The Passing of Grandison by Charles Waddell Chesnutt

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Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“The Passing of Grandison” is told in the third person and primarily limited to the consciousness of Dick Owens, the cynical and lazy young heir to a large plantation in Kentucky. His desire to win the hand of his sweetheart Charity Lomax leads him on a mission to accomplish something of humanitarian import. Given his character and the contradictions of the South, however, his efforts can have only an ironic result.

Set in the early 1850’s just after the passage of the federal Fugitive Slave Law, the story begins with the highly publicized trial and subsequent martyr’s death of an abolitionist who tried to help the slave of Tom Briggs, an abusive master and neighbor of the Owens and Lomax families. Charity wishes that her handsome but worthless beau would do something equally worthy. This leads Dick to vow to induce one of his father’s slaves to run away.

Dick chooses to accomplish his task by going on a trip to the North accompanied by a personal body servant. At first, he selects a slave who he knows will want to run away at the first opportunity. The plan is complicated by Colonel Owens, who insists that he go with Grandison. The colonel believes that Grandison is loyal and abolitionist-proof, that is, immune from those who would entice him to run away. Indeed, the colonel quizzes Grandison, who assures his master that he accepts his subordination, is contemptuous of free blacks, and fears abolitionists. As an added inducement, Colonel Owens promises Grandison that he can marry his sweetheart on his return.

Although his plans are complicated by the choice of such a seemingly model slave, Dick repeatedly attempts to get Grandison to flee, only to see his plans comically backfire as the slave seems indifferent to freedom. Dick resorts to progressively more outrageous approaches to tempting his slave: giving him extraordinary amounts of free time, sending anonymous letters to abolitionists, taking him to Canada, and finally paying men to kidnap and keep him in Canada. Only the kidnapping works, or seems to work.

After Dick returns home without his slave, Colonel Owens is outraged, not at Grandison but at the abolitionists he is certain lured his slave away. Dick achieves his heart’s desire. Charity marries him but not because she thinks his conduct heroic. She actually terms his actions absurd but believes his foolish behavior clearly illustrates that he needs direction from a right-thinking woman.

Four weeks later, Grandison, tattered and worn out, appears back at the plantation, having escaped from freedom and seeking his former slave status. Colonel Owens thinks this is further vindication of the southern way of life and another indication that slaves prefer to remain as dependents of kindly masters.

A few weeks later, Grandison, his mother, father, siblings, and new wife all disappear from the plantation. Their escape to Canada is so smooth that it has obviously been prepared in advance. The colonel pursues them and is last seen shaking his fist at the rapidly receding steamboat taking his slaves to Canada.

Summary

Charles Waddell Chesnutt published “The Passing of Grandison” in 1899 in his second collection of short stories, The Wife of His Youth and Other Tales of the Color Line . Told from the third-person-limited point of view, the story uses the narrative device of the trickster, the setting of the pre–Civil War plantation, and a two-part plot for the larger purpose of criticizing and satirizing the institution of slavery. The first half of the plot involves Dick Owens, the spoiled son of a plantation owner, attempting to persuade a young woman, Charity Lomax, to marry him. The second and more dominant part of the plot concerns Dick trying to accomplish this by taking a slave north and giving him the opportunity to escape. Charity found a similar account of a man—a man who was imprisoned and executed as a result—to be rather romantic. Not aware of his son’s intentions, plantation owner Colonel Owens selects a...

(The entire section is 1,704 words.)