The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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How can the last paragraph in Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition be interpreted prophetically?

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At the end of Chesnutt's The Marrow of Tradition, Olivia Carteret finally recognizes Janet Miller as her mulatto half-sister when she wants Janet's husband, Dr. William Miller, to treat her dying child. Though Janet Miller has longed for this moment, her supposed moment of victory is bittersweet:

"Janet's eyes slowly filled with tears--bitter tears--burning tears...This, then, was the recognition for which, all her life, she had longed in secret...It had come, not with frank kindliness and sisterly love, but in a storm of blood and tears; not freely given, from an open heart, but extorted from a reluctant conscience by the agony of a mother's fears" (pages 327-328).

In other words, this is not the reunion that Janet Miller has long dreamed about. Janet's half sister, Olivia, does not welcome her with open arms and love but only out of fear because her child is sick. Janet refers to her sister's recognition as "tainted with fraud and crime and blood" (page 328) and rejects her sister's recognition, even as her husband, Dr. Miller, goes to help Olivia Carteret's child.

This section can be seen as prophetic because African-Americans had long sought equality and reconciliation with their white neighbors. However, this equality was long in coming and had to wait until long after this novel was published in 1901. During the Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, whites in the south were forced, mainly through federal laws, to grant some forms of legal equality to African-Americans. At this point, however, many African-Americans were embittered by their long suffering and by the fact that whites granted them rights because they were forced to do so. In the very last line of the book, the other doctor tells Dr. Miller that the white child can be saved but that there's no time to spare. This section is also prophetic because in the end, the south (like the child) was reclaimed, though it had to go through much agony beforehand. 

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