The Passing of Grandison

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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Who is the antagonist in "The Passing of Grandison" and why?

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The antagonist of the story is Colonel Owens, the father of Dick Owens. He attempts to thwart his son's goals and is ultimately unsuccessful.

While Dick's actions in the story aren't exactly noble, he is still working to do something good—give a man his freedom. He's only doing this to impress the woman he loves; ultimately, he ends up with her for other reasons. His father, however, attempts to stop Dick from helping a slave go free. His character is one that has a positive attitude toward slavery. This is shown when he hesitates to let the slave of Dick's choice—Tom—travel north with him.

Charles Chestnutt writes:

"I don't think it safe to take Tom up North," he declared, with promptness and decision. "He's a good enough boy, but too smart to trust among those low-down abolitionists. I strongly suspect him of having learned to read, though I can't imagine how. I saw him with a newspaper the other day, and while he pretended to be looking at a woodcut, I'm almost sure he was reading the paper. I think it by no means safe to take him."

He does this in several ways:

  • Colonel Owens chooses a slave he believes to be satisfied with his life in the South.
  • He offers Grandison, the slave, the right to marry the woman he loves when he returns home.
  • He makes Grandison promise that he won't run away when Grandison and Dick go on their trip together.

Chestnutt writes:

"What's the matter with Grandison?" suggested the colonel. "He's handy enough, and I reckon we can trust him. He's too fond of good eating, to risk losing his regular meals; besides, he's sweet on your mother's maid, Betty, and I've promised to let 'em get married before long. I'll have Grandison up, and we'll talk to him."

When Grandison comes home after Dick stages his escape by having him kidnapped, it seems that Colonel Owens is vindicated. He gets his comeuppance in the end when Grandison escapes with multiple other slaves in tow.

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Who are the protagonist(s) in the short story "Passing of Grandison"? Explain why the character(s) are the protagonist(s)? Use evidence from the short story to support your answer.

The protagonist of a story is, in short, the main character—the primary person whose actions propel the plot and who earns the sympathies of the reader. In a certain sense, you can think of the protagonist as the "good guy."

In "The Passing of Grandison," it's tempting to say that Dick Owens is the protagonist, because his is the perspective from which the story is told. At first, we believe the central conflict is simply Dick's attempt to persuade Grandison to flee to Canada and be free, an act Dick is committing for the love of Charity Lomax, but it soon turns out to be much more about Grandison. I would even go so far as to say that Dick is a "false" protagonist in this story—we think the story will be about him, but once the action ramps up, he is no longer the sole focus of the story, nor is the reader sympathetic with his goals.

This is solidified in the perspective shift at the very end of the story, when instead of following Dick, we are following Grandison—from a distance, of course, as he indeed escapes to Canada with his entire family. Even though this happens at the very end of the story, we can still say that Grandison is the primary protagonist. Without Grandison, there would be no central conflict.

The reader gets behind Grandison and feels sympathy for him much more than for Dick—Dick's motivations for trying to free the slave are selfish and petty, while Grandison's refusal to escape is what evokes an emotional response in the reader: it's heartbreaking, until we learn his motivations. He is loyal to his family, dedicated not only to his own survival and happiness but to theirs as well, and the reader revels in his success at the end of the story. "The Passing of Grandison" turns out to be a story about Grandison's journey and Grandison's goal—and every protagonist must almost always have a goal and a journey.

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