The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

Start Free Trial

Student Question

Analyze the character development methods in Charles Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

One aspect of Chesnutt's use of characterization that is the most striking is his creation of archetypical characters. Dr. William Miller, for example, is the embodiment of what at the time was known as the "new Negro." He is educated, middle class, and moderate in his politics, and he counsels restraint even in the face of lynch mobs.

Josh Green, on the other hand, is uneducated, bitter, and angry. He has directly suffered from white violence, losing his father to the Ku Klux Klan when he was just a child. He represents those in the black community who wanted to fight back against white hegemony and violence in the wake of the horrific Wilmington race riots, a stance Chesnutt seems to find understandable, if nihilistic.

Colonel McBane is typical of southerners who, fearful of losing status, attempted to use race-baiting to augment their position in society. Major Carteret, threatened by the emerging black community, shares many of the same motives. 

While certainly archetypical, these characters are not flat. Their motives are often complex, and Miller, in particular, is deeply torn about how to respond to the events around him. The scene on the train, in particular, finds him contemplating his place in society:

It was a veritable bed of Procrustes, this standard which the whites had set for the negroes. Those who grew above it must have their heads cut off, figuratively speaking, must be forced back to the level assigned to their race... 

It must be remembered that Chesnutt's main goal in writing the book is to show the world what had really happened in Wilmington, which was being portrayed nationwide as a series of "race riots" perpetrated by blacks. The characters in the novel are designed to help him do this.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial