The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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Discussion Topic

Comparison of the moral standings and compromises of Dr. Miller and Josh Green in The Marrow of Tradition


In The Marrow of Tradition, Dr. Miller maintains high moral standards, striving for racial equality and professional integrity. In contrast, Josh Green, driven by a desire for revenge against racial injustices, compromises his morals, ultimately leading to violence. Their differing responses highlight the varied ways individuals confront systemic racism and personal grievances.

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How do the moral standings and compromises of Dr. Miller and Josh Greens in The Marrow of Tradition compare?

In C. W. Chesnutt’s novel, Dr. William Miller and Josh Green are members of two different generations who represent different perspectives on the significance of race in American society. The novel takes place several decades after Emancipation, an era when the Southern states had enacted the restrictive, discriminatory Jim Crow laws. The two men respectively stand for the more conservative and more radical views of African American identity and activism in the late nineteenth century.

Miller has built a medical career and achieved success through traveling in the right circles. His professional and social connections are to white society, gained largely through his wife; while both are African American, she has one white parent, and her light skin gives her greater access to white society. Although he is constantly made aware of the reality of discrimination, such as in changing train cars, he still understands his role as making inroads into the segregated society. Miller finds himself in a moral dilemma regarding the treatment of Major Carteret’s son. As a physician and as a person, he cannot refuse; however, he feels qualms about doing so because of the racial bases of the violence ripping apart their town.

Starkly contrasted to Miller’s studied, conservative approach is the rashness and impatience that Josh Green displays. He becomes increasingly concerned about the regressive direction of justice as rights are withdrawn from African Americans. When the local conflicts spill over into sustained violence, Green leaps into action. To the reader, it is not always clear what the author’s position is on Green’s justification in involvement in that violence. The larger moral question is under what circumstances violence becomes meaningful or inevitable. Green’s individual behavior focuses on Carteret because of his earlier involvement in Green’s father’s death. While condemning the motive of revenge, the author nevertheless suggests that a man must act as his honor obligates him to.

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Describe the moral standing and compromise of Josh Green and William Miller in The Marrow of Tradition.

The Marrow Of Tradition initially presents Josh Green and Doctor William Miller as two men who seem to be at opposite ends of the spectrum in regard to anti-racist activism. Green is vehemently opposed to all types of white supremacy and strongly committed to trying to achieve justice for black people. He adheres to his position despite the risk of personal harm or even death at the hands of violent extremists. Although Miller is a physician, he initially seems more interested in pursuing personal advancement by continuously accommodating to the pressures of white society. He is hesitant to rock the boat not only because of the possible damage to his career but also because he believes that activism will be counter-productive and lead to increased violence.

Green’s militance is shown as an outgrowth of his deep conviction in racial equality, but also the effects of having lost his father to racist violence. While he advocates justice for all African Americans, the element of revenge also motivates his behavior. Because Green is willing to lay down his life, he is shown as abiding by his principles. Miller's position is complicated by his marriage to a biracial woman, which facilitates his functioning in upper-middle-class, white society. The author connects Miller to the racist Carteret by having their wives be half-sisters. Although Miller adheres to his professional oath by treating the Carteret’s child, he cannot help his wife, who must face the hypocrisy of her white sibling.

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