The Marrow of Tradition

by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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Student Question

How would you rank the characters of The Marrow of Tradition on a moral spectrum?

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The moral rankings of the characters of The Marrow of Tradition depend on the readers' interpretation of their actions in the story, but William Miller and Major Carteret are two examples of contrasting characters. William Miller is a physician who saves Major Carteret's son despite his feelings for the Major, while the Major himself is a violent, outspoken white supremacist. These two find themselves on opposite ends of the moral spectrum.

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Two characters in The Marrow of Tradition, William Miller and Major Carteret, offer examples of contrasting characters. Although all the novel’s characters have both positive and negative characteristics, the doctor and the major are those that come closest to representing the extremes of the good and evil spectrum. Charles Waddell Chesnutt portrays Dr. Miller as almost saintly as the savior of the Carteret boy. While his behavior is consistent with the oath he has taken as a physician, on a personal level he struggles with the decision because of the association with his own son’s death. The ambiguities about his goodness pertain to the broader context. Through his wife, who is biracial, Miller has associated more closely with white society and does not hope for systemic social transformation. Yet there is a positive side in his conservatism, as he eschews violence.

Chesnutt draws as sharp contrast to Major Carteret. As an elite white man, he has grown up with a strong conviction in white supremacy. He abuses his position as a newspaper editor to advance the racist causes that he and his associate, Captain McBain, advocate. This decision inflames the townspeople and incites violence, but Carteret did not anticipate or perhaps did not care that a riot might jeopardize his own family as well. His egotism also affects his decision to consult an African-American physician; he is not really overcoming his racist beliefs but expects the doctor to help him save his son’s life. He is oblivious to or uncaring about the reasons that Dr. Miller might have to refuse to treat the younger Carteret.

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