Why is Charles Chestnutt's story "The Passing of Grandison" considered realistic?
Realism was a literary movement that became especially influential in nineteenth-century fiction, including American fiction of the second half of that century. Charles Chestnutt’s story “The Passing of Grandison” can be considered an example of “realism” in a number of ways, including the following:
- Its rejection of romanticism. Chesnutt’s story rejects romanticism not only in its emphasis on the grimly realistic fact of slavery but also because of its mocking presentation of Dick Owens’ courtship of Charity Lomax. Dick is anything but a swashbuckling romantic hero, and neither Charity nor the story’s readers are inclined to take him very seriously.
- Its avoidance of naivety or idealism in describing characters. All the characters in this story – but especially Dick and his father – are described in ways that emphasize their very human flaws and foibles. They are objects of humor rather than exalted heroes.
- Its emphasis on mundane motives. Dick doesn’t try to free Grandison because he is committed to any lofty ideals; he merely wants to convince the skeptical Charity to marry him. Charity, in turn, is not some naïve Southern belle; she is a shrewd and often sardonic observer of Dick’s various shortcomings.
- Its emphasis on dialect. This trait is especially obvious whenever Grandison or the other slaves speak.
- Its emphasis on everyday people and everyday events. Dick comes from a privileged family, but he is not an impressive, imposing aristocrat. He is simply a young man desperate to please an attractive young woman. As the narrator puts it in the very opening sentence of the work,
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.
In other words, the narrator ascribes to Dick a realistic motive – a motive that many readers will recognize in themselves: the desire to impress a potential romantic partner.
- Its regionalism. The story is largely set in the south, but much of it also takes place in the north, and each region helps call attention, through contrast, to the other’s characteristics.
- Its emphasis on dialogue. Much of the humor of the story results from the credible language the characters use when speaking to one another. They speak as real people might, not like lofty characters declaiming on a stage.
- Its concern with realistic historical events, in this case the issue of slavery and the rise of abolitionism.
Realism is a literary style employed by writers like Chesnutt who depict in their writing the drama that exists in seemingly uninteresting and unimportant ordinary events.
In the story, Dick Owens is spurred to uncharacteristic action by an exchange with Charity Lomax. The narrator's description of Dick is not particularly exciting; Dick is a privileged, lazy, wealthy young man, which is a character type familiar to many readers. That he is spurred to action by a young woman whose love and admiration he desires is also a familiar story. What keeps these familiar stories from descending into predictable cliche is the realism with which Chesnutt presents the situations and characters involved.
Dick decides to do "something heroic" and "run a negro off to Canada" to gain Charity's devotion. The casual way that he arrives to this action is another example of realism in this short story; though Dick treats the suggestion in a facile manner, the impact of the action on the individuals involved could be potentially quite significant. This potential for drama, presented in the guise of an ordinary conversation, is also typical of literary realism.