Kate Chopin’s “At the ‘Cadian Ball” discusses themes such as race, and economic and social class in the late 19th century in Louisiana. Chopin defines the historical social classes and caste system of Louisiana through her characters: Alceé, his mother, Clarisse, Bobinôt, Calixta, and Bruce. As Creoles, Alceé, his mother, and Clarisse reside in the upper class society of Louisiana. Bobinôt is a representative of the Acadians and therefore lives a bourgeois lifestyle. Calixta is a mixed blood Acadian and is placed into a lower class than pure Acadians such as Bobinôt. Finally, Chopin defines the social classes and caste systems of Louisianans through her character Bruce, Alceé’s African American servant. The characters are discriminated against because of their race, regardless of whether they are Creole, Acadian, Spanish, or African American. This discrimination results in the formation of specific social and economic classes.
The making of a Creole
The word Creole has many definitions. Creole is derived from the Latin word creare meaning “create.” After the discovery of the New World, Portuguese colonists called New World slaves of African descent crioulo. The word was eventually used to describe all New World colonists, regardless of their race, especially those living along the Gulf Coast, in Louisiana.
During the Louisiana colonial period from 1699-1803 the Spanish introduced the word as criollo and used it to refer to persons of African or European heritage born in the New World. From the mid-1700s to the early 1800s, French and Spanish Creoles held political power, which automatically gained them access to the the upper classes (French Creoles). Following the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, Louisianans of French and Spanish descent began to refer to themselves as Creoles in order to distinguish themselves from the foreign-born and Anglo-Americans who were entering Louisiana at this time (Thernstrom).
In the late 19th century, New Orleans attracted more French-speaking immigrants than any other urban area in the United States (Louisiana State Museum). These Creoles, often a mix between white and black, were given the same rights and opportunities as free whites. They were able to own their own property and receive a formal education. Bauman writes of the French Creoles, “They had mistresses who were black or mulatto, but they couldn’t marry them. Having a mistress was an accepted custom because marriages were usually business arrangements, not for love”. After the Civil War the Creoles suffered a socioeconomic decline and were more likely to interact with and even marry lower classes such as the Acadians, also known as the Cajuns. Although some refer to Creoles as persons of African or European heritage, the traditional Louisiana use, akin to Chopin’s use of the word refers to the French Creoles in Louisiana who are of French or Spanish descent, are white, often members – of upper class society, and of non-Cajun origin (Acadian).
Chopin’s key character: the upper class Alceé Laballière
Like most Creoles in Louisiana in the late 19th century, Alceé Laballière, his mother, and Clarisse exude wealth and status. This is evident in the southern Louisiana town which provides the backdrop to the novel. Many Creoles, like Alceé, were landowners or merchants. In “At the ‘Cadian Ball” Alceé is a well-known, wealthy landowner. With his profits from the land, he and his mother live a life of luxury. Chopin writes, “That was the year Alcée Laballière put nine hundred acres in rice. It was putting a good deal of money into the ground, but the returns promised to be glorious. Old Madame Laballière, sailing about the spacious galleries in her white volante” (1). This illustrates their wealth by their spacious galleries and the amount of land on which those galleries rests. When Alceé arrives at the Acadian ball, Bobinôt sees him “talking crops and politics with the old people” (1). Alceé’s education is most in evidence when he discusses politics. Not only is his erudition apparent in the scene at the ball, but he is portrayed as being popular with the women. This is evident when Chopin writes, “The eyes that glanced into Alcée’s as they passed him were big, dark, soft as those of the young heifers standing out in the cool prairie grass” (3). Not only is he, as a Creole, popular among the women, but also with the men, as seen when Chopin writes, “Alcée Laballière’s presence at the ball caused a flutter even among the men” (3).
The Acadians are fascinated that a wealthy Creole such as Alcée would attend an Acadian Ball. “To be sure, they knew the Laballières were rich,” (3) tells the reader that people are aware of the economic status of Alcée. The Acadians notice when a Creole attends their ball. However, Alcée is not at the ball to simply discuss crops and politics with the old men. He is there in search of a liaison with an Acadian woman. Clarisse, the goddaughter of Alcée’s mother, also epitomises the ideal Creole. Laced with wealth and elegance, Clarisse comments sarcastically, “Nice conduc’ for a Laballière,” (3) when she discovers that Alcée has left to go to the Acadian ball. It was not uncommon for a Creole man to attend an Acadian ball, but as Clarisse shows, it would be a rare occurrence for a Creole woman to stoop so low as to go to a ball attended by her social and economic inferiors. The Creoles in Chopin’s story depict how their race leads to a formulation of their high position in the economic and social classes of late 19th century Louisiana.
