Grace King (1852-1932)
Contributing Editor: Anne Jones
Classroom Issues and Strategies
This small jewel of a story should be accessible and immediately interesting to most student audiences, since it represents its issues so starkly, and since those issues (cultural repression and its internalization, the awakening of desire and identity, the loss and discovery of parents, the impact of religion, racism, and gender, for example) are concerns of many undergraduates. Happily, "The Little Convent Girl" also provides the opportunity for some remarkable conjunctions of teaching strategies: Its taut, understated, suggestive style invites careful close readings, its allusions and issues invite intertextual and contextual readings, and the political questions it raises, concerning the intersections of race and gender, invite readings through contemporary theory, such as Judith Butler's essay on Nella Larsen's Passing (in Bodies That Matter: New York, 1993).
Students might be drawn into these discussions through the highlighting of key words, images, and phrases (see below, "Significant Form"), historical allusions (see below, "Major Themes"), or intertextual connections (see below, "Comparisons"). Or, for something a bit different, they might "enter" the story by focusing not on text but on the white space that intrudes into it immediately after the first utterance of the word "Colored!" What happens in the month between that utterance and the girl's death--in the white space? If students are invited to invent and compare their own narratives to fill in this absence, many of the story's central ambiguities may surface as well.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Grace King has frequently been seen as a woman of letters whose major projects, both literary and personal, had to do with defending the conservative South. It is certainly possible to read "The Little Convent Girl" in such a vein, as the story of the terrible consequences of miscegenation, for example: after all, her parents' cross-racial relationship ends in the girl's death. But the story's position on race is complicated by its connection with gender. Blackness--from the bodies of laborers to the curl of the girl's hair--represents a vitality and desire whose "manage-ment" becomes a repeated question in the story; the fact that the girl's vitality and desire are "managed" by a repressive churched femininity suggests an alliance between racial and sexual problematics frequently thought to be more characteristic of northern than southern discourses. Cincinnati was, of course, a major center for slaves seeking freedom. The story appeared in 1893, three years before Plessy v. Ferguson authorized segregation, and in the thick of the proliferation of Jim Crow laws and practices in the South. King even uses the phrase "Jim Crow"-- but how? In what ways does the story comment on its historical context?
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
This story seems to be looking toward modernism, with its understatement, its absences, its unobtrusive symbolism, and its economy of language. "Unpacking" passages can be a fruitful enterprise. The first paragraph, for example, suggests several continuing themes: the question of the significance of "good-bys," the connection between the girl's passivity and the bolted door, and the journey down river, away from the historical site of freedom for slaves. Other image patterns worth tracing with care include mouths and lips; sound and noise; needlework; pleasure and constraint (ad libitum literally means "at pleasure"); the doubled rivers and mothers; and of course whiteness and darkness.
The point of view from which the story is narrated is critical, for it never allows readers to "enter" the girl's thoughts and--since she doesn't speak--keeps her subjectivity opaque. How precisely can we describe the point of view? And how does the narration achieve its power?
"The Little Convent Girl" appeared in Grace King's collection Balcony Stories (New York: Century, 1893) and in Century Magazine, XLVI (August 1893), 547-51. In both forms it reached a wide national audience of men and women who were most likely white and middle class. Balcony Stories remained in print a remarkably long time; new editions were published in 1914 and 1925.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Robert Bush suggests comparing "The Little Convent Girl" as a "mixed blood" story to Sherwood Bonner's "A Volcanic Interlude" and George W. Cable's "'Tite Poulette" and "Madame Delphine." One might add Kate Chopin's "Désirée's Baby" and Charles Chesnutt's "The Wife of His Youth" to that list, among others. Mark Twain's Adventures of Huckleberry Finn tells a very different story of a slow boat down the Mississippi and a problematic arrival, but one whose differences might help to highlight the conjunctions between race and gender that seem so crucial to King. Kate Chopin's sketch "Emancipation" plays on some of the same liberation keys; The Awakening introduces what King's story avoids, female desire expressed as explicit sexuality, but its thematics of mothering and its relation to female desire (Adele Ratignolle's "mothering" of Edna on the beach, for instance, and its effects on Edna's voice) are worthy of comparison. Frances E. W. Harper treats "passing" from the point of view of the woman who "knows" she is black, in Iola Leroy; and Anna Julia Cooper, in A Voice from the South, in a sense gives speech to the silent convent girl. The life of an octoroon woman in New Orleans is imagined by Quentin Compson and his roommate in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner.