The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rena Walden is an admirable character, despite her “tragic mulatto” trappings. Instead of bewailing her black blood, as do many biracial heroines in the fiction of the period, Chesnutt’s Rena has no strong desire to pass for white. She is thinking of becoming a teacher when her brother and mother decide that she should cross the color line. A kind heart, common sense, and high morals are Rena’s outstanding assets; her compassion and lack of snobbery are evident throughout the novel. Truly committed to her ailing mother and to her race, Rena demonstrates common sense and moral fortitude by refusing her brother’s offer to “pass” a second time and by rejecting both suitors, the dishonorable Jeff Wain and the well-intentioned George Tryon. Although Rena’s decision never to marry and her commitment to her people are traits common to many “tragic mulatto” characters, Chesnutt lays the groundwork for Rena’s transformation to take place naturally. She grows from a passive victim of other people’s decisions to a thinking woman of remarkable courage.

John Walden is a rational and businesslike lawyer who makes no apologies for his decision to pass for white. To him, passing is not a moral issue but a sensible way for mulattoes, “the new people” of the South, to claim their inalienable rights. John functions as Rena’s guide and decisionmaker while she remains in the white world; therefore, he is crucial to the structure of the novel....

(The entire section is 599 words.)

The House Behind the Cedars The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Rena Walden is a character haunted by and forever running from guilt. Chesnutt gives the reader a poignant picture of a woman who is unable to understand and unwilling to accept her position as a second-class citizen. She is tragic; her inability to deal with who she is leads her into a situation that eventually forces her to come to terms with her identity and ultimately results in her death. When she leaves Patesville for the first time, she is running from the guilt inherent in being black in the Reconstructionist South; she is running to freedom. When she leaves her brother’s house to return to Patesville, she is running from the guilt of having abandoned both her mother and her sense of self. Her departure from Patesville a second time, to go to Sampson County, is not only a flight from guilt but also an attempt to atone for her abandonment of black identity. Finally, when she flees Sampson County, Rena is making a last desperate effort to run from the guilt that both Wain and George have come to symbolize for her—the guilt she associates with her own sexuality and desire for happiness.

George Tryon also becomes a fugitive from guilt. As Chesnutt presents him to the reader in the beginning of the novel, he is the quintessential Southern aristocrat; he is gallant, proud, and a strict adherent to a code which categorically forbids intimate relations between the races. Immediately after his discovery of Rena Walden’s black heritage, George castigates himself for being so debased that he could fall in love with a “colored woman.” His guilt is so severe that he refuses to expose...

(The entire section is 656 words.)

The House Behind the Cedars Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Rowena (Rena) Walden

Rowena (Rena) Walden, the beautiful, young heroine of mixed race, whose skin is sufficiently light for her to pass as white. Reared as a black child in the small town of Patesville, Rena resigns herself to the limitations of her existence until the unexpected reappearance of her brother John. At his invitation, Rena joins him in South Carolina, where she passes for white, attends a white finishing school, is accepted into Charleston society, and falls in love with George Tryon, a chivalrous young white man. Idealistic and intelligent, Rena enjoys the freedom of her new situation but is troubled by the deception that she must practice to hide her background. Torn between her past and the bright promise of her future with Tryon, Rena risks discovery by rushing to her mother’s sickbed in Patesville. When her secret is revealed and Tryon abandons her, Rena accepts a position as a teacher at a rural black school, but the lecherous advances of Jefferson Wain make her short stay there unbearable. The strain increases when Rena realizes that the school is located near Tryon’s estate. In the end, the pressure breaks Rena. Deathly ill, she is returned to her mother’s home by the faithful Frank Fowler and dies just before Tryon returns to attempt a reunion.

George Tryon

George Tryon, Rena’s fiancé, an aristocratic white Southerner from North Carolina. Handsome, athletic, wealthy, and intelligent, Tryon takes pride in his independence, congratulating himself for being a tolerant and “liberal” man. A romantic, Tryon falls in love with Rena the moment he sees her and swears that he has no interest in her family background. His liberality fails him, however, when he is confronted with Rena’s black heritage. Although Tryon abandons Rena and resumes his courtship of Blanche Leary, he is unable to bury his feelings for Rena. At the novel’s end, he rushes to Patesville, apparently ready to stand up to societal prejudices, but discovers that...

(The entire section is 822 words.)