What symbolism is there in the story of "The Passing of Grandison" written by Charles Chestnutt?

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litteacher8 | High School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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Each character is a symbol in this ironic story about a slaveholder who tries to make a name for himself by getting a slave to escape.

A symbol is an object or person that stands for an idea larger than itself.  The story is highly ironic.  Dick tries desperately to make a name for himself by getting a slave to escape, and no matter what he does that slave just won’t do it.  He falls for a girl, and she marries him only because she thinks he’s a misguided fool and wants to reform him.  In the end he gets everything he wanted, for all the wrong reasons.

Since the story is full of irony and basically a farce no one is a character and everyone is pretty much only a symbol.  The biggest symbol in the story is Dick Owens, who represents the whites who misunderstood the Negro mind and the slaves in their charge.  Grandison is also a symbol, of course, of purity and intelligence.  He is the incorruptible and ironically honest slave.  He acts in a way that is completely contradictory to what Owens expects.

Charity Lomax is more than just the girl that Dick wants to impress. She represents the unattainable girl.  Owens is a fool, and the only reason he ends up with her is because she feels sorry for him.

“But I presume I'll have to marry you, … if only to take care of you.  You are too reckless for anything; and a man who goes chasing all over the North, being entertained by New York and Boston society … needs some one to look after him."

All’s well that ends well, I suppose.  Dick Owens, fool that he is, gets what he wants.  He gets the girl.  The slave does escape, but comes back because he never wanted to escape in the first place.  Dick is a bumbling idiot.  The story drips with farcical irony.  Even Grandison’s name is ironic, beginning with “grand.”  No guy was ever more grateful for being a slave!  Charity’s name also convey’s her symbolic meaning—she is the most charitable creature on Earth, marrying this man just to reform him.  Look at Owens’s name as well.  He “owns” the slave.  Each character is a symbol, and the lesson is clear- people do not always do what you expect them to do.  Life is much more complex than that.

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