'Displacement' in Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband"

A Psychoanalytic Reading

Term Paper, 2017

17 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Contraband: Social Status and Racial Prejudice

3. Miss Dane: Reality and (Day)dreams

4. White Blacks and Black Whites – Identifying ‘Displacement’

5. Concluding Discussion

6. Works Cited

1. Introduction

My Contraband is certainly a story about race. However, it is not a story about racial prejudice and stereotypes. Quite on the contrary, it is, as Baym et al. put it, a story about “interracial sexuality” (1248). Although this interpretation might go a little too far, it certainly offers a quite uncommon view on the African American. Baym et al. also admit that My Contraband only “offers suggestions about such a possibility” (1248), i.e. a relationship between the two races. As we see the story world through the first-person narrator’s eyes, we get access to Miss Dane’s perceptions and thoughts. Miss Dane is a nurse and in the short story has the task to look after a wounded captain. When she enters the captain’s sickroom for the first time she gets to see not only her patient but also the contraband who has been housed in the adjoining room. The first description of her impressions of him is very straightforward. She tells the reader that she “feel[s] decidedly more interested in the black man than in the white” and that she “had seen many contrabands, but never one so attractive as this” (Alcott 1250). Being attracted to a ‘black’ person and admitting this as clearly as in this passage is most likely to meet strong opposition in the society Miss Dane lives in. Although the reader can clearly see that Miss Dane does not show signs of racial prejudice, she still accepts the distribution of roles that the American society dictates. When she asks a favour of him she wants “to offer comfort as a friend” but instead “merely g[ives] an order as a mistress” (1251).

This raises the important issue of how she explains her feelings to herself and to the reader. Certainly, as the reader does not get any direct explanations, a psychoanalytic reading of My Contraband could offer insights into how her psyche justifies these positive feelings towards ‘her’ contraband. Albeit Freud’s theories are often (over-)used for that purpose, they are in the case of this short story helpful to explain the way in which Miss Dane’s thoughts operate. Generally speaking, she transfers all the negative connotations linked to the ‘blackness’ of the coloured soldier to his slavery in order to justify her feelings towards him, thereby unconsciously making use of a process called ‘displacement.’

In order to substantiate the above claim, the status of contrabands in the American society will be looked at also looking at what racial prejudice they have to cope with. In a second step, the Freudian concept of ‘displacement’ will be discussed and connected to Freud’s findings about the super-ego, as this is the process Miss Dane makes use of. In the last step the findings of the previous chapters will be used to look at the primary text in more detail. The choice of words, especially the choice of colours, is, as we will see, worth taking a closer look at. Further textual evidence will also be discussed in order to look at what image of ‘her’ contraband the nurse is producing and why she does so.

2. The Contraband: Social Status and Racial Prejudice

A first look at the term ‘contraband’ reveals an interesting insight in what it means to be contraband. The term originally meant ‘smuggled goods.’ This already reveals two major characteristics. Firstly, they are, or, to be more accurate, have been, the property of someone and secondly, they have changed their ‘owners,’ having more or less been stolen.

Looking at the contraband from a historical perspective, the term has been brought into life by General Benjamin F. Butler as ‘contrabands of war’ (Tomblin v). Although, according to 1850 legislation, “runaway slaves were to be returned to their masters,” the Union Army began “ignor[ing] the law and employ[ing] the runaways in army camps and on army fortifications” (v). Generally, this step was justified by arguing that the contrabands were property of the enemy and therefore it was regarded acceptable to grant them asylum and, more or less, confiscating them, thereby treating them as object as well. The positive effects for the Union were not only seen in the increase of the armed forces, but also in “depriving the enemy [i.e the Confederacy] of valuable labor” (vi).

The Second Confiscation Act of 1862, pushed forward by Abraham Lincoln, provided the legal basis for this operation. It “granted freedom only to ‘contrabands’ within Union lines” (Gannon 219). Although slavery was not authorised again in the Southern States after the Civil War had ended, the “freedmen’s dream of being immediately established as an independent black yeomanry” (McKenzie 369) was not realised. The political Republican elite argued that “indiscriminate redistribution would ‘demoralize’ former slaves who needed to learn the benefits of industry and thrift” (369). This quote shows quite well how strong the distrust and the belief in the inferiority in people of colour were in the entire United States. The former slaves who have had to work on the landowners’ plantations mainly as harvest workers surely knew the processes necessary for a successful crop better than the landowners themselves, having come into direct contact with the plantation goods for many years. This circumstance demands at least for an overview about racism and the image of the ‘black’ person at that time.