The Acadians: Canadian origins, and before that?
Acadians are French-American exiles from Acadia, Nova Scotia in Canada (Thernstrom). In 1710 Acadia was passed from France to England as a prize of war (Cajun culture). In 1755, the British began to expel the Acadians from their own farms. This event has become known as the Expulsion (Thernstrom). About 6,000 Acadians were exiled from Nova Scotia (Acadian). Between 1764 and 1788, shiploads of approximately 3,000 Acadians sailed to New Orleans with the help of Spain (Acadian Memorial). Acadians intermarried with other ethnic groups in Louisiana and became known as Cajuns (Acadian).
The origins of the Acadians before they settled in Canada is unknown. However, some believe they were farmers of western France (Hebert). The Acadians led an agrarian lifestyle as Hebert describes; “The Acadians were also typically non-materialistic, seeking only economic independence and a decent standard of living through an agrarian way of life.”
Chopin’s Bobinôt: an Acadian
Bobinôt is typical of many Acadians at the time in Louisiana because he works on the land as a farmer and is considered to be poor in comparison with the wealthy Creoles. Bobinôt and Calixta are both Acadians. However, Calixta is portrayed as part Spanish. Unlike the luxurious life enjoyed by Alcée, Bobinôt works and ploughs his land, earning a small amount of profit. Because Bobinôt is an Acadian, he does not live a prosperous with with material possessions and does not capture the fascination of others when he makes an appearance at a ball. “Bobinôt thought of them all as he ploughed his rows of cane,” (1) is an example of the kind of lifestyle he lives. Instead of others thinking of Bobinôt, he thinks of them, which is evidence of his social status.
An Acadian however, is not the least well off. Chopin describes this when she writes, “Any one who is white may go to a ‘Cadian ball, but he must pay for his lemonade, his coffee and chicken gumbo. And he must behave himself like a ‘Cadian” (3). The Acadians have enough class to throw balls, and although they dance to the music of fiddles instead of chamber music, they are better off than those who are not white. As one can see, Bobinôt, because of his identity as a “dull-looking and clumsy” (3) Acadian, is condemned to a life of ploughing the fields and attending the town balls where he can only passively follow the actions of his social superiors, such as Alcee.
The Cuba/New Orleans creole connection
New Orleans was a popular city for Cubans to immigrate to because the port maintained regular shipping lanes to Cuba and Central America (Louisiana State Museum). Thousands of Cuban settlers immigrated to Louisiana during the time of Spanish rule in Cuba between 1778-1783 (Wikipedia). Although, compared to other ethnic groups like the Acadians, very few Cubans lived in the United States in the early 19th century, making Cubans a minority in Louisiana. Because the Cubans immigrated to the United States, the Creoles discriminated against these foreign-born settlers. This discrimination placed the Cubans in a class below the Creoles. Having impurities in one’s blood, also known as mixed blood, was also a reason to discriminate against a person in Louisiana and place them into lower classes.
Chopin’s Calixta: Acadian but sadly of mixed blood
Calixta is a descendant of the Acadians but because of the small amount of Spanish that resides in her blood, she is discriminated against and portrayed as a Spanish vixen of mixed blood who deserves to belong to a poor economic class. Calixta’s mother is of French and Spanish descent, giving Calixta the reputation of being exotic even though her “slender foot had never touched Cuban soil” (1). Being one of the only people in the community who has mixed blood and partially belonging to an uncommon race is enough reason for the community to blame Calixta’s actions on her race. “For that reason the prairie people forgave her much that they would not have overlooked in their own daughters or sisters,” (1) writes Chopin, identifying that the community sees Calixta’s race as the cause of her wild actions.
When Bobinôt thinks of Calixta he calls her a Spanish vixen and imagines “that voice like a rich contralto song, with cadences in it that must have been taught by Satan” (1). Calixta’s Spanish blood leads the community to imagine that Calixta is exotic and sings with such a voice that it must have been taught by Satan; a strong statement in the religious days of 1892 when “At the ‘Cadian Ball” was written.
Calixta is portrayed as a woman who has spirit and freedom when Chopin writes, “Calixta swore roundly in fine ‘Cadian French and with true Spanish spirit, and slapped Fronie’s face” (1). It would have been deemed inappropriate for another Acadian to slap Fronie’s face, but bystanders are not surprised when they see Calixta’s dramatic actions on the foot of the church steps on Sunday morning. Once again Calixta’s race is exploited as an excuse for her actions when she is at the ball. “But Madame Suzonne, sitting in a corner, whispered to her neighbor that if Ozéina were to conduct herself in a like manner, she should immediately be taken out to the mule-cart and driven home. The women did not always approve of Calixta,” (3) illustrates that the women clearly do not approve of the manner in which Calixta conducts herself and therefore they place her in a lower social class but are still intrigued to gossip about her. Like Alcée, people are fascinated by her actions. Though, unlike Alcée, they consider her to be of a lower social and economic class because of her Acadian and Spanish descent.
