Rena Walden is an admirable character, despite her “tragic mulatto” trappings. Instead of bewailing her black blood, as do many biracial heroines in the fiction of the period, Chesnutt’s Rena has no strong desire to pass for white. She is thinking of becoming a teacher when her brother and mother decide that she should cross the color line. A kind heart, common sense, and high morals are Rena’s outstanding assets; her compassion and lack of snobbery are evident throughout the novel. Truly committed to her ailing mother and to her race, Rena demonstrates common sense and moral fortitude by refusing her brother’s offer to “pass” a second time and by rejecting both suitors, the dishonorable Jeff Wain and the well-intentioned George Tryon. Although Rena’s decision never to marry and her commitment to her people are traits common to many “tragic mulatto” characters, Chesnutt lays the groundwork for Rena’s transformation to take place naturally. She grows from a passive victim of other people’s decisions to a thinking woman of remarkable courage.
John Walden is a rational and businesslike lawyer who makes no apologies for his decision to pass for white. To him, passing is not a moral issue but a sensible way for mulattoes, “the new people” of the South, to claim their inalienable rights. John functions as Rena’s guide and decisionmaker while she remains in the white world; therefore, he is crucial to the structure of the novel....
(The entire section is 599 words.)
Rena Walden is a character haunted by and forever running from guilt. Chesnutt gives the reader a poignant picture of a woman who is unable to understand and unwilling to accept her position as a second-class citizen. She is tragic; her inability to deal with who she is leads her into a situation that eventually forces her to come to terms with her identity and ultimately results in her death. When she leaves Patesville for the first time, she is running from the guilt inherent in being black in the Reconstructionist South; she is running to freedom. When she leaves her brother’s house to return to Patesville, she is running from the guilt of having abandoned both her mother and her sense of self. Her departure from Patesville a second time, to go to Sampson County, is not only a flight from guilt but also an attempt to atone for her abandonment of black identity. Finally, when she flees Sampson County, Rena is making a last desperate effort to run from the guilt that both Wain and George have come to symbolize for her—the guilt she associates with her own sexuality and desire for happiness.
George Tryon also becomes a fugitive from guilt. As Chesnutt presents him to the reader in the beginning of the novel, he is the quintessential Southern aristocrat; he is gallant, proud, and a strict adherent to a code which categorically forbids intimate relations between the races. Immediately after his discovery of Rena Walden’s black heritage, George castigates himself for being so debased that he could fall in love with a “colored woman.” His guilt is so severe that he refuses to expose...
(The entire section is 656 words.)