Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Typical of Chesnutt’s work is the use of irony to convey the contradictory aspects of life on the color line. In many of his stories, there is a discrepancy between what readers are expecting and what finally occurs. Grandison, for example, uses a thick dialect, refers repeatedly to Colonel Owens as “marster,” and stresses his gratitude for all he has as a slave. His subsequent lack of interest in escaping suggests that he is exactly what Colonel Owens brags that he is. The surprise ending suddenly contradicts all that the characterization leads readers to believe, for Grandison proves to be devoted not to his master but to his and his family’s freedom.

Chesnutt uses a double layer of irony at times. Knowing that his readers will be aware of the stories of escaped slaves using the North Star as their guide to freedom, he ironically describes Grandison leaving Canada for Kentucky with the North Star at his back. At first, this seems to reinforce the idea that Grandison is a model slave who literally turns his back on freedom. At the end of the story, however, it becomes clear that he has thought first of his family and planned for all their happiness even at the risk of losing his own freedom.

Another original technique in the story is Chesnutt’s use of a hidden plot. No details whatsoever are supplied about the dilemmas and motivations of the slaves, and yet the ending suggests a whole dimension of activity of which the reader (and the Old South) is unaware. This untold story lying beneath the happy-go-lucky life of Dick and the delusional world of his father calls into question the superficial ruling class of the Old South and invests the titular hero with a shrewdness that suggests a complexity normally lacking in the portraits of African American characters in literature of Chesnutt’s time. In the title, Grandison’s passing refers both to his passing into freedom at the end of the story and to his ability to pass as the perfect slave even as he is planning a most sophisticated escape, the magnitude and audacity of which seriously undermine the South’s representation of itself.


A Kentucky plantation in the 1850s provides the main setting for the story, in that the ideologies the story satirizes derive from this site. Reference to the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law during that time firmly grounds the historical moment of the story, as do the Underground Railroad and abolitionists, while the use of dialect in the speech of Grandison lends a comical verisimilitude to the picture of plantation life with a wealthy, white colonel running a plantation of “darkies” who know their place.

Dick first travels to New York with Grandison, staying in a fashionable New York hotel with black waiters, whom Dick hopes will help seduce Grandison into escaping. They then go to Boston and stay at the Revere House, for Dick believes that this city, known for its abolitionist movement, might prove more conducive for Grandison to escape. Failing again but reluctant to return to Kentucky with Grandison and lose the possibility of marrying Charity, Dick decides to “head West” to Niagara and, while visiting the Falls, simply “lose” Grandison on the Canadian side. The story does not provide details of Niagara, except for mentioning the inn at which Dick eats while leaving Grandison alone, again hoping he might simply walk away. The inn has a “true British solidity” about it, and there Dick eats a sandwich and drinks ale, but other than that we see little of the place. The focus is on our expectations of Grandison, making the actual setting almost irrelevant to that plot.

When the colonel searches for Grandison and his relatives after they escape, we receive a vague picture of their movement north through the Underground Railroad. Because the fugitive slaves left so few tracks behind them, the assumption is that Grandison had prepared the way while he was in the North with Dick. The final setting shows Grandison “on a wharf at a port on the south shore of Lake Erie” about to cross to Canada. Significantly, here the colonel is displaced from his own home, his slave having disrupted his life sufficiently so that he, Grandison, not only has the joke on the colonel, but power over him as well. On the shores of Lake Erie, a crew member waves “derisively” at the colonel, symbolizing how completely foolish his Southern values concerning slavery appear to a Northern audience.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narrative Craft of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1998.

Kulii, Elon A. “Poetic License and Chesnutt’s Use of Folklore.” CLA Journal 38 (December, 1994): 247-253.

Lehman, Cynthia L. “The Social and Political View of Charles Chesnutt: Reflections on His Major Writings.” Journal of Black Studies 26 (January, 1996).

McElrath, Joseph R., Jr., ed. Critical Essays on Charles W. Chesnutt. New York: G. K. Hall, 1999.

McFatter, Susan. “From Revenge to Resolution: The (R)evolution of Female Characters in Chesnutt’s Fiction.” CLA Journal 42 (December, 1998): 194-211.

McWilliams, Dean. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Fictions of Race. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2002.

Pickens, Ernestine Williams. Charles W. Chesnutt and the Progressive Movement. New York: Pace University Press, 1994.

Render, Sylvia Lyons. Charles W. Chesnutt. Boston: Twayne, 1980.

Wilson, Matthew. Whiteness in the Novels of Charles W. Chesnutt. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2004.

Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne, 1998.

Bibliography and Further Reading

Delmar, Jay P. 1979. “The Mask as Theme and Structure: Charles W. Chesnutt’s ‘The Sheriff’s Children’ and ‘The Passing of Grandison’.” American Literature 51 (3): 364-75. Using Paul Dunbar’s poem “The Mask” as his point of departure, Delmar argues that the mask forms the theme of many of Chesnutt’s short stories.

Gloster, Hugh M. 1941. “Charles W. Chesnutt, Pioneer in the Fiction of Negro Life.” Phylon, 1st Quarter, pp. 55-66. This early article on Chesnutt concludes that his significance exceeds the success of this story because he introduced themes that later became important in the Harlem Renaissance.

Knadler, Stephen P. 1996. “Untragic Mulatto: Charles Chesnutt and the Discourse of Whiteness.” American Literary History 8 (3): 426-48. Knadler argues that Chesnutt’s stories “reinterpret race as less a stigma against blacks, or an advantage for whites, than a cultural practice by which all are marked.”

Lauter, Paul. 1983. “Race and Gender in the Shaping of the American Literary Canon: A Case Study From the Twenties.” Feminist Studies 9 (3): 435-63. Lauter analyzes the institutional, theoretical, and historiographic factors that “virtually eliminated black, white female, and all working-class writers from the canon.” He refers to Chesnutt as one writer excluded during this process and why it is important to revise the literary canon to include him and other important writers.

Wonham, Henry B. 1998. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. New York: Twayne. Wonham details Chesnutt’s literary career and the author’s dialect and nondialect short stories.