals to the men in her foster family and then her husband Stuart Wynne. In her marriage she is a "sleek house-pet, delicately nurtured, velvety, content to let her days pass by" (ibid. 11). It is only later on, when confronted by issues about racial identity that she is aroused from the 'sleep' of shallow vanity. Amy's friend Zora Harrison stands as a contrast to Amy and her compliant nature. She lives a seemingly independent life and is a woman of intelligence and experience. However, Zora has no money of her own and has gained her money through divorce. In her way, despite the superficial appearance of freedom from the constraints of her society on women, Zora is also conforming to society's expectations. This is shown by some of her other attitudes (see the paragraphs on class issues, for example), as well as her eventual second marriage.
Although Naylor's novel is set in a black neighborhood, race issues are important in the downfall of Linden Hills just as they are in Fauset's work. This is shown throughout the novel by references to racism in the rest of Wayne County and the way Linden Hills residents not only look down on members of their own community living in less 'desirable' streets, but also by the way they look down on other areas in the county. The residents kid themselves they want social advancement and racial issues do not therefore matter. This is shown by the discussions at Lycentia Parker's wake. The mourners discuss a housing project they want to see voted down and claim that: "it's not about black or white, it's about our civic duty" (Naylor 137). When Luther turns up however, he voices what they dare not, that: "the Alliance is free to engage in myths about inferior schools and deteriorating neighborhoods while all they're really fearing is the word nigger. And they've no intention of letting this country finance a breeding ground for their nightmares" (ibid. 137). Luther accuses the assembled mourners of going along with the same prejudices but goes on to add he's willing to vote with the racists in the Wayne County Citizens Alliance to save Linden Hills from becoming blacklisted by banks and 'going downhill'.
Throughout The Sleeper Wakes, Amy's racial identity goes through shifts. She is a white child who is fostered to a black family - the Boldins in Trenton. When she arrives at their home, she asks: "Am I going to be colored now?" (Fauset 2). In Fauset's work race is not simply a matter of skin color, but is more about an internal sense of racial identity. Amy finds her husband's attitudes strange and despicable because of her shifting sense of racial identity. In fact, once she leaves her foster home Amy is happy to adopt the background Zora makes up for her - her shallow and shifting sense of self is not tied to either her birth or her foster family. Telling her husband the truth however leads to the breakdown of her marriage and separation, then divorce - but then to her final homecoming too. When Stuart turns up 10 months after their divorce to offer her a home as his unmarried lover, he tells her: "A white man like me simply doesn't marry a colored woman... We'll live abroad - you'll travel, have all the things you love. Many a white woman would envy you." (ibid. 19) Amy eventually decides that: "She would never make any attempt to find out who or what she was. If she were white, there would always be people encouraging her to keep up the silliness of racial prejudice. How she hated it all!" (ibid. 25). She then chooses to seek reconciliation and return home to the Boldin family she realises she misses. Although initially a willing accomplice to others making up a history for her, her personal experience of race-hate helps Amy mature and reach the redemption of her homecoming.
In both works, class divisions govern the attitudes of the characters. Linden Hills is a community sharply divided along class lines - its five crescent avenues at the crest of the hill are full of those who want nothing more than to live in the three streets at the base of the hill that make up Tupelo Drive. One such case is Laurel Dumont, whose husband leaves her and who commits suicide when she is that her husband has given up his lease on the land and she will no longer be able to live in the home she is clinging to at that point. "She thought she heard Howard say that he was leaving to think things over and had tried to reach her, but she just didn't seem to care any more about him or their home" (ibid. 233). Laurel has…[continue]
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