The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

Start Your Free Trial

Download The House Behind the Cedars Study Guide

Subscribe Now


The House Behind the Cedars is a novel about "passing,"--a post-Civil War phenomenon that marked its own genre in American literature. The author, Charles Chesnutt, was an accomplished writer, also known for such works as The Marrow of Tradition. Other novels belonging to this genre include Nella Larson's Passing (1929), and William Faulkner's The Light in August (1932).

The House Behind the Cedars follows mulatto siblings John and Rena Walden, who hail from a small town in North Carolina. John's sophistication and accomplishments as a young adult and apprentice to one Judge Straight allow him to escape his hometown and conduct a successful career as a white lawyer. John returns to his hometown after his wife's passing, in order to ask that his sister, Rena, join him in South Carolina to assist him in raising the child.

By virtue of living in South Carolina, Rena is introduced to a member of the aristocracy, Tyron. Tyron leaves off his courtship of a white woman in order to pursue Rena. Rena's family secret threatens to be revealed when Tryon is called to the hometown of Rena in North Carolina at the same time that Rena is called back to attend her sick mother. When Tyron sees her in a drugstore there, and she is introduced as a colored girl, he realizes the secret of her ancestry, and Rena faints.

When Tyron leaves Rena on account of her black ancestry, Rena becomes a schoolteacher at a colored school, and is courted by a black man, who is rumored to have beaten his previous wife, which leaves Rena disenchanted at the match. Tyron returns to North Carolina, regretting his decision to leave her; however, it is too late, as Rena has taken ill. She dies, accompanied at her deathbed by a family friend, Frank, whom she realizes has always loved her.


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The House Behind the Cedars is a story about the efforts of two mulattoes to pass for white in the post-Civil War South. Through John and Rena Walden, Charles Chesnutt depicts both a successful and an unsuccessful attempt at “passing.”

John’s adventure into the white world is successful. As a child, the light-skinned John decides that he is more white than black and, therefore, has the right to enjoy all of the privileges of a white man. After serving as an apprentice lawyer in Judge Straight’s office and after reviewing the laws regarding miscegenation in the South, he and Judge Straight decide that South Carolina is the best place in the South for John’s new identity. Thus, a few years before the Civil War, the eighteen-year-old John Walden gets money from his mother, Molly, kisses his little sister Rena good-bye, and leaves his hometown of Patesville, North Carolina, for Clarence, South Carolina. There, he takes the name John Warrick and begins his life as a white man.

Because of his fair skin and patrician manners, John encounters little difficulty. He escapes serving in the Confederate Army; instead, he manages the plantation of a wealthy Southerner who has left his wife in order to fight for the Confederacy. When the plantation owner is killed, John marries his widow, who is the descendant of a wealthy South Carolina family. Hence, through his marriage, John is connected with one of the leading families of the region. He continues his upward mobility by becoming a well-established lawyer whose clientele consists of well-to-do whites. After ten years of living in the white world, John returns to Patesville to visit his mother and sister. Observing Rena’s beauty and intelligence, he persuades Molly to let Rena go back to South Carolina with him. He believes that by crossing the color line she, too, will enhance her social and economic opportunities. John is convinced that Rena, if she remains in Patesville, “must forever be a nobody.” Throughout the novel, John retains his stature as a well-to-do southern gentleman.

Rena’s success at passing, unlike her brother’s, is short-lived. Although her sojourn in the white world is spectacular enough, she is eventually rejected. Having...

(The entire section is 2,079 words.)