Initial critical reaction to The Chinaberry Tree was generally favorable. Most reviewers praised the novel for its depiction of African American life in a manner not previously realized in the American novel. Most thought the novel created a realistic portrait of the black middle class and presented everyday details from black middle-class life that usually went unrecognized. The initial responses to the characters and their conflicts, however, were mixed. Critic Rudolph Fisher argued that the restaurant scene, in which Laurentine and Stephen experience open and hostile racial discrimination, was ineffective. Others thought Fauset’s use of the potential for incest in the Melissa and Malory plotline melodramatic. Still others argued that many of the book’s characters were lightly drawn and verged on being stereotypes.
Until the mid-1970’s, Fauset’s works were known and discussed primarily for their renderings of the black middle class. With the increasing prominence of black women writers beginning in the mid-1970’s, however, critics and scholars began to pay more attention to the works of Fauset and of her contemporary Nella Larsen. This criticism emphasized Fauset’s attention to the creation of black women characters and the problems they faced in a time of unyielding racial and sexual discrimination, and she has come to be viewed not only as a skillful novelist but also as a pioneer.