Throughout the genre of multicultural American literature, class and racial struggles are seen as defining structures since the author uses the protagonist to promulgate his or her agenda about class, race, and even religion. When one thinks of examples of such literatures, slave narratives and American Indian stories generally come to mind. While these are the more widely known examples of books which seek to expose class and racial inequalities, Latino or Mexican American stories are just as significant in this genre. From this emerging literary tradition comes a 19th century work known as Who Would Have Thought It by Maria Ruiz De Burton. Its protagonist and victim of racial injustice is a young girl named Lola who finds herself stuck between Anglo-Saxon New Englanders who love her for her beauty and sweetness and those who despise her because of her heritage, skin color, religion, and wealth. While much paper could be devoted to the study of the heritage and skin color debates in this novel, the novel has a much more interesting and much more subtle issue at hand. It is my opinion that Lola, through the author’s craftsmanship and taste for the romantic, does not participate in the same class and racial stigmatisms that most of her neighbors and adopted family engage in. This primarily concerns the circumstances surrounding her attitude and reaction to the mistreatment she suffered from another racially persecuted group: the Irish.
But before one investigates Lola’s character, it is necessary to look at some characters that embody the popular race and class prejudices of the time so that one can use such norms to judge whether or not Lola participates in these prejudices. Upon Lola’s arrival at the Norval house, she is immediately shunned by all within save Dr. Norval for her skin color. Mrs. Norval especially shuns her after declaring, “How black she is!” (Ruiz de Burton 17). The others give similar disdainful remarks about her skin color and even her heritage. Ruth Norval declares emphatically, “Negroes or Indians, or both…any one can see that much of her history” (Ruiz de Burton 17). This statement is shot down by the doctor but the language surrounding such a comment can be inferred as being laced with disdain and racial contempt. While her heritage may be questioned because of her skin color, Lola is also scorned for her religion. Mrs. Norval is known throughout the novel as being a hard lined Presbyterian; one who despises Catholics. Her objection is seen after Dr. Norval states, “She will go to Sunday school if anyone will teach her the Catholic Catechism, but certainly not the Presbyterian” (Ruiz de Burton 24). To this Mrs. Norval exclaims in alarm and asks just a few paragraphs later, “And who is to teach her that abominable idolatry here?” (Ruiz de Burton 24). Her tone in this passage, as well as others, sets more fuel to the fire for Mrs. Norval’s prejudices against Lola in the book. There are many class/racial distinctions set in this novel which separate the upper class elite from those who serve them. Prejudices against skin color or heritage dictate such norms in the novel. As Lola is being taken into the house, Mrs. Norval tells Hannah, their Irish maid, “Take this girl to the kitchen” (Ruiz de Burton 18). Dr. Norval doesn’t let her since Lola is to be made their “adopted child” (Ruiz de Burton 19). Mrs. Norval is astounded at this suggestion and sarcastically supposes, “In that case your daughters and myself will have to wait upon your adopted child; for I am sure we will not find in all New England a white girl willing to do it” (Ruiz de Burton 19). Generally in this society, skin color, as implied by Mrs. Norval’s sarcasm, dictates a person’s position in society. But because of Dr. Norval’s devotion toward the child and her large inheritance, Mrs. Norval is forced to morph Lola into New England elite society. Yet even while this prejudice is going on, no mean word is heard from Lola against Mrs. Norval. Lola remains pure from racial prejudice.
