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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 237

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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 slave named Grandison to go north with Dick, for Grandison convinces the colonel that being a slave is a blessing, confirming the colonel’s fondest opinions of slavery. Both ironic and satirical, the story manages to hide its conclusion until the final paragraphs, even though the reader suspects that the slave will indeed trick the master. Both characters are such extreme caricatures of plantation figures that we, along with the narrator, can only laugh at them from beginning to end.

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 957

When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered. Nevertheless, it might be well to state a few preliminary facts to make it clear why young Dick Owens tried to run one of his father’s negro men off to Canada.

So begins Chesnutt’s story, disarming the reader immediately by making her or him think this will be a tale more of romance than race. Within this context of “a man pleasing a woman,” Chesnutt satirizes the stereotype of the “happy slave” as well as plantation life in general by allowing one such slave to dupe his master and in so doing achieve freedom not only for himself but for all of his relatives as well.

Young Dick Owens, as indolent as he is rich, wants to marry Charity Lomax, but she will have none of it. Criticizing him for being “too lazy for any use,” Charity says she will “never love him” until he “has done something” that “proves he is a man.” Just recently, a young white man from Ohio had been imprisoned for helping a slave escape, and while in jail, he had died of cholera. This tale catches Charity’s attention, not because the man had done something good, but because he had at least done something, which is more than she can say for Dick. “Will you love me if I run a negro off to Canada?” he asks Charity, hoping to please her. Although she protests that doing such a thing would be “nonsense” and “absurd,” she also says, “seeing is believing,” for in her mind, even if he does something wrong, it is better than doing nothing at all.

Dick begins to conspire to take one of his father’s slaves on a trip to New York and give him the opportunity to escape. Telling his father that he needs a short vacation in the North, Dick asks to bring a slave with him as valet. His father agrees, but only after he rails and warns his son about the abolitionists, who will do anything they can to help a slave escape. Colonel Owens decides that it is not Tom—whom Dick would like to accompany him—but Grandison who would be the best “bondsman” for the job. Why? Because Grandison shuffles and protests that nothing makes him happier than being a slave on the colonel’s plantation. When the colonel warns him that those Northern abolitionists are a very unsavory lot, Grandison, “with sudden alarm,” asks, “Dey won’t try ter steal me, will dey, marster?” The colonel responds they just might, but “if you stick close to your young master, and remember always that he is your best friend, and understands your real needs, and has your true interests at heart, and if you will be careful to avoid strangers who try to talk to you, you’ll stand a fair chance of getting back to your home and your friends.”

Dick gives Grandison every opportunity to escape he can think of while they are in New York, but each time the slave remains loyal. Becoming more desperate, Dick takes Grandison to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, for there certainly Grandison could not fail to slip away, with so many abolitionists ready to help him do so. But no, Grandison, always “oozing gratitude at every pore,” simply waits for Dick when he walks away again and again. Frustrated, Dick finally abandons Grandison in Canada, returning home without him. He tells his father a partial truth, but to Charity the full story, explaining that at least he did help to free a slave, even if it was by abandoning him rather than enabling him to escape in a more heroic way. Not seeing much valor in the tale, Charity nevertheless agrees to marry him because he appears, she says, to be a man who “needs looking after” at the very least.

A week after their wedding, the colonel finds Grandison lying by the side of the road, completely exhausted. After pampering him with food and drink, the colonel learns from Grandison that some abolitionists had kidnapped him, but that he had then escaped and walked all the way home from Canada rather than be lost without his master. “It’s just as I thought from the beginning, Dick,” he tells his son. “Grandison had no notion of running away; he knew when he was well off, and where his friends were.” Although Dick cautions his father that the “kidnapping yarn sounds a little improbable,” the colonel is so sure that the plantation life is the best life for slaves that he unhesitatingly believes Grandison’s account.

Then, three weeks later, Grandison goes missing—and not only him, but also his wife, parents, brothers and sister, and uncle as well. Furious, the colonel hunts down the fugitives, but again and again they manage to elude him, clearly having planned out their escape in advance. Finally tracing them up to Lake Erie, which is a common point of departure for the Underground Railroad to provide passage for fugitive slaves into Canada, Colonel Owens sees his former, loyal slave on a boat just leaving. “The colonel saw Grandison point him out to one of the crew of the vessel, who waved his hand derisively toward the colonel. The latter shook his fist impotently—and the incident was closed.” By “passing” as a good slave, which allows him, in turn, to “pass” into freedom in Canada, Grandison tricks the old colonel, providing a good story for Dick to tell later in life.

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