by Martha Ashe
New Orleans is commonly romanticized in literature. William Faulkner takes advantage of the potential for New Orleans to conform to male fantasies in his novel Absalom, Absalom! Through his male narrators, Faulkner shows how New Orleans can be abstracted to appeal to entrenched conceptions of white male dominance. He uses the custom of plaçage within New Orleans as an example of how racism can be perpetuated under false claims to altruism. Plaçage was a practice that existed in French and Spanish slaveholding territories, but that became particularly prevalent in New Orleans, in which free women of color entered into common-law marriages with white Creole men. While this system can be regarded as a path to opportunity for free women of color, it also helps reinforce white supremacy by perpetuating the marginalization of mixed race individuals. Faulkner represents plaçage as a means of racial oppression, and in doing so, illustrates the pervasiveness of racism in the South, no matter what veil it is obscured under.
The custom of plaçage was almost guaranteed to develop in New Orleans. While there were a number of reasons for racial mixing in the early colony, the major cause of interracial relationships between white men and black women was the substantial racial and gender imbalance (Martin 62). White men were faced with a shortage of white women but an abundance of black women to choose from, and black women similarly outnumbered black men (Martin 63). Furthermore, there were marriage laws in place that limited, and practically eliminated, marriage prospects for free women of color. Marriage was outlawed between any slave and free person and between any white person and black. This meant that free women of color could not legally marry slaves or white men, but only free men of color. And at the time, “free men of color of marriageable age were virtually unavailable” (Martin 64). Thus, free women of color had no choice but to make the best they could out of their situation in finding a mate. Historian Joan Martin explains the inevitable turn to plaçage: “The free woman had to accept the fact that with her choice of a mate taken out of her hands, she was at the mercy of any man, white or black who chose to do her harm. Her decision to use the plaçage system to save herself and her progeny was not only pragmatic, but, in a sense, ingenious” (Martin 64). In many ways, plaçage opened up new opportunities to free people of color that significantly improved their qualities of living. Martin points out that “on the positive side, plaçage created a class of free people of color which was well-educated, cultured, wealthy, and powerful” (69).
Such a positive interpretation of plaçage, however, ignores its blatant inadequacies. Because plaçage was not a legal marriage, the placée “lacked the social and legal protection inherent in marriage” (Martin 69). The men could leave their mistresses at any time, though they were obligated to financially support them and any children they had together if they did so. The fickle nature of plaçage relationships drastically undermined their substantiality and emphasized how vulnerable its women were. The placée lived a life of servitude, totally confined by her financial and social dependency on a white man. In this way plaçage “mimics the exploitative power dynamics and inequalities of slavery” (Li 88). Plaçage was in no way an ideal, but merely a preferable alternative to the destitution and physical abuse that could potentially befall an unmarried, free woman of color.
In Absalom, Absalom!, William Faulkner uses New Orleans’ custom of plaçage as a way to illustrate the pervasive racism in the South. His representation of plaçage conveys that it is little more than a pretension operating under the veil of virtue to obscure entrenched stereotypes against free women of color. Faulkner presents plaçage through the biased narrations of his male narrators. He utilizes the collective voice of his male narrators to better demonstrate how individuals in power can perpetuate stereotypes to reinforce their superiority. Faulkner uses a deliberately ambiguous narrative style that obscures and merges the perspectives of his male narrators. Stephanie Li argues that through “multiple layers of narration and interpretation” the novel’s storytellers give subjective recounts of the perspectives and experiences of other characters (Li 90). Henry Sutpen and Charles Bon’s time in New Orleans is imagined through Mr. Compson’s narration. Within his narration, he impersonates the two young half-brothers, leaving it unclear as to whether he is expressing their perspective or his own. By merging these perspectives, Faulkner produces “a unitary male voice that cannot be attributed to a single individual” (Li 90). This collective voice, taken to represent dominant white southern males, perpetuates stereotypes against free women of color and serves as a powerful tool for subordination.
It is only through this biased male narrative voice that Faulkner chooses to portray New Orleans. At no point in his novel does he give an objective view of the city. Instead, he presents it only through the fantasized imaginings of his male narrators. The romanticization of New Orleans is manifest in Mr. Compson’s descriptions of the city as “foreign and paradoxical,” with “an atmosphere at once fatal and languorous, at once feminine and steel-hard,” with architecture that is “a little curious, a little femininely flamboyant and therefore to Henry opulent, sensuous, sinful,” and with “an appearance of great and easy wealth” (86-87). Such an overt abstraction of the city shows how it is highly manipulable by the novel’s male narrators. Had Faulkner chosen to give a more objective, concrete portrayal of the city, these narrators would have less manipulative control in how the city and its custom of plaçage are portrayed. This manipulation is key to understanding how Faulkner depicts plaçage as a system created by white men out of their own self-interest.