Prejudice against one or more sort of persons is not limited to religion or race. In this novel the issue of class distinctions is raised especially where Lola is concerned. Being under the good graces of her guardian, Dr. Norval, and now endowed with a prodigious inheritance, Lola is placed in the elite world of the Norval women and their neighbors. Yet in this society, wealth is the separating factor between them and those who would serve them. The Norvals do indeed have servants which help them with their chores around the house. The ones which are of interest to this study are the two Irish maids. This is due to the fact that they interact significantly with Lola and belong to a race of white persons who have been subject to enormous class and racial prejudice over the centuries. In many ways they are like Lola in their relationship to Mrs. Norval. The two Irishwomen, Hannah and Polly are of non-Anglo-Saxon ancestry which historically has never been favorable and their country has always been seen as a savage or uncivilized land. Moreover they are Catholic which puts them once again at odds with Mrs. Norval. They are poor though and that distinction makes them servants to the Norvals. Upon her first evening at the Norval’s house, Lola is told to stay with the Hannah and Polly (Ruiz de Burton 30). Her experience with them is horrible and it results in her sobbing and quitting the Irishwomen’s room for good. Within this situation, Lola refuses to get in bed with the Irishwomen (Ruiz de Burton 30). Some may say that this is due to her prejudices or presuppositions dictated by her noble and wealthy heritage: “her mother being of pure Spanish descent and her father the same, though an Austrian by birth, he having been born in Vienna” (Ruiz de Burton 28). I think not for several reasons. One, it is her first night in a strange house and any little girl ten years old would be properly scared in such a situation. Also, her bedfellows despise her for her skin color: “I am shure I don’t want to slape with any of the likes of ye, naither. Niggers ain’t my most particliest admirashun, I can tell ye, no more not toads nor cateypillars” (Ruiz de Burton 30). Polly the cook also criticizes her not being civilized, “‘I knew that. I knew she would like the floor much better. She ain’t used to a nice, dacent bed,—that is the nature of her!’ said the indignant cook” (Ruiz de Burton 31). Their criticisms are no less harsh than Mrs. Norval’s and as such would give the girl plenty of reason to refuse sleeping with them. Moreover, their habits are quite freakish, gross, and frightening to such a girl in this new and strange place. Lola is astonished at the terrifying severity, with which the cook undresses:
With dilated orbs, Lola gazed upon the fallen hoop and skirts, then upon that figure clad in an inner garment (which hardly reached to the corrugated knee), standing in the middle of the circle like a stubby column in the middle of a blackened, ruin. Cook, being a good Catholic and a lady of sprite, crossed herself earnestly but hurriedly, shook her fist threateningly at Lola, and bolted into bed, leaving behind, in the middle of her hoop-skirt, a pair of shapeless shoes, like two dead crows, and carrying with her to bed a pair of stockings which had been blue, but now were black, and had the privilege of ascending to her ankles, where they modestly coiled themselves in two black rings, and went no farther. (Ruiz de Burton 30)
She is properly frightened of the woman. Furthermore, their snoring moves the girl to tears,
Then the two offended ladies began their nasal duo, and Lola her heart-breaking laments. The louder the Irishwomen snored, the more terrified Lola felt at the darkness and silence beyond that discordant noise, until, almost frantic with terror and desolation, and almost stifling with the foulness of the air, the child, trembling with fear, staggered out of the room and went to lie in the hall,—anywhere, only as far from the Irishwomen as possible. (Ruiz de Burton 31).
Lola is clearly terrified of the women and that along with the Irishwomen’s dim view of her causes Lola to leave their company for better quarters.
Lola’s lack of showing racial or class prejudice continues throughout the book. Moreover, not a single uncivil word comes out of her mouth towards the incorrigible Mrs. Norval despite the latter’s incessant pessimisms. She doesn’t make a peep when Mrs. Norval points out her “spots” to all her friends and suggests that she is carrying some disease (Ruiz de Burton 78-79). The only words she says are those which are kind to others, especially Julian and Dr. Norval, and to be obedient and polite to Mrs. Norval. Such is the character of Lola throughout the extant of the novel.
In conclusion, one can see the various racial and class prejudices that go on throughout the novel and how certain characters display the norms of their society, except for Lola. Lola’s character is so pure in this book that one can hardly believe it. Although I really enjoyed reading how Lola interacted with those of her peerage, I found that the novel lacked a certain volume of realism in regard to her character. It reminded me of some of the characters from Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin which displays certain angelic characters. I found these novels to be similar in that fashion. However, I did like how Ruiz de Burton didn’t have her main protagonist succumb to the prejudices of her class.