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 spent a year in a boarding school in Charleston, schooling that prepares her to be “a lady,” Rena is chosen Queen of...
(The entire section is 966 words.)