Style and Technique
Typical of Chesnutt’s work is the use of irony to convey the contradictory aspects of life on the color line. In many of his stories, there is a discrepancy between what readers are expecting and what finally occurs. Grandison, for example, uses a thick dialect, refers repeatedly to Colonel Owens as “marster,” and stresses his gratitude for all he has as a slave. His subsequent lack of interest in escaping suggests that he is exactly what Colonel Owens brags that he is. The surprise ending suddenly contradicts all that the characterization leads readers to believe, for Grandison proves to be devoted not to his master but to his and his family’s freedom.
Chesnutt uses a double layer of irony at times. Knowing that his readers will be aware of the stories of escaped slaves using the North Star as their guide to freedom, he ironically describes Grandison leaving Canada for Kentucky with the North Star at his back. At first, this seems to reinforce the idea that Grandison is a model slave who literally turns his back on freedom. At the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that he has thought first of his family and planned for all their happiness even at the risk of losing his own freedom.
Another original technique in the story is Chesnutt’s use of a hidden plot. No details whatsoever are supplied about the dilemmas and motivations of the slaves, and yet the ending suggests a whole dimension of activity of which the reader (and the Old South) is unaware. This untold story lying beneath the happy-go-lucky life of Dick and the delusional world of his father calls into question the superficial ruling class of the Old South and invests the titular hero with a shrewdness that suggests a complexity normally lacking in the portraits of African American characters in literature of Chesnutt’s time. In the title, Grandison’s passing refers both to his passing into freedom at the end of the story and to his ability to pass as the perfect slave even as he is planning a most sophisticated escape, the magnitude and audacity of which seriously undermine the South’s representation of itself.