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Honoré de Balzac’s The Girl with the Golden Eyes recounts protagonist Henri de Marsay’s pursuit of Paquita Valdez. Balzac’s portrayal of Paquita and some of the characters around her is often racist and sexist, with racism and sexism interacting to create a disposable love interest for Henri. Paquita, her mother, and Cristemio are depicted with little or no characterization beyond basic qualities that are mostly stereotypical. Furthermore, Paquita is idealized and fetishized. de Balzac treats these characters as one-dimensional and lesser due to their race and gender.
Paquita, who is at least the daughter of a slave and possibly a slave herself, is objectified as a woman of color. Firstly, she has very little control over her own life. Despite living a rather luxurious lifestyle as the mistress of a wealthy member of society, she is not allowed to make decisions for herself; she cannot even leave the estate without her duenna. Though her situation is never fully explained, she says that her mother “has sold [her] already,” and when Henri asks if they can ever be free together, she replies “’Never’… with an air of sadness” (97). Non-white people have been forced into slavery throughout human history, and here Paquita is shown as a commodity for elite Europeans.
Paquita sees Henri as an escape from her oppressive life; however, even to him she is merely an object, a plaything he can chase and derive pleasure from. Upon merely seeing her and becoming captivated by her beauty, Henri decides that he is “determined to make this girl [his] mistress” (80), and does whatever is necessary to be able to have access to this sheltered and guarded young woman. Her status as a captive, non-white woman makes it alright for him to pursue her so aggressively. He clearly enjoys the chase, and sees her as a challenge. Their relationship too is shown as that of possessor and possession. As a woman and a non-white character, Paquita is a captive and a distraction, nothing more. She lives and dies in the possession of others.
Paquita is portrayed as exotic; this racist and sexist depiction suggests that she is simultaneously deserving of objectified pursuit, but also different enough from the European male norm to not actually matter much. Henri fetishizes “her two yellow eyes, like a tiger’s,” (59). He fixates on them, constantly, almost worshipping them. His comparison of her eyes to a tiger’s serves to continue painting her as foreign and unhuman. In general, Paquita is not much described beyond her beauty: her appearance in “a loose voluptuous wrapper,” and “the most beautiful hands Henri had ever seen,” etc., consume Henri (92, 98). She is afforded very little characterization, because that is not important. Women of color are often reduced to certain fetishized aspects of their appearance. Henri appreciates her only because she is beautiful, and he obsesses over her eyes and other exotic aspects of his new plaything.
Paquita is further racialized through the non-white characters around her. Paquita’s mother, a slave from Georgia, is treated terribly by the text. First of all, her description paints non-Western attire as strange and even scary. The reader’s first introduction to the mother shows “her head capped by one of those turbans … which would have a mighty success in China, where the artist’s ideal is the monstrous” (92). This description codes anything associated with non-Western cultures and non-white people as negative, without directly stating that. Here, de Balzac depicts Paquita’s mother as literally inhuman; a monster because of how she differs from white people. Furthermore, the judgment of Chinese art leads to more associations of subhuman and lesser qualities with people of color.
Direct interactions between Paquita and her mother further emphasize their negative qualities. When Paquita cries into her mother’s chest, she does not move “from her state of immobility” and refrained from “displaying any emotion”; de Balzac describes this as the “gravity of savage races” (100). Here, the racism is more explicit, as de Balzac is literally referring to people of color as “savage”. The theme of dehumanization is continued by presenting the mother as unable to show emption or affection, even for her own daughter. And again, she sold her own daughter as well. She is seen as bad for selling her daughter without any regard for her, and Paquita is seen as worthless for being sold. Paquita, by association with her mother, also suffers from this cold and inhuman characterization. Later, when Margarita kills Paquita, she pays her mother, and “the chink of the gold was potent enough to excite a smile on the Georgian’s impassive face” (159). This is the only time she shows emotion, and it is a positive emotion in response to receiving money. She does not appear to experience any grief over her daughter.
Language plays an important part in the racist portrayal of people of color in the novella. An inability to speak a language other than their native languages further dehumanizes these characters. Paquita reveals that she “can neither read nor write” and “can only speak English and Spanish” (138). Despite living in Paris, she can’t speak French, and even in the languages she does know, she can only communicate verbally. Her lack of language ability paints her as an uneducated savage. As a captive with little chance to make her own choices, Paquita is likely prevented from learning to speak French, read, or write, because those abilities would give her more control over herself and a better chance of escape. Her mother, too, “only speaks her native tongue,” despite living in France for a long time. Slaves are often kept from expanding their methods of communication, in order to deprive them of power. This also adds to the alien portrayal of the mother. Finally, Cristemio also “only speaks a sort of Spanish patois” (86). This is another example of people of color being unintelligent and separate from Western society, especially since patois has a somewhat negative connotation.
Cristemio, a black man, is portrayed as a brute in other ways as well, contributing to a racialized negative depiction of people of color. Part of it is connected to religion; when Henri encounters Cristemio and the translator Poincet, he addresses Poincet and refers to him as the “fellow who [looks] the most like a Christian of the two” (86). One aspect of dehumanizing people of color is justifying mistreatment of them and assuming that they are immoral due to them not being Christian. de Balzac’s description of Cristemio is also racist: he shows a “childish lack of reflection” and seems to represent “something menacing” (86). His entirely violent nature is further emphasized when Henri remarks that “His sinewy arm did not belong to him,” which also invokes the idea of slavery (86). Depictions of Cristemio reaffirm stereotypes of unintelligence, savagery, and violence of people of color.
The dehumanization of Paquita and non-white characters around her in The Girl with the Golden Eyes is a harmful and stereotypical portrayal of people of color. Though it is ultimately white characters who act evilly, in his depiction de Balzac reinforces Western attitudes that whiteness is good, moral, and superior. Henri obsesses over Paquita and views her as an object, but in the end disposes of her because as a woman of color, she is shown to be worthless. Henri perceives the other characters as violent, monstrous, and evil. Their status as people of color justifies this to Henri, as they are shown as mere savages. de Balzac’s depiction of these characters supports racist and sexist ideas and potentially justifies the poor treatment of people of color.
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