(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The House Behind the Cedars is a story about the efforts of two mulattoes to pass for white in the post-Civil War South. Through John and Rena Walden, Charles Chesnutt depicts both a successful and an unsuccessful attempt at “passing.”

John’s adventure into the white world is successful. As a child, the light-skinned John decides that he is more white than black and, therefore, has the right to enjoy all of the privileges of a white man. After serving as an apprentice lawyer in Judge Straight’s office and after reviewing the laws regarding miscegenation in the South, he and Judge Straight decide that South Carolina is the best place in the South for John’s new identity. Thus, a few years before the Civil War, the eighteen-year-old John Walden gets money from his mother, Molly, kisses his little sister Rena good-bye, and leaves his hometown of Patesville, North Carolina, for Clarence, South Carolina. There, he takes the name John Warrick and begins his life as a white man.

Because of his fair skin and patrician manners, John encounters little difficulty. He escapes serving in the Confederate Army; instead, he manages the plantation of a wealthy Southerner who has left his wife in order to fight for the Confederacy. When the plantation owner is killed, John marries his widow, who is the descendant of a wealthy South Carolina family. Hence, through his marriage, John is connected with one of the leading families of the region. He continues his upward mobility by becoming a well-established lawyer whose clientele consists of well-to-do whites. After ten years of living in the white world, John returns to Patesville to visit his mother and sister. Observing Rena’s beauty and intelligence, he persuades Molly to let Rena go back to South Carolina with him. He believes that by crossing the color line she, too, will enhance her social and economic opportunities. John is convinced that Rena, if she remains in Patesville, “must forever be a nobody.” Throughout the novel, John retains his stature as a well-to-do southern gentleman.

Rena’s success at passing, unlike her brother’s, is short-lived. Although her sojourn in the white world is spectacular enough, she is eventually rejected. Having spent a year in a boarding school in Charleston, schooling that prepares her to be “a lady,” Rena is chosen Queen of...

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The House Behind the Cedars Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The House Behind the Cedars is a novel about deception of self and of others—and of the consequences of such deceptions. When John Warwick (formerly Walden) returns to the town of his birth, Patesville, North Carolina, he sets in motion a tragic chain of events. For several years he has been practicing a great deception; shortly before the beginning of the Civil War, he had moved to South Carolina and begun to pose as a white man. He had assumed the name Warwick, passed the South Carolina bar, and, ironically, had become the lawyer whom his white neighbors preferred over the detested carpetbaggers who flooded the region in the period immediately after the war. With the purchase of a plantation, he had become a Southern aristocrat. None of Warwick’s successes would have been possible, had it become known that he was not what he pretended to be—a full-blooded white man.

Warwick returns home to offer the opportunity of a lifetime to his sister, Rena Walden. He asks her to leave the black world of Patesville behind and join him in the white world of his South Carolina plantation. Their mother, Molly Walden, who has lived nearly all of her life in the shadow of white domination, is eager for her daughter to escape a certain future of menial, if not hard, labor. Though she will miss her daughter greatly, she encourages Rena to join John and take advantage of the opportunity to lead a life of gentility and respectability.

Rena Walden becomes Rowena Warwick when she is introduced in her brother’s social circles in South Carolina. She is adopted by the local women and becomes an integral part of the society scene. Her beauty is not lost on the young men of the region either; in fact, she becomes the Queen of Love and Beauty when the gentleman who wins a local jousting tournament selects her as the prettiest girl at the event. By virtue of her selection as Queen, she becomes the winner’s companion for the ball. George Tryon, her escort, is...

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The House Behind the Cedars Bibliography

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Andrews, William L. The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1980. The chapter on The House Behind the Cedars explores the genesis of the novel as it relates to Chesnutt’s literary ambitions. Examines the work according to its features of nineteenth century realism.

Chesnutt, Helen K. Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1952. A biography of Chesnutt by his daughter. The work contains letters pertaining to The House Behind the Cedars and other works by Chesnutt.

Gayle, Addison, Jr. The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press, 1975. The House Behind the Cedars is discussed in chapter 2. The study focuses on Rena and Molly Walden, and notes that Chesnutt created them to plead the cause of the mulatto.

Harris, Trudier. “Chesnutt’s Frank Fowler, A Failure of Purpose?” College Language Association Journal 23 (March, 1979): 215-228. Examines the role of Frank Fowler in The House Behind the Cedars in respect to Chesnutt’s stated literary goals. Fowler’s failure to rise above the plantation stereotype is attributed to Chesnutt’s own racial prejudice toward dark-skinned blacks.

Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade. Provo, Utah: Brigham Young University Press, 1978. The best biography of Chesnutt. Reviews Chesnutt’s life and writings in a social context.

Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980. A critical interpretation of Chesnutt’s fiction. Emphasizes Chesnutt’s handling of such elements as irony, imagery, theme, and point of view.