Charles Darwin’s theory on the origin of species, which he published in 1859, gave scientists of the age the opportunity to use this theory in order to justify differences between people of different colour. Debate even began to centre upon “whether there was in fact one human species” (Bliss 100). However, it is not biological research that drove racial prejudice, which already had been used as an excuse for slavery for many decades. As Lipsitz argues, “racism is more than a matter of prejudice” but a tradition within a culture that “emerged [mainly] as a result of economic [and] political […] factors” (121). As in the early years of settlement there had been a great need for working hands, the use of ‘blacks’ to work for the new landowners seemed unavoidable; however, this might also be a reason why they were seen as tools or objects rather than human beings. The discriminating laws passed in the earliest years of ‘import’ of coloured people in Virginia, which forbade for example interracial marriage, can serve as an example of political enforcement of barriers between the different races.

The ideology of ‘white supremacy’ is certainly one of the terms which best characterizes the attitudes towards people of colour. This ‘supremacy’ was expresses in representations by ‘whites’ about ‘blacks’. “[D]egrading images of blacks have been pervasive in white culture” and these depictions included “portrayals of black people as primitive, superstitious, childlike [...]” (Lipsitz 129). Certainly, these actions served a unifying function among ‘whites’ while establishing ‘black’ identity as a negative example.

One of the most popular racial stereotypes present in the mind of many Americans was that presented in the famous ‘minstrel shows.’ “By both portraying blacks in a certain way, generally in line with the stereotypes of the time [...] minstrel shows became both a principle site of struggle in and over the perceived culture of blacks” (Gallagher 790). The way in which ‘black’ people were depicted is very problematic because Jim Crow, the principal figure, “was based on the caricature of a black homeless man, dressed in ragged clothes, singing and dancing on stage” (790). It is believed that many Americans “perceived [those depictions] as reality and taken as truth” (790). As a further discussion of how people of colour were presented by ‘whites’ to ‘white’ audiences would go beyond the scope of this paper. It has be pointed out, though, that these depictions could only become that influential because “whiteness [...] alone both defines normality and fully inhabits it” (Dyer, “The Matter of Whiteness” 12), while otherness is perceived as a threat.

Any representation in American culture has to be regarded in the light of the traditions of the country. Although it has been shown that My Contraband is not a story that builds up walls between different ethnicities, those barriers are nevertheless perceptible and have a great impact both on the plot and interpretations of the short story.

3. Miss Dane: Reality and (Day)dreams

In the introduction, it has been pointed out that Miss Dane is well aware of the distribution of roles between the former slave and herself when she states that “[al]though [she] went in to offer comfort as a friend, [she] merely gave an order as a mistress” (Alcott 1251). This section will look at the way her psyche tries to find a compromise between her knowledge of the society she lives in and her feelings toward the contraband she meets. A process which has been coined and described by Sigmund Freud is ‘displacement’. In the analysis of the short story that follows in the next section, it will serve as a basis to organise and explains her associations and thoughts.

‘Displacement’ is a Freudian concept that has been used by him in order to analyse dreams. Akhtar defines ‘displacement’ as “the fact that psychic energy can be redirected from one idea to another” (82). This means that in a dream one might redirect one’s thoughts from an experienced or desired situation to something simpler or something more agreeable. The concept can easily be explained with examples because most dreams actually make use of ‘displacement’. If, for example, a person desires a valuable object he or she cannot afford, this person can dream about winning the lottery in order to buy the desired object. The psychic energy in this case is redirected from the lack of money to something closely associated with (a lot of) money, in this example, the lottery. ‘Displacement’ only works in one direction: it always works by “supplanting [...] something unacceptable by something more palatable to the individual or social group” (Finney 229). The ‘unacceptability’ is also an aspect which has to be considered. While in the above example the shifting from one idea (i.e. the lack of money) to another (i.e., winning the lottery) only takes place because it makes the individual feel uncomfortable, ‘displacement’ is often necessary to get rid of feelings or attitudes that would, at least in real life, meet heavy opposition.

