Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Chesnutt’s overriding theme in The House Behind the Cedars is the problem of passing and its effects on both African Americans and whites in the South. Because of the book’s emphasis on color and caste, separation, alienation, and lost and recovered identity are closely connected themes.

If John Warrick, who is recognized among whites as a “big bug” and a gentleman, is to keep this identity, he must remain separate from his immediate family and alienated from both African Americans and whites. This point is illustrated by John’s return to Patesville at the beginning of the novel. Observing familiar landmarks in the old town, Warrick also recognizes an old woman who had befriended him during his childhood, but he does not reveal his identity. Warrick behaves similarly when his morning walk leads him to his mother’s house behind the cedars. Even though the object of the trip is to visit his mother, he must resist the temptation to stop there in broad daylight, since he would then be recognized by people who know him. The chapter’s title, “A Stranger from South Carolina,” is ironic, for John is familiar with the town and its residents; the title, however, suggests John’s estrangement from his people. In chapter 7, “Amid New Surroundings,” the narrator not only reveals Rena’s adjustment to her new home but also comments on John’s loneliness in and alienation from the white world: “There was a measure of relief in having about him one who knew his past, and yet whose knowledge, because of their common interest, would not jeopardize his future. For he had always been, in a figurative sense, a naturalized foreigner in the world of wide opportunity.” Chesnutt depicts the world of the mulatto as one filled with opportunity but plagued by secrets and insecurities as well.

The theme of alienation is further revealed by both John’s and Rena’s predicament after her racial identity is discovered and her engagement is broken. John knows...

(The entire section is 813 words.)

The House Behind the Cedars Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

As with much of Chesnutt’s fiction, the major theme is the color line. The author was a very light-skinned man and found the subject of passing fascinating. Each of the major characters in this novel probes that single theme in some way. John is the successful example; he has crossed the color line without being detected. Though he seems happy in his life in South Carolina, he has made an enormous sacrifice. John Warwick can never publicly acknowledge his own family. In fact, he must conceal their existence and has had very little contact with them since leaving home, until the events in the story take place. Rena is destroyed by her attempt to deny her color. Frank Fowler is too black to pass, but he has little respect for those who refuse to acknowledge their identity. Molly Walden, too, is destroyed by her attempt to see her children into the world beyond the color line. In quite a different way, George Tryon has crossed that line too. He has loved a black woman, and this fact forever alters his way of thinking about color. Wain, also too black to pass, sees in Rena a chance for added prestige—the lighter the skin, the better the quality.

Chesnutt raises and attempts to answer the question of whether there is a correspondence between skin color and human quality. There can be no doubt that George believes such a correspondence to be real. He would never consider marrying a woman with the slightest trace of black blood in her. Even in the end, when...

(The entire section is 522 words.)