Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 626
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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