Discrimination despite the Emancipation Proclamation
Although when Chopin wrote “At the ‘Cadian Ball” it had been less than 30 years since African Americans were freed in the Emancipation Proclamation, they were still enduring severe discrimination, especially in the Southern states. Because of the black disenfranchisement that was common in the late 19th century, black people were unable to vote unless they knew how to read and write or owned property assessed at $300 or more (Wikipedia).
After the Civil War approximately four million African Americans were freed from slavery, yet many remained in jobs such as sharecropping or working for the wealthy (EconEdlink). Thomas writes that immediately following the Civil War “the new state legislatures passed laws designed to keep blacks in poverty and in positions of servitude. Under these so-called black codes, ex-slaves who had no steady employment could be arrested and ordered to pay stiff fines.”
Chopin’s Bruce: on the lowest rung of society
Bruce is discriminated against because of his race as an African American and is therefore placed on the lowest rungs of both the social and economic class ladder in Louisiana in the 19th century. It is evident that Bruce is not well educated because of the way he talks, such as when he says to Alcée, “‘I ben huntin’ you high an’ low, suh’” (4). Therefore, because he is not educated, neither is he allowed to vote, which prevents him from taking part in political life in society. Like those African Americans who worked for the wealthy after the Civil War, Bruce’s position is defined when Chopin writes, “Bruce, Alcée’s negro servant, had led his master’s saddle-horse noiselessly along the edge of the sward” (2).
Bruce’s position on the social class ladder is once again apparent when he speaks to Clarisse about where Alcée has gone when Chopin writes, “He mounted halfway up the long, broad flight of stairs. She was standing at the top” (2). Chopin’s symbolism is apparent in this quote because Clarisse stands at the top of the stairs looking down upon Bruce. In this scene Clarisse is physically, socially, and economically in a position to literally look down on Bruce. His race depicts the economic class into which others such as Clarisse place him because he is a servant to Alcée and would not earn enough money to climb into a higher economic class simply by being a servant. Bruce’s status in the lowest social class is also evident when Alcée speaks to him at the ball saying, “‘And if you come back here with any more talk, I ‘ll have to break your neck’” (4). After Bruce walks away mumbling, “Alcée and Calixta laughed softly about it” (4). The way that Alcée treats Bruce and how Bruce responds signifies who holds the power between the two men. Alcée does not treat Bruce like a friend, but rather, as the black servant that he is. As one can see, Bruce’s race as an African American is reflected in his lowly social and economic status in the late 19th century.
Chopin’s characters depict Louisiana’s social caste system
In her story, Chopin examines the different social and economic classes of 19th century Louisiana and their conflicting ideologies. She reveals that social caste is a powerful force that determines personal and social values. Chopin portrays the conflict between classes to illustrate life in Louisiana in an honest manner, not just of those who are wealthy and easy to be fascinated by, but also the lives of those that are less glamorous and how all of those lives, despite the division between their social, economic, and racial classes, all weave together to create a single society in which every single person has a role.
Each character is expected to act in accordance with their role and status. Alcée is supposed to lead a life of wealth and high status, and is expected to continue doing so by marrying a woman of upper class origins. Alcée fulfills the the demands society places on him by marrying Clarisse. Like Alcée and Clarisse, Bobinôt and Calixta follow the guidelines of society and marry each other, an appropriate match, considering that both of them are from the same social and economic class despite Calixta’s reputation as a Cuban. The reader can only assume that Bruce will continue to dutifully fulfill his role as a servant to the white man. And although Calixta does not want to marry Bobinôt, and most likely Bruce does not want to continue to live the life of a servant, Chopin reveals that in this era social and economic class is a more important consideration than happiness. In turn, the social and economic class into which each character is placed is a result of the discrimination of race.
Chopin’s layers of Louisiana 19th Century Society
As previously mentioned, the characters in “At the ‘Cadian Ball” are judged in terms because of their race. TThe community endows the Creoles with an aura of prestige, the Acadians are discriminated against for not being as wealthy as the Creoles, the Spanish for being different and exotic, and the African American is discriminated against simply because of his race. These discriminations result in the formation of specific social and economic classes such as those who are wealthy and hold high status, the poor and common, and the uneducated servant.
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