The train episode
to steam up : haleter, se couvrir de buée / a string purse : un sac en résille / a covered basket of food : un panier fermé plein de provisions / a skim : une couche / gal : "ma fille" / flawed : qui a un défaut / dangled : suspendu / jaunt : balade / the coach : la voiture / peaked caps : bonnets pointus / for no earthly reason : sans l'ombre d'une raison / a street pup : un petit chien des rues / fussily : agir avec précaution / to worship : vénérer / to be flustered : perdre ses moyens / to stammer : bafouiller / to slutter : bredouiller / to mince : minauder / to bubble : frémir / wobbly: tremblotant / the folds : les plis / to quell a roustabout : calmer un trublion / to turn into jelly : réduire en bouillie
. Etude de texte :
This extract takes place in 1920. It deals with the journey from the Bottom to New Orleans and the scene is seen to the eyes of Nel. Nel lives her community to discover racism.
I - In the train
When Cecile (Helene's grandmother) falls ill, Helene sews herself a magnificent dress in preparation for the journey she will have to make to New Orleans in the Deep South for the funeral. Despite the splendor of her clothes, she is insulted and humiliated by the white conductor on the train. Actually, they are in the part reserved to the white community. The moment she is called "gal", Helene acts like a child, she loses her self-control. Helene's clothes shows that she is still a child. She gives the conductor a dazzling smile, inciting the silent animosity of the black passengers.The conductor is totally indiffeent to Helene's charm: She is just a black woman. Helene's behaviour makes her stupid when the two soldiers don't want to bow down in front of the white man. At the end of the day, when Helene and Nel arrive in New Orleans, the discover that Cecile has already died.
II - Racism
Though Helene's conventionality is implicitly linked to the rich whites of Medallion, Helene still suffers from racism, as can be seen by her experience on the train. The order and boundaries of her conservative, religious, middle class respectability do not protect her from racism (neither the dress). Helene tries desperately to maintain composure, but her dazzling smile has a hollow, disturbing implication. She inadvertently gives her approval to a biased, racist authority, inciting the anger and hatred of the other passengers. Her effort to placate and please the rude conductor only makes his sense of superiority more secure.
III - Nel's point of view
Because of the humiliation of her mother, Nel discovers that her mother isn't the model she wants to impose, she realizes that her mother is not indomitable. Nel is nearly at the same step as her mother. Nel feels ashamed and pleased that her mother is flustered. In front of the white conductor, her mother who is supposed to be strong, independant and pround, suddently collapses. After meeting Rochelle, Nel realizes that there are women who defy the conventional boundaries, whether of religion, femininity, or race. Struck by the realization that convention does not necessarily equate to strength, Nel resolves to build herself according to her own rules, to find strength within herself.