A Glimmer of Hope in a Troublesome Text

Throughout this week, I have had some difficulty trying to discover key takeaways from Boucicault’s The Octoroon. From my first reading of the work, I was disgusted by Boucicault’s attempts to mimic African-American language in the text and his portrayal of the savage, barely able to speak Native American (played by himself). By the end, I was ashamed of my interest in the plotline despite the blackface presented throughout the play. Yet Daphne Brooks’ reading of the text changed my views and one specific point opened my eyes to the way this text could be viewed in a somewhat more positive moral light. Brooks describes Zoe, the title character, as a representation of disunion, a “manifestation of the crisis that miscegenation law sought to police,” and “impossible” (Brooks 34). In other words, Zoe was a tragic mulatta whose color-mixed existence disrupted order in the universe of the play. In order to restore order, the tragic mulatta must die (either socially or physically), which Boucicault adheres to in this work. Yet he does this with a sharp provocation of the racist society, as Brooks describes through Zoe’s death scene: “With her eyes changing color as well, Zoe is at once ‘cleansed’ of her blackness and blackened by the act of suffering as a horrified array of onlookers watch her rapidly transmuting body (41).” As this quote asserts, Boucicault grants the audience’s wish to restore order but ensures that Zoe’s whiteness is restored as she dies. George describes her features as white as she passes away. Thus, the audience sees a white woman lying dead on the stage, a victim of the slave society. It is a powerful critique of an oppressive system. While I am not sure this point absolves Boucicault of the other troublesome aspects of this reading, Brooks shows that, within this troubling presentation, there exists at least a hint of resistance to the oppressive slave society and racial hierarchy well-known to his audience.

One Reply to “A Glimmer of Hope in a Troublesome Text”

  1. The slave auction is another scene where Zoe’s whiteness is put on display. Brooks describes the stark whiteness of Zoe’s dress in highlighting this. I see this as another example in the play where Boucicault emphasizes the oppression of the slave system by presenting a white woman for auction to the audience to call their attention. I definitely agree with you on the difficulty of this reading. The Brooks reading brings to light important aspects of the play – liminality of the body, the octaroon as a symbol of the volatile Atlantic, Zoe’s body bearing history – that add to the important themes that can be drawn from the text despite its distressing treatment of other characters.

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