The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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A description of the characters in The Marrow of Tradition


In The Marrow of Tradition, Charles Chesnutt presents a range of characters reflecting the racial tensions of the post-Reconstruction South. Major Carteret is a white supremacist newspaper editor, while Dr. William Miller is a black physician striving for equality. Janet Miller, his wife, faces racial prejudice despite her mixed heritage. These characters' interactions highlight the era's social and racial complexities.

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Summarize the characters in the first 16 chapters of The Marrow of Tradition.

In the first sixteen chapters of Charles Waddell Chesnutt's 1901 novel The Marrow of Tradition, the reader confronts an array of characters. Many of the characters are white supremacists.

The first racist that Chesnutt introduces is Major Philip Carteret. In the ensuing chapters, the reader learns that Carteret is in charge of a rather influential newspaper called The Morning Chronicle. Carteret’s newspaper tries to use its sway to encourage the people of Wellington to fight what one racist character calls “the spectacle of social equality and negro domination.”

Another character that could be described as a white supremacist is General Belmont. Chesnutt describes Belmont as “aristocratic by birth.” Belmont could also be summarized as ambitious and immoral. Chesnutt writes that Belmont is not the kind of person to let a “fine scruple” get in the way of his goals.

A third key character is Captain George McBane. McBane is described as coming from a less prestigious background than Belmont. Yet McBane’s poor upbringing doesn’t make him a sympathetic character. His rags-to-riches story could be summarized as one that involves lots of fraud and cruelty.

Within the first sixteen chapters, readers will also meet some characters that aren’t yoked to a racist ideology. Readers will meet Dr. William Miller. Miller used to live in the North. He returned to Wellington to start a hospital for Black people.

As you read through the chapters, you should learn about the link between the Millers and Carterets. Remember, Miller’s wife is Janet. She’s biracial. She’s also Olivia’s sister. Olivia is married to Carteret.

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Can you describe the characters in The Marrow of Tradition?

African American author Charles W. Chesnutt published The Marrow of Tradition in 1901. The novel portrays a fictionalized version of the Wilmington Insurrection of 1898. The novel contains a number of intersecting storylines.

One storyline revolves around Major Carteret, who is the aristocratic owner of the major newspaper and advocates for racial purity. His wife, Olivia, also comes from an aristocratic family. Olivia gives birth to her son, Dodie, late in life. Mammy Jane is Olivia’s nurse and she represents the older generation of African Americans who supported segregation.

Major Carteret’s niece is named Clara Pemberton, and she is an eligible bachelorette who is courted by both Tom Delamere and Lee Ellis. Tom Delamere also comes from an aristocratic family, and his privileged life is wasted as he spends his nights drinking and gambling. Lee Ellis works for Major Carteret at the Morning Chronicle, and he is tacitly aligned with the black civil rights movement, but he does not outwardly support the cause. Tom Delamere’s grandfather, Old Mr. Delamere is sympathetic to the black civil rights movement.

William Miller is a young, African American physician who starts his practice in Wellington. He was educated in Europe and represents the new generation of African Americans who support integration. Miller’s wife, Janet, is the biracial half-sister of Olivia.

The other two key characters are Polly and Sandy. Polly is Olivia’s aunt and helps take care of Dodie. Sandy is the black servant at the Delamere’s household who is falsely accused of murdering Polly.

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