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.)