Grace King Questions

Grace King’s “The Little Convent Girl”
Discussion Questions Submitted by Melissa Walker Heidari
International Conference
EAAS’s European Study Group of 19th-century American Literature
I.D.E.A. (EA 2338)
Université de Lorraine, Metz, France
9-11 October 2014


  1. How does the image of the Mississippi River function in the story? Consider its implications both as means of transcending regional boundaries regarding issues of race, class, and gender and as a metaphor for the possibility of discovering a deeper, more authentic individual identity. Given the various functions of the river, what is the meaning of the protagonist’s submersion at the end?


  1. Consider the little convent girl as a liminal character and the many liminal spaces she inhabits as she transitions from her mother in New Orleans to her father’s home in St. Louis, to the convent, to the steamboat, back to her mother, and ultimately to the “great mother-stream underneath” (154). During any of these moments of transition, does she make conscious decisions about her identity? Does her final act show her to be an agent of change? Is she able to raise questions about the cultures she inhabits?


  1. Anne Goodwyn Jones calls “The Little Convent Girl” “a nearly perfect tale” and “a nearly perfect allegory of the life behind the southern lady’s authorial mask” (121). In what ways do the protagonist’s reticence, passivity, and repression illuminate issues of race, class, and gender in the post-bellum American South, especially for women writers?


  1. How does King use the steamboat as a symbol? Consider the purpose of the ship’s journey and the significance of the various passengers and crew as well as the structural, mechanical aspects of the boat itself. How do all of these elements function in the allegory?


  1. Kate Falvey supports her claim that King works “consistently in the realm of the psychological Gothic” (204) by offering close readings of several stories, including “Grandmama,” “Joe,” “A Drama of Three,” “Anne Marie and Jeanne Marie,” “A Delicate Affair,” “Mimi’s Marriage,” and “La Grande Demoiselle.” In what ways might “The Little Convent Girl” be viewed as part of the Gothic genre?


  1. In an 1886 journal entry, King writes, “What volumes of history are locked up in that generation of women who lived through slavery to freedom! . . . Would that a pen were put into the hands of every virtuous colored woman, and she be bidden to write her own account not of the political but moral injustice done her” (8). A number of critics have commented, however, on King’s inability to envision successful racial healing in Reconstruction New Orleans society, citing various stories. What are the racial implications of the ending of “The Little Convent Girl”? Is King able to articulate a view from the perspective of the “colored woman” or, as Heidi Hanrahan has argued, is “King’s vision limited because she cannot imagine any resolution for the African American characters she creates” (237)?
  2. How does the title of the story demonstrate authorial irony and introduce themes regarding isolation, appearance versus reality, and women’s autonomy? What other themes or ideas are suggested by the title?


  1. The narrator notes that “when the little convent girl was not there, language flowed in its natural curve” (153). Why is she an impediment? What is the “natural curve” of language and behavior in this story? By implication, what is the “natural curve” of women’s language? When are women’s voices heard in the story, and what does that language suggest about women’s discourse in nineteenth-century American South?


  1. Consider King’s use of narrative structure, including point of view as well as exposition, climax, and resolution. Is there a clearly-identifiable turning point in the story, a moment of revelation, new understanding, and/or decisive action? In what ways are we, as readers, “navigating through the upper story” (154)?


  1. Some scholars have argued that the success of nineteenth-century regional writing was particularly significant for women authors who used it as a means of establishing their authority as serious writers and protesting the status quo. Inness and Royer claim that women “used regionalism to write against the norm, to write subversively” (5). Wood defines the work created by this group as “a literature of protest, of protest and deep resistance against a male-dominated technological society which was isolating, ignoring and crippling its women, a society which was making womanhood as they understood it superannuated, obsolete and finally perhaps extinct” (30, 31). Do you agree or disagree with these views of women’s regional writing? How does King’s “The Little Convent Girl” support your position?


Falvey, Kate. “’The Structures or Ruins of Life’: Gothic Dislocation and Woman-Made Community in Grace King’s Balcony Stories.” Narratives of Community: Women’s Short Story Sequences. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 196-216.

Hanrahan, Heidi. “Grace King’s Balcony Stories as Narrative of Community.” Narratives of Community: Women’s Short Story Sequences. Newcastle upon Tyne, England: Cambridge Scholars, 2007. 218-240.

Inness, Sherrie A., and Diana Royer, eds. Breaking Boundaries: New Perspectives on Women’s Regional Writing. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1997.

Jones, Anne Goodwyn. Tomorrow is Another Day: The Woman Writer in the South, 1859-1936. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1981.

King, Grace. Grace King of New Orleans: A Selection of Her Writings. Ed. Robert Bush. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973.

King, Grace. “To Find My Own Peace:” Grace King in Her Journals, 1886-1910. Ed. Melissa Walker Heidari. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004.

Wood, Ann Douglas. “The Literature of Impoverishment: The Women Local Colorists in America 1865-1914.” Women’s Studies I (1972): 3-45.