Last Reviewed on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 345
The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt is about the attempt of two mixed-race siblings to pass as white in post-Civil War America. The brother, John Warwick finds success as a lawyer. While talented, he could only find such a success by moving to another state and changing his last name. As a result, he acquires the wealth and respect that would be impossible had people known he was not entirely white.
With John's encouragement, his sister Rena Walden leaves their mother to live with him in South Carolina. By leaving they can live without the burden of discrimination. Yet there is a cost, Rena must leave behind her family and friends such as her aging mother, and Frank Fowler, a man who loved her "best of them all." Rena enjoys a more privileged life with John and even manages to fall in love with George Tryon, a white man. Their engagement does not last because of rigid social divisions.
The House Behind the Cedars depicts the complicated racial hierarchies of the south. Slavery may have ended, but the chains remain. Some characters such a Plato still refer to white people as "master," and when George Tryon finds out that Rena has a black mother, for him it is the worst imaginable discovery.
"She was his first love, and he had lost her forever. She was worse than dead to him; for if he had seen her lying in her shroud before him, he could at least have cherished her memory; now, even this consolation was denied him."
She becomes ill after fleeing into the woods to evade unwanted advances from men. Rena is not able to live a full life in any world. Passing as white resulted in heartbreak and she dies prematurely living as black.
Tryon changes his mind too late. He attempts to reunite with his former fiancé, but only arrives in time for her funeral. This novel explores the racism of the south, how it holds talented people down with artificial hierarchies, and how that cruelty can result in tragedy.
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