There is Confusion serves as Jessie Redmon Fauset’s platform, to display her critique of American society and its treatment of women, namely African-American women. Using her own distinctive voice, Fauset exceeded expectations and limitations in terms of theme and character development. Fauset transgressed against the standard norms of the portrayals of African-American women in literature. Transgression is defined as the exceeding of due bounds or limits. Although generally associated with negative connotations, the act of transgression can be also simply a change or deviation from the standard. Fauset used transgression in various ways in her novel. In terms of content and themes, Fauset transgresses against the standard literary norm by writing about African-American women who refuse to conform, live by their own rules, and rebuff the sexual and social codes of their time. Fauset’s female protagonists make their own choices. When not completely fulfilled by and satisfied with their choices, the women reevaluate and make newly informed choices. This ability to make these choices sets these fictional characters and their creator apart from other characters and writers of the time.
In There is Confusion, Joanna decides at a very young age that she will be different. As a child she tells her father “I will be great” (Fauset 14). Joanna wants to follow in the footsteps of other great women like Harriet Tubman and Sojourner truth, colored women who had “won their way to fame and freedom” (14). This marks the beginning of Joanna’s fixation with fame. She becomes focused on achieving her dream of becoming a famous singer and dancer. Fauset’s decision to have Joanna seek a career as an entertainer is transgressive is itself. At the time, Joanna would have had very few role models to emulate in the entertainment business. Most women of Joanna’s generation were usually relegated to jobs as domestics. Joanna’s belief that she could attain recognition and fame is ambitious to say the least. This is evidence to the daring, unconventional nature of both Joanna and Fauset. Joanna is unphased by the insurmountable task that she is trying to undertake. Joanna does not believe that anything, race and gender included, will keep her from her dream.
Fauset purposely redefines the traditional lines of gender and family. Although she has two brothers, it is Joanna who her father singles out as his heir, the one who will live out his deferred dreams of greatness. When Joanna tells her father she wants to be great “Her words made him so happy; they renewed his life” (Fauset 14). The pride and joy that Joanna provides in her father’s life exemplify her position as a beacon of hope for her race as a whole. In the novel, Fauset puts men and women on an equal playing field. She shows that despite the unfair practices of the world, black women are determined and capable of exceeded expectations and achieving greatness. “Fauset has cleverly reversed the customary roles of sons and daughters in There is Confusion. Father Joel, looking for the urge of greatness in his son, is surprised by it in his daughter Joanna” (Sylvander 164). Fauset unveils the unexpected answer to the racial problem in America, the black woman.
Fauset is a definite advocate for the professional black working woman is one that was rarely seen in African-American literature prior to the publication of There is Confusion. Most black women in literature were portrayed a domestic servants. However, Fauset rejects the idea that a woman’s place belongs solely in the home. Joanna discards any idea of toiling away in the home doing housework. Even as a child, Joanna completes her chores, but knows that she is capable of more in life: “Joanna never complained, either, yet she made up her mind early that as a woman she would never do this kind of work. Not that she despised it, she simply considered it labor lost for a person who like herself might be spending her time in more beautiful and more graceful activities” (Fauset 17). Joanna is confident that she will be successful and that she will do extraordinary things. She does not believe that her gender will hinder her in anyway. Through Joanna, Fauset shows that despite the limited options open to women, one does not have to succumb to the limitations.
Not only does Fauset have her characters defy conventional career paths, but she also creates characters who challenge the preconceived notions of black beauty and sexuality. Historically, black women were seen as either the mammy/matriarch or the jezebel. Black women were either categorized as the antithesis of standard beauty or a sexually aggressive imitation of standard European beauty. Rarely did the portrayal of black women fall between the two. Fauset was aware of this discrepancy and sought to remedy it on all fronts: “As a well-educated, refined woman, she created characters who are particularly careful to avoid the negative stereotypes of black female sexuality, a stereotype that was cultivated, not only by racists, but also, ironically, by those very white people who embraced black culture for its purported spontaneity and sexual liberation” (Schenck 104). To counter these images, Fauset created a protagonist who rejected the standard ideas of beauty. Joanna refuses to allow her appearance to guide her life. She rejects the notion of enhancing her physical attributes in any way.
She had a mop of thick black hair which was actually heavy, so much that the back of her head bulged. Joanna knew next to nothing at this time of those first aids to colored people in this country in the matter of conforming to average appearance. If she had known them, it is doubtful if she would have used them, for she had the variety of honesty which made her hesitate and even dislike to do or adopt anything artificial, no matter how much it might improve her general appearance (Fauset 20). Joanna is unconcerned with achieving the so-called standard of beauty. She does not allow herself or anyone else objectifies her in that way. She refuses to be reduced to a mere sex object.
Although harshly criticized by many of today’s standards, Fauset revolutionized the idea of the black woman in her novel There is Confusion. Fauset transgressed against the literary norms and exemplified the plight of black women in America at the turn of the century. Fauset’s women were not victims; they were independent and focused on their ambitions and dreams. Fauset used her position as a writer to right a wrong that she felt needed to be addressed. She understood and respected her power and influence as a novelist: “Fauset believes strongly in the power of art to effect change in people bound by trained prejudice and discrimination” (Sylvander 160). Fauset wrote about a fact that she had always known; that black women exist outside of the limited stereotypes that are presented as fact. Now, thanks to Fauset the world knows it too.
Fauset, Jessie Redmon. There is Confusion. Northeastern UP: Boston, 1924.
Schenck, Mary Jane. “Jessie Fauset: The Politics of Fulfillment vs. the Lost Generation” South
Atlantic Review. 66.1 (2001): 102-125.
Sylvander, Carolyn Wedin. Jessie Redmon Fauset, Black American Writer. Whitson Publishing
Company: New York, 1981.