(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Chinaberry Tree tells the story of Laurentine Strange and her cousin Melissa Paul while at the same time telling the story of a part of African American life largely unknown to the general public—the life of the black upper and middle classes. In the novel’s progression, the author unfolds Laurentine’s and Melissa’s struggles for happiness while at the same time recording the everyday happenings that make up black Red Brook society.

The novel begins with a portrait of Laurentine that shows how she has had to make a number of compromises concerning self-expression and happiness. Laurentine must make these compromises because of how Red Brook society has judged her, her mother Sarah, and Sarah’s sister Judy. The older Strange women have done the unthinkable and unconventional: Sarah has had an affair with the white and married Colonel Halloway, and Laurentine is a reminder to the community of this indiscretion. Moreover, Judy has had an affair with the married and respected black community member Sylvester Forten. Judy’s affair has essentially driven Forten’s wife crazy, and most members of Red Brook’s black society blame the Strange women.

As a child, Laurentine is tolerated by the community, but by the time she is eight years old and Judy has had her affair with Sylvester Forten, the community will no longer have anything to do with the Stranges. Fortunately, Sarah and Laurentine have been well provided for by Colonel Halloway, who has bought them a big house and left them some money. This self-sufficiency means the Strange women do not need to depend on the community. Yet other, nonmaterial, problems affect Laurentine. Throughout high school, she is not invited to parties and dances and does not have a steady beau. She walls herself into her home and has only the Chinaberry tree outside her window to anchor her dreams of romance. Other than daydreaming, Laurentine devotes most of her time to her dressmaking business.

Melissa’s entrance into the Strange household has a few pleasant and immediate consequences for the Strange women. First, Melissa does not know anything about her own parentage, so she thinks her mother was respectably married; she knows only that her father died shortly after she was born. She knows the history associated with...

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(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Chinaberry Tree, Jessie Redmon Fauset’s third novel, is her attempt to illustrate that “to be a Negro in America posits a dramatic situation.” Believing that fate plays an important role in the lives of blacks and whites, Fauset depicts the domestic lives of African Americans who are not struggling with the harsh realities of day-to-day existence.

The Chinaberry Tree relates the story of two cousins, Laurentine Strange and Melissa Paul. Because Laurentine is the product of an illicit romantic relationship between a former slave and her master, Laurentine accepts the community’s opinion that she has “bad blood.” Rejection from a male suitor reinforces her feelings of inadequacy and propels her to further isolation from the community. The young Melissa, although the daughter of an adulterous relationship between Judy Strange and Sylvester Forten, believes herself superior. Sent to Red Brook to live with her relatives, Melissa meets and falls in love with Malory Forten, who, unknown to her, is her half brother. The “drama” of the novel is the exploration of both women’s responses to being innocent victims of fate. Laurentine overcomes her feelings of inadequacy, and Melissa learns that she too is a product of “bad blood.”

The Chinaberry Tree is also Fauset’s attempt to prove that African Americans are not so vastly different from any other American. To illustrate this, Fauset creates...

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(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Carby, Hazel V. Reconstructing Womanhood: The Emergence of the Afro-American Woman Novelist. New York: Oxford University Press, 1987. Argues that black women novelists have used their works to address major political and social issues and, in the process, redefined the black woman. Views Fauset as somewhat conventional and argues that The Chinaberry Tree is often chaotic.

Christian, Barbara T. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition, 1892-1976. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1980. A seminal discussion of black women’s fictional narrative. Considers the obstacles black women writers face as well as the particular themes and issues they address. Fauset is considered a key player of the Harlem Renaissance movement and a major black woman writer, even though some of her themes are not as aesthetically challenging as those of her contemporary Nella Larsen.

Harker, Jaime. America the Middlebrow: Women’s Novels, Progressivism, and Middlebrow Authorship Between the Wars. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2007. Focuses on the importance of reading Fauset as a middlebrow author and discusses the interrelationship of progressivism and sentimentalism in her work.

McDowell, Deborah E. “The Neglected Dimension of Jessie Redmon Fauset.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Argues that there is more to Fauset’s works than is apparent from their preoccupation with traditional romance and their conventional endings.

Ransom, Portia Boulware. Black Love and the Harlem Renaissance—The Novels of Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Zora Neale Hurston: An Essay in African American Literary Criticism. Lewiston, N.Y.: Edwin Mellen Press, 2005. Discusses Fauset’s representation of intimacy and the function of love in the literature of the Harlem Renaissance generally.

Shockley, Ann Allen. Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933. New York: Meridian, 1988. Presents a comprehensive discussion of Fauset’s life and an overview of her literary works.

Tomlinson, Susan. “An Unwonted Coquetry: The Commercial Seductions of Jessie Fauset’s The Chinaberry Tree.” In Middlebrow Moderns: Popular American Women Writers of the 1920’s, edited by Lisa Botshon and Meredith Goldsmith. Boston: Northeastern University Press, 2003. Discusses the representation of consumption, gender, and middle-class consumer culture in The Chinaberry Tree.

Washington, Mary Helen. “’The Darkened Eye Restored’: Notes Toward a Literary History of Black Women.” In Reading Black, Reading Feminist: A Critical Anthology, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. New York: Meridian, 1990. Shows how black women writers often respond to one another in their works.