“The Mulatto,” or “Le Mulâtre,” is a short story written by the African-American writer Victor Séjour in 1837 that is commonly considered to be one of the earliest fiction works by US-American people of color. The story originally appeared in French, the native language of the author, in the Paris-based journal Revue de Colonies and was translated into English only at the end of the twentieth century due to the earlier laws of the Southern states prohibiting the dissemination of anti-slavery literature. The narrative of the story focuses on the life of the slave Georges, who also happens to be an illegitimate son of his master and his relationships with his master. Through the events depicted in the story, the author demonstrates the negative effects of slavery on both the society in general and the lives of separate individuals. This essay will analyze how Séjour creates his anti-slavery message with the help of such literary devices as characterization, plot, and irony.
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The main slave characters in the story are portrayed with sympathy and certain admiration, such description being in sharp contrasts with the portrayal of their cruel and egocentric master Alfred. Georges’ mother Laïsa is described as a beautiful Senegalese slave, who is as “pure as the dew from the sky” (Séjour 153), while his wife Zélie is referred to as “the virtuous slave, full of noble indignation” (Séjour 165). On the contrary, Alfred, the powerful and wealthy white master, is characterized in negative tones from the onset of the story: He treats his slaves as his possession, thinks only of his wellbeing, and believes his status gives him entitlement to do as he pleases. The protagonist Georges, being a son of the slave and the master, inherits qualities of both sides, which makes him a conflicted and complex character. The author uses characterization to govern readers’ perception of the characters and, in doing so, makes them question the established view of slaves and their owners.
In “The Mulatto,” the author plays with different life scenarios to show the rigidness of the slave-owning system. At the beginning of the story, Laïsa gives in to Alfred, but eventually, the master becomes bored with her and sends her away to live in dangerous conditions. Later, Zélie chooses an alternative action and turns down Alfred’s advances, which leads to her execution. Similarly, Georges is unable to find happiness neither when he sides with his master, nor when he opposes him. After defending his master in the fight, he finds Alfred to have ungratefully sentenced Zélie to death and swears to “drink [his] blood” (Séjour 171) in revenge. However, after killing his master, Georges realized that Alfred was his father and commits suicide. Thus, the story underlines that there are no easy ways out of the system.
The use of ironic plot twists in the story showcases the dangers of the slave-ownership for the whole society. When describing Alfred’s rejection by Zélie, the narrator exclaims, “what irony!” (Séjour 165), highlighting the first shift in the power relationships between the master and his slaves. Later in the story, Alfred is forced to relive the pain he inflicted on Georges when executing Zélie, and, ironically, this time, the powerful master is the one who is feeling helpless and pleading for his wife’s life. With this ironic turn of events, the author demonstrates that even the slave-owners cannot feel safe in the existing social system, as their status does not protect them from the harm they have done to others.
Being an anti-slavery story, “The Mulatto” not only describes the sufferings of the slaves owned by cruel masters but also accentuates the dangers of the slave-owning system for the whole society. To convey his message, Séjour makes use of such story elements as characterization, plot structure, and irony. The combined effect of those literary devices creates a powerful image of the perils of slavery.
Sejour, Victor. “The Mulatto.” Translated by Philip Barnard. The Norton Anthology of African American Literature, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. et al., 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company, 2004, pp. 353–65.