Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
“The Passing of Grandison” is told in the third person and primarily limited to the consciousness of Dick Owens, the cynical and lazy young heir to a large plantation in Kentucky. His desire to win the hand of his sweetheart Charity Lomax leads him on a mission to accomplish something of humanitarian import. Given his character and the contradictions of the South, however, his efforts can have only an ironic result.
Set in the early 1850’s just after the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, the story begins with the highly publicized trial and subsequent martyr’s death of an abolitionist who tried to help the slave of Tom Briggs, an abusive master and neighbor of the Owens and Lomax families. Charity wishes that her handsome but worthless beau would do something equally worthy. This leads Dick to vow to induce one of his father’s slaves to run away.
Dick chooses to accomplish his task by going on a trip to the North accompanied by a personal body servant. At first, he selects a slave who he knows will want to run away at the first opportunity. The plan is complicated by Colonel Owens, who insists that he go with Grandison. The colonel believes that Grandison is loyal and abolitionist-proof, that is, immune from those who would entice him to run away. Indeed, the colonel quizzes Grandison, who assures his master that he accepts his subordination, is contemptuous of free blacks, and fears abolitionists. As an added inducement,...
(The entire section is 510 words.)
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Charles Waddell Chesnutt published “The Passing of Grandison” in 1899 in his second collection of short stories, The Wife of His Youth and Other Tales of the Color Line. Told from the third-person-limited point of view, the story uses the narrative device of the trickster, the setting of the pre–Civil War plantation, and a two-part plot for the larger purpose of criticizing and satirizing the institution of slavery. The first half of the plot involves Dick Owens, the spoiled son of a plantation owner, attempting to persuade a young woman, Charity Lomax, to marry him. The second and more dominant part of the plot concerns Dick trying to accomplish this by taking a slave north and giving him the opportunity to escape. Charity found a similar account of a man—a man who was imprisoned and executed as a result—to be rather romantic. Not aware of his son’s intentions, plantation owner Colonel Owens selects a slave named Grandison to go north with Dick, for Grandison convinces the colonel that being a slave is a blessing, confirming the colonel’s fondest opinions of slavery. Both ironic and satirical, the story manages to hide its conclusion until the final paragraphs, even though the reader suspects that the slave will indeed trick the master. Both characters are such extreme caricatures of plantation figures that we, along with the narrator, can only laugh at them from beginning to end.
When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered. Nevertheless, it might be well to state a few preliminary facts to make it clear why young Dick Owens tried to run one of his father’s negro men off to Canada.
So begins Chesnutt’s story, disarming the reader immediately by making her or him think this will be a tale more of romance than race. Within this context of “a man pleasing a woman,” Chesnutt satirizes the stereotype of the “happy slave” as well as plantation life in general by allowing one such slave to dupe his master and in so doing achieve freedom not only for himself but for all of his relatives as well.
Young Dick Owens, as indolent as he is rich, wants to marry Charity Lomax, but she will have none of it. Criticizing him for being “too lazy for any use,” Charity says she will “never love him” until he “has done something” that “proves he is a man.” Just recently, a young white man from Ohio had been imprisoned for helping a slave escape, and while in jail, he had died of cholera. This tale catches Charity’s attention, not because the man had done something good, but because he had at least done something, which is more than she can say for Dick. “Will you love me if I run a negro off to Canada?” he asks Charity, hoping to please her. Although she protests that doing such a thing would be “nonsense” and “absurd,” she also says, “seeing is believing,” for in her mind, even if he does something wrong, it is better than doing nothing at all.
Dick begins to conspire to take one of his father’s slaves on a trip to New York and give him the opportunity to escape. Telling his father that he needs a short vacation in the North, Dick asks to bring a slave with him as valet. His father agrees, but only after he rails and warns his son about the abolitionists, who will do anything they can to help a slave escape. Colonel Owens decides that it is not Tom—whom Dick would like to accompany him—but Grandison who would be the best “bondsman” for the job. Why? Because Grandison shuffles and protests that nothing makes him happier than being a slave on the colonel’s plantation. When the colonel warns him that those Northern abolitionists are a very unsavory lot, Grandison, “with sudden alarm,”...
(The entire section is 957 words.)