Bon’s mistress in New Orleans, being largely absent from the novel, is especially subject to manipulation. Faulkner provides very little detail about her, making her, like New Orleans, “a figure of almost infinite malleability” (Li 86). Because of the absence of her narrative voice, “her representation is at all times determined by the whims and desires of male narrative power” (Li 86). Faulkner thus demonstrates the incredible vulnerability of free women of color to the authority of white men. Bon demonstrates his dominance over his mistress through his contradictory and suspiciously convenient representations of her. Mr. Compson imagines that Bon initially extols the virtue and honor of plaçage with his repeated assertions that the placée are “not whores,” but rather “the only true chaste women” only to dismiss his mistress and their child as “niggers” moments later (93-94). Bon goes from defending plaçage to reducing its symbolic ceremony to a “formula, a shibboleth meaningless as a child’s game, performed by someone created by the situation whose need it answered” (93) He expresses the ceremony as nothing more than a self-serving social construct that is in no way a legal marriage, “vesting no new rights in anyone” (93). By continually alternating between giving the utmost respect and the most complacent disregard for his mistress, Bon creates “a figure of outrageous contradictions” that he abuses to serve his own purposes in convincing Henry that his relationship in New Orleans should not interfere with a marriage to Henry’s sister Judith (Li 87).
Even Bon’s attempts to defend the honor of plaçage serve to reinforce his egocentric conceptions of white male supremacy. He makes altruistic claims to the virtue of the system, not out of respect for the women, but out of the desire to reinforce his morality and bolster his ego. His language, which “reveals the deep-seated structures of domination that underlie his fantasy,” shows that plaçage was constructed by men for their benefit (Li 95). Mr. Compson, impersonating Bon, says, “We—the thousand, the white men—made them, created and produced them” (91). He explains that the women they created “are more valuable as commodities than white girls, raised and trained to fulfill a women’s sole end and purpose: to love, to be beautiful, to divert” (93). Thus, the mixed-race mistresses are more valuable than white girls not because of their worth as individuals, but solely because they are raised by men to live a life of servitude in pleasing those men. Mr. Compson makes it clear that it is a life of servitude when he states that the women “remain true and faithful to that man not merely until he dies or frees them, but until they die” (93). Li argues that in this comment, Mr. Compson links plaçage with slavery by suggesting that it “is an extension of the relationship between master and slave” (95). And more so, he implies that plaçage is a more powerful, extensive form of slavery by saying that the slaves voluntarily enter into a lifetime of servitude that extends even beyond the master’s life (Li 96). Plaçage is thus a fantasy in which “women are never free of male control” (Li 96). And the master can justify this system because “he is able to mask her servitude with the rhetoric of female virtue” (Li 96). Through their construct of plaçage, the men create “an idealized form of slavery” in which the female slaves are not just complacent, but willing to serve for life in order to fulfill their life purpose in serving men (Li 96).
Worse than creating a socially sanctioned form of covert slavery, the male narrators go so far as to align themselves with God in asserting their benevolence. Bon, through the voice of Mr. Compson, explains that were in not for the “thousand white men,” the thousand free women of color they “save” would have been made into true slaves, sold as prostitutes and treated as animals who would be “discarded or sold or even murdered when worn out or when her keep and her price no longer balanced” (91-92). And while he acknowledges that the thousand they save may not be “one in a thousand,” he takes pride in that they “save that one” (91). He refers to the free women of color as “sparrows” and claims that through plaçage, they “save this one sparrow . . . a sparrow which God Himself neglected to mark” (92). Bon goes beyond simply aligning white men with God; he implies that they are even greater than God, that they are more benevolent by saving the women that even God neglected. Counter to his intention, Bon’s words do not strengthen the morality of the system but merely the dominance of the egoistic men who created it.
In the few pages that Faulkner addresses plaçage, he is able to make a much larger connection to racism in the South. Through his ambiguous narrative style, he constructs a collective male voice that enforces its dominance in manipulating how New Orleans and its custom of plaçage are portrayed. The male narrators drastically abstract and romanticize the city and plaçage to make them conform to their fantasies of white male supremacy. Within this fantasy, the men are able to mask their egocentric construction of plaçage with false claims to altruism out of the desire to justify their immoral, self-serving behavior. By exposing the pretensions that white southern males attempt to uphold in denying their blatant perpetuation of racist stereotypes against free women of color, Faulkner makes a larger comment on the pervasiveness of racism of the South. By using New Orleans, which is typically thought of as one of the most progressive southern cities, to make his point, Faulkner demonstrates just how pervasive racism is. Even New Orleans, with its disguises of plaçage, cannot escape the entrenched racism that characterizes the South in Faulkner’s time.
1. Creole woman of color with maid, from a watercolor series by Edouard Marquis, New Orleans, 1867, Wikimedia Commons, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/d/db/FashionableMarquisB.jpg
2. Creole women of color taking the air, Edouard Marquis, 1867, Wikimedia Commons, http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/c/c1/Creole_women_of_color_out_taking_the_air%2C_from_a_watercolor_series_by_%C3%89douard_Marquis%2C_New_Orleans%2C_1867.jpg
Faulkner, William. Absalom, Absalom!  New York: Vintage International, 1990. Print.
Li, Stephanie. “Resistance, Silence, and Placées: Charles Bon’s Octoroon Mistress and Louisa Picquet.” American Literature 79.1 (2007): 85-112. EBSCO Host. Web. 14 March 2013.
Martin, Joan M. “Plaçage and the Louisiana Gens de Couleur Libre.” Creole: The History and Legacy of Louisiana’s Free People of Color, Ed. Sybil Klein. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2000. 57-70. Print.