Themes and Meanings
Chesnutt’s overriding theme in The House Behind the Cedars is the problem of passing and its effects on both African Americans and whites in the South. Because of the book’s emphasis on color and caste, separation, alienation, and lost and recovered identity are closely connected themes.
If John Warrick, who is recognized among whites as a “big bug” and a gentleman, is to keep this identity, he must remain separate from his immediate family and alienated from both African Americans and whites. This point is illustrated by John’s return to Patesville at the beginning of the novel. Observing familiar landmarks in the old town, Warrick also recognizes an old woman who had befriended him during his childhood, but he does not reveal his identity. Warrick behaves similarly when his morning walk leads him to his mother’s house behind the cedars. Even though the object of the trip is to visit his mother, he must resist the temptation to stop there in broad daylight, since he would then be recognized by people who know him. The chapter’s title, “A Stranger from South Carolina,” is ironic, for John is familiar with the town and its residents; the title, however, suggests John’s estrangement from his people. In chapter 7, “Amid New Surroundings,” the narrator not only reveals Rena’s adjustment to her new home but also comments on John’s loneliness in and alienation from the white world: “There was a measure of relief in having about him one who knew his past, and yet whose knowledge, because of their common interest, would not jeopardize his future. For he had always been, in a figurative sense, a naturalized foreigner in the world of wide opportunity.” Chesnutt depicts the world of the mulatto as one filled with opportunity but plagued by secrets and insecurities as well.
The theme of alienation is further revealed by both John’s and Rena’s predicament after her racial identity is discovered and her engagement is broken. John knows...
(The entire section is 813 words.)