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There are several subtle images in Walter Mosley’s detective novel Devil In a Blue Dress that suggest the unusual ending. Throughout the novel, the main character, a black man named Easy Rawlins, sees people as either black or white. He is especially aware of the white people around him and constantly comments on their color. This distinction is a common theme throughout the novel and both puts the novel in the context of post-WWII America and also helps to complicate the ending by showing that the binary world of black and white is just a matter of perception.
The character of DeWitt Albright is introduced in the first paragraph of the novel. Upon seeing Albright for the first time Rawlins considers, “It’s not just that he was white but he wore an off-white linen suit and shirt with a Panama straw hat and bone shoes over flashing white silk socks.” (45) It not only describes Albright as a Caucasian man, but he is literally, in every aspect, a white man. The word “white” is used three times in just this one sentence. As the novel continues and more characters are introduced, Mosley continues describing them in terms of their skin color. In a scene where Easy goes to see Albright in his office, he is confronted by a “little white man wearing a suit that was also a uniform.” (58) Though this encounter with the security guard is brief, Rawlins notes his skin color four times. The constant focus on skin color reminds the reader of the time period that the novel takes place in. This repetition makes it clear to the reader that race will be an issue and will play a part in the story.
Rawlins’ mission in the novel is to find a woman named Daphne Monet, and often throughout the story she is referred to as “the white girl.” The reader does not find out until the end of the novel that Daphne Monet is half black and passes for being white. In every scene involving Daphne there are subtle clues as to her true identity that might not be easily inferred without knowing the ending. For example, Daphne lives in a duplex which implies being split in half. The color choice is also indicative of this. When he first meets Daphne, Easy describes her “half living room. It had brown carpets, a brown sofa with a matching chair, and brown walls. There was a bushy potted fern next to the brown curtains.” (135) The repetition of the word “brown” and the idea that it is used in relation to the one half of the duplex suggests that the author is attempting to give the reader a subconscious clue. In the same scene, Rawlins comments on “the soap she used, Ivory.” (135) The image of ivory is obviously white and in this case seems to be used to contrast the surroundings of Daphne’s apartment.
In the next scene involving Daphne there is another clue to her secret duality. Easy later describes her as being “like the chameleon lizard.” (230) This metaphor is apt because though Easy uses it in regard to her actions toward men, it is also a reference to changing color of skin. Though her skin doesn’t literally change color, the idea of color not being a static quality can be seen through Easy’s observation of Daphne’s eyes. Easy constantly comments on other characters’ eyes so it is no surprise that he mentions Daphne’s several times. He goes to meet her and “Her eyes were green right then.” (222) However, later in their rendez-vous as she is bathing him, Easy describes how “she looked into my face, with eyes that had become blue over the water.” (229) Then later on, “her eyes flashed green for the first time since the bath.” (231) Toward the end of the chapter, once again Easy notes that “Her eyes turned blue” (234) and at the very end “She turned green eyes on me.” (235) This constant change between blue and green eyes is chameleon-like and is a subtle way of showing that Daphne’s character encompasses a dual quality which puts her at odds with Rawlins’ binary view of people.
Color is a constant theme throughout this novel both because of the time period and, ultimately, the ending. It is not until the end that the reader is faced with the fact that all of the problems that developed were caused by the secret fact that Daphne is half black and passing as a white girl. This is a surprise ending, yet in retrospect Mosley offers some subtle clues that suggest her true identity.
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