Charles Waddell Chesnutt Long Fiction Analysis
Charles Waddell Chesnutt wrote three novels that were published during his lifetime and several that were not published until much later. He was a much more skillful short-story writer than a novelist, and although he developed most of his novels from short stories, one of the novels is exceptional as a literary work. Those reading his novels should remember, however, that some of the matters for which Chesnutt is criticized today—thin, idealized characters and the use of plot manipulations such as foreshadowing and coincidence—were standard in the fiction of the late 1800’s and were accepted by the readers of the day.
Chesnutt dreamed of being a novelist, and he believed that racial issues such as the problems of passing, miscegenation, and racial assimilation had to be addressed in serious fiction. He found, however, that if he tried to write novels that would be commercially successful, publishers would not accept them, and if he tried to write works that examined racial issues honestly and with sympathy for blacks, the public would not accept these topical but controversial novels.
Chesnutt is notable for being the first African American fiction writer to gain a reputation for examining honestly and in detail the racial problems of black people in the United States after the Civil War. Many Americans in the last part of the nineteenth century preferred to ignore the problems of African Americans and especially did not want to read works of fiction that displayed sympathetic attitudes toward blacks, such as those written by Chesnutt.
His most successful years as a novelist, if they can be called successful, were from 1900 to 1905. During that time, his three published novels appeared: The House Behind the Cedars, The Marrow of Tradition, and The Colonel’s Dream. Chesnutt believed that the only way to change the attitudes of Caucasians toward African Americans was to do so slowly and through fiction that expressed ideas indirectly. He believed too that preaching was not art, yet with each novel he became more of a crusader. After giving up writing in 1901, he decided that he could help his people best by achieving in a field other than writing. Chesnutt may have been a victim, just as his characters sometimes are. The themes that he could present most effectively and that he felt compelled to present were ones that the public would not accept; thus he did not continue to write novels and so did not develop further as a literary artist.
Any study of Chesnutt’s three published novels should begin with an understanding of the author’s views concerning racial issues of the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. One of the racial situations with which he was most concerned was that of the mulatto. The mulatto shared many of the problems of the full black person but was also confronted with two additional issues—those of passing for white and miscegenation. (Chesnutt himself was a mulatto who appeared white and who considered trying to pass for white.) Those passing might achieve social, economic, and professional opportunities, but they also had to make emotional sacrifices by giving up their families and friends. Furthermore, they faced certain limitations; for example, they had to avoid becoming too well known or distinguished because their pasts might be revealed.
Chesnutt believed that Americans had an unnatural fear of miscegenation. Because of this fear, persons of mixed black and white blood were outcasts in society and were almost forced to try to pass for white to obtain the American Dream. Ironically, those forced into passing and marrying whites began again the miscegenation cycle that was so feared by whites. Anglo-Saxon racial purity was something that should not be preserved, Chesnutt believed. He asserted that intermingling and integration would improve humanity biologically, but, more important, such mixing would result in African Americans’ gaining the rights they should have as human beings. Only through the elimination of laws against intermarriage and social interaction between the races would African Americans gain true social, economic, and political equality.
Chesnutt’s three published novels are all problem novels that treat his characteristic theme of the effects of color consciousness in American life. The first one, a novel of miscegenation and passing, is written from the point of view of “the socially alienated, ambitious young mulatto,” as William Andrews has put it. The second novel takes the viewpoint of “a conscientious Southern social critic,” and in it, Chesnutt analyzes the political aspects and the caste structure of the small town in the South after the Civil War. The last one, in the vogue of the muckraking novel, is an economic problem novel told from the viewpoint of “the progressive northern reformer.”
The House Behind the Cedars
Between 1890 and 1899, Chesnutt greatly expanded and revised his short story “Rena Walden” until it became The House Behind the Cedars. He focused first on how color consciousness can destroy an interracial marriage and then on the predominant issue of whether a mulatto should cross the “color line.” In March, 1899, he stated in a letter to Walter Hines Page that the Rena Walden story was the strong expression of a writer whose themes dealt primarily with the American color line. When he wrote to his daughters in the fall of 1900, he indicated that he hoped for “a howling success” from The House Behind the Cedars, “a strong race problem novel.” The story of Rena Walden and her brother was the first in which the problems of Americans concealing their African heritage were studied with a detached and compassionate presentation of individuals on various sides of the issue.
The novel can be divided into two parts: Rena in white society, in which her brother is the major focus, and Rena in black society, in which she becomes the focus. The novel is set in Patesville, North Carolina, a few years after the Civil War. John Warwick, who has changed his name from Walden, has left Patesville and gone to South Carolina, where he has become a lawyer and plantation owner, acquiring wealth and position. He and his sister Rena are the children of a quadroon mother, Molly, and a white man who has died. John has returned to Patesville to help his beautiful sister escape the restrictions of color by teaching her how to pass for white. She is a success at the boarding school in South Carolina to which he takes her. Proof of her success in passing is seen when George Tryon, a good friend of John and a white, wants to marry Rena. Rena is not sure she should marry him, however, without telling him of her mixed blood. John and Rena indirectly discuss the pros and cons of passing and intermarriage. A series of coincidences leads to an unexpected meeting between George and Rena; he learns of her heritage, and the engagement is broken. Rena returns home to her mother and the house behind the cedars.
A chapter interlude that gives the Walden family history separates the first part of the novel from the second. John tries to persuade his...
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