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Last Updated on January 11, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1392

First published: 1884 (collected in In Ole Virginia, 1887)

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Type of work: Short story

Type of plot: Regional romance

Time of work: Civil War period

Locale: Virginia

Principal Characters:

Sam, Marse Chan's black servant

Marse Chan, a young Virginian

Anne Chamberlin, his sweetheart

The Story

When the baby was born, there was a great ceremony on the Channing plantation. Mr. Channing brought out the baby and let Sam, their black servant, hold him. Then he told the young black boy that he was to be the baby's body servant from that day on.

When Marse Chan, as Sam called him, grew up and went to school, he carried Anne Chamberlin's books, and they were very close friends. The two neighboring families hoped that the friendship would result in a marriage to unite the two families. One day, when the river rose suddenly and Anne was in danger from the high water, Marse Chan waded in and carried her to safety. Mr. Channing was so pleased that he gave his son a pony.

The friendship between the two families was broken soon afterward. When Mr. Channing declared himself a candidate for Congress, Colonel Chamberlin was nominated to oppose him. Mr. Channing lost the election, and from that day on, there was enmity between the families.

One day, Colonel Chamberlin announced that he intended to sell some of his slaves. Mr. Channing wanted to buy Maria because her husband was one of his own slaves, but the Colonel asked far too much for her. Learning of Mr. Channing's intention, the Colonel sent someone to bid against him at the auction, but Mr. Channing was successful in buying Maria. Then followed a series of lawsuits between the families.

In the meantime, Marse Chan had been going to college. During vacations, in spite of family opposition, his romance with Anne flourished. One day, a barn on the Channing plantation caught fire. Old Mr. Channing, in an effort to release the trapped animals, went into the burning structure. He was so badly burned that he lost the use of his eyes. A short time later, Colonel Chamberlin and Marse Chan became involved in a public debate on secession. Marse Chan, in the crowd's opinion, was the victor, and he was lustily cheered. The Colonel was so angry that he challenged Marse Chan to a duel. Marse Chan fired over the Colonel's head and said that he was making a present of him to his family. The Colonel was furious.

When the war broke out, Marse Chan was called up for service. He sent a note to Anne, and the night before he left, he met her in the garden of her home. In reply to his pleadings, she told him that she did not love him. The next day, Marse Chan went off to fight for the South. He was accompanied by Sam, his servant since birth. While at the front, Marse Chan met a fellow soldier who spoke disrespectfully of Colonel Chamberlin. The two men had a fight, and Sam promptly wrote to his wife Judy to tell her about it. Judy just as promptly informed Anne of the incident. At last Colonel Chamberlin, aware that Anne was suffering and that she really loved Marse Chan, told her to attempt a reconciliation. Accordingly, Anne wrote to Marse Chan that she still loved him. Marse Chan read the letter again and again with great pleasure.

He was killed in battle the next day. Sam took his body back to his home and his family. Then Sam hurried over to the Chamberlin estate because he felt sure that was what Marse Chan would have wanted him to do. After he had told his story, Anne set out with him for the Channing home. Mrs. Channing, who had found Anne's letter in one of Marse Chan's pockets, was on the porch to greet her. They fell into each other's arms, and the feud between the families was over. From that day on, Anne lived with the Channings and took care of old Mr. Channing and his wife as long as they lived. After the old Channings died, Anne went to work in a military hospital. Shortly before the fall of Richmond, she became ill with a fever and died. She was buried next to Marse Chan in the Channing graveyard.

Sam, the servant, lived on. Whenever anyone came along the path and saw him with the dog that constantly followed him, he would tell the passerby about Marse Chan. The dog had been Marse Chan's dog; they were the ones, according to Sam, who remembered Marse Chan best.

Critical Evaluation:

The origins of "Marse Chan" are important for they prepare the reader for the tone of the story and the mood the author wishes to create. The world of this short story is a mythical and sentimental one which is structured around the life of Southerners in antebellum Virginia. It happened that Thomas Nelson Page was shown a letter that had been taken from the pocket of a dead private on one of the battlefields near Richmond. Basically, the letter contained the words of a young girl in Georgia to her sweetheart in the Confederate army. She told him how much she loved him, and that she was sorry she had been so cruel to him before he went away. She professed that her love had been constant and had grown since they were small children. The writer also implored her beloved to come home during his first furlough so that they could be married. The soldier died in battle and never made it home. Page remarked that "he (the soldier) got his furlough through a bullet," and it was only a few days later that "Marse Chan" was written. Page was moved by the true story of the letter and made it the basis for this successful and well-received short story.

"Marse Chan" contains all of the ingredients for a Southern local-color story. The ideas of honor, loyalty, battle, love, death, and an ideal hero and heroine are contained within the incident upon which "Marse Chan" is based, so they fit naturally into the structure of Page's version of the story. Page was extremely interested in Southern literature and life. He sought to convert this story into life through the use of the black narrator, Sam, whose retelling of the story created a sentimentalized past which was not bound by complete accuracy and attention to detail.

Sam relates the story as only a loyal and faithful manservant could. Sam's romantic, superstitious, and nostalgic viewpoint provides a wealth of background material for the listener, a white man who questions Sam about the area and its inhabitants. The reader also becomes an attentive listener who hears Sam's story. Even though Page adapted "Marse Chan" from a true story, he added a new dimension that could be seen in much of his later writing—the full characterization of the Southern hero. To Page, and definitely to Sam, Marse Chan represented a young boy who grew up to defend a civilization while adhering to a code of Southern heroism. From the beginning of the tale, readers are aware of Marse Chan's "sacredness," his "special" place in the household. Throughout his youth, he remains loyal to the black servant and devoted to the wishes and ideas of his father. Anne Chamberlin, the young woman in his life, is respected totally, and her every wish is met. The overpowering chivalry of the South in those times is a matter of fact to Marse Chan. Anne's initial rebuff after his profession of love to her is not in any way contested by Marse Chan, whose only desire is to please the woman he loves. Page incorporates the realistic with the romantic and ideal. Anne remains the ideal until the end, never really offering a believable relationship to the hero, yet providing an essential element to the tragedy of the story.

Perhaps the most believable character is Sam, the narrator. He tells the story as he sees it, and the characters he remembers belong to a mythical past filled with Southern heroes and heroines. Page was enamored with this picture of Southern history and in this re-creation of an event through a short story, he sought to preserve it as though it were a record of historical fact.

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