Freud’s theory of dreams makes use of two psychical values: dream-thoughts and dream-content. Dream-content comprises “images and thoughts of which the dreamer was conscious while dreaming”, while dream-thoughts are made up of thoughts that “emerge during the interpretative process” and which are “not conscious at the time” (7). “[W]hat is of intense interest in the dream-thoughts is often peripheral in the dream, and vice-versa” (Michael 14). This can help explain why “there are elements of the dream that are intense even though their dream-thoughts are not” (14). Although, at a first glance, Freud’s theory of ‘displacement’ seems complicated, it is not. To generalise a bit, dream-thoughts reflect inner desires or attitudes of a person. On the other hand, dream-content are the thoughts that seem to be present in a dream. Therefore, if a dream-thought is reflected by a dreamer, the dream-content is pushed away because the general attitudes of a person are incompatible with an actual dream. It is those attitudes that are actually pushed away by the dream-content, as the dream-content depicts something more likely to happen or something which is more acceptable for the dreamer. ‘Displacement’ can therefore be regarded as a defence mechanism that protects the individual from reality. How can Freud’s dream theory be linked to his theory of the human drives? Resnik argues that “[d]isplacement is a defence that consists in distancing the original meaning and the distancing is equivalent to avoiding the reading of the superego” (15). As the super-ego is the force that looks over the compliance of the social norms that one has learned as a child, its opinion has to be suppressed in order to find a solution that is both acceptable for the individual and one that can be implemented.

This theoretical framework will be used in the following section in order to look at the textual evidence and to interpret Miss Dane’s perceptions of the contraband. Even though her narrative does at a first glance not seem like a dream, the mechanism that she makes use of, as it will be seen, is the same.

4. White Blacks and Black Whites – Identifying ‘Displacement’

As has been claimed at the beginning of this text, Miss Dane, the female main character of My Contraband, uses the strategy of ‘displacement’ in order to explain her feelings towards him. ‘Displacement’ is a strategy of the mind that is usually found in dreams. It is a basic working mechanism of the psyche and it will be used here to explain the depictions she gives of ‘her’ contraband. Section 2 has shown that any relationship towards the contraband would, in the time the story plays in, be problematic, taking into account the widespread prejudices about people of colour at that time.

‘Displacement’ helps Miss Dane to ascribe different identities to the black soldier, transferring all characteristic she associates with ‘blackness’ to the slavery from which he has come. To be able to substantiate these claims, it will be necessary to look at some of the key passages of the text. The following passage is taken from the scene in which the nurse tries to prevent Bob (the contraband) from murdering his former master:

Alas, it was the darkest hour before the dawn! – there was no star above, no light below but the pale glimmer of the lamp that showed the brother who had made him so desolate. Like a blind man who believes there is a sun, yet cannot see it, he shook his head, let his arms drop nervelessly upon his knees, and sat there dumbly asking that question which many a soul whose faith is firmer fixed than his has asked in hours less dark than this, –“Where is God?” (Alcott 1258)

What is striking in this passage is the extensive use of references towards light and darkness. The absence of stars, the absence of light and the blindness referred to all apply to ‘darkness’, whereas the “pale glimmer of the lamp” (1258) and the “sun” (1258) stand for light in general. What comes to the experienced reader’s mind first when reading the passage is certainly the idea of God bringing light to the Earth, as described in Gen. 1.3 (Ferber 115). This biblical concept goes well together with other textual evidence, such as the “faith” referred to or the question that the believer asks himself. However, such an interpretation of this passage can hardly seem sufficient. A reasonable step is to look in more detail at what functions the light in this passage have. To begin with, the “pale glimmer of the lamp” (Alcott 1258) reveals his half-brother (i.e., the Captain) under whom he had to work in slavery. As the light does not fall on Bob, the light seems to be linked to the brother and ‘whiteness’. The quality of the light, which is pale, however, might indicate not only the expected death of the captain, but might also tell that this ‘whiteness’ is actually not desirable. The contraband, on the other hand, is kept in complete darkness, as there was “no star above” (1258) and “no light below” (1258). What distinguishes him from his brother is the belief that “there is a sun” (1258). If one argues that there is light within the ‘black’ man, this would indicate a certain hope. As hope is traditionally one of the symbolic meanings of light (Ferber 115), this point seems indisputable.


Excerpt out of 17 pages


'Displacement' in Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband"
A Psychoanalytic Reading
University of Koblenz-Landau
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Alcott, Psychoanalysis, Displacement, Racism
Quote paper
Sven Klees (Author), 2017, 'Displacement' in Louisa May Alcott's "My Contraband", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/950025


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