The House Behind the Cedars

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt
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How do The Great Gatsby and The House Behind the Cedars compare and contrast when it comes to separation due to social class?

In The Great Gatsby, Jay Gatsby always remains essentially separate from the upper-class New York society of the 1920s because of his poor upbringing in the Midwest. In The House Behind the Cedars, Rena Walden attempts to pass as white and falls in love with an upper-class white man in North Carolina after the Civil War. She is separated from the man she loves when he discovers that she is mixed race.

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Two novels which explore social class are The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald and The House Behind the Cedars by Charles W. Chesnutt.

The enigmatic titular character Jay Gatsby is a young and mysterious millionaire who is set on winning back the heart of Daisy Buchanan. Gatsby, originally born poor in the Midwest, now lives in the wealthy Long Island village of West Egg. His upbringing is eventually revealed, along with the fact that he made his money through shady and illegal bootlegging. In the end, Daisy—who is married to the "old-money" Tom Buchanan—is unable to choose Gatsby as a lover. In order to pass in high-class New York society in the Roaring Twenties, it is not only necessary to be rich, but to come from an elite family.

The theme of passing is also explored in The House Behind the Cedars. Taking place a few years after the Civil War, the narrative revolves around Rena Walden, a mixed-race woman who passes as white. Rena falls in love with a white aristocrat, and when her identity is revealed, her life begins to unravel.

The narratives are similar in the sense that qualities such as family lineage and race are key to participating in the highest echelons of social class and in that, for both Gatsby and Rena, failing to pass leads to ruin.

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