Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s depictions of the South make it fair to classify him as a regionalist writer of the American literary realism movement. His use of dialect, descriptions of local customs, and probing of the master-slave relationship all link him to that movement’s concern with bringing the customs of specific regions of the United States to the reading public’s attention. However, Chesnutt was not simply content to describe regional quaintness. Beneath the easygoing portraits of a comfortable southern culture lie the disturbing injustices of slavery, the power struggles between differing peoples, and the age-old desire for freedom.

In the story, two parallel themes shed ironic light on each other. The surface plot of Dick Owens’s outrageous parody of the chivalrous wooing of a lady is governed by the comic theme, “What a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered.” However, an alternative theme to describe the hidden motives of Grandison might be phrased, what a man will not do to achieve freedom for himself and his family is yet to be discovered. Grandison bides his time until it is wise to act, and he acts only when he can free his entire family, not only himself. Thus, Grandison’s unselfish behavior, patience, and seriousness of purpose are implicitly contrasted to Dick Owens’s absurd, selfish, and cynical purposes. This contrast is further supported by the comment of Dick’s mentor, Judge Fenderson, who states...

(The entire section is 474 words.)


The Trickster
The “trickster” is a theme as well as a narrative device in that through it the author depicts the slave as more intelligent than his master, thus satirizing racial stereotypes as well as the entire institution of racism. Chesnutt’s use of this theme undermines the plantation tradition (still popular in the late nineteenth century) that sentimentalized the “old-time Negro” who was happy with his position in life. In tricking Colonel Owens as he sets up his escape, Grandison uses many such stereotypes to his advantage: he pretends he is “better off than free niggers,” grins foolishly, promises to care for “young Mars Dick” on the trip, tells the colonel that he is the “bes’ marster any nigger ever had in dis worl’,” and then “bow[s] and scrape[s]” as he receives a plug of the colonel’s best tobacco. All of this is part of Grandison’s plan to escape to freedom, bringing his entire extended family with him.

Many of Chesnutt’s short stories address the theme of people of mixed race “passing” as whites, but the author uses the term “passing” as the title of this short story to mean a different type of disguise—the “mask” that African Americans often felt compelled to wear to hide their feelings of resentment and anger in order to achieve anything in a white world. As one critic explained, “Grandison wears a Sambo-mask throughout the story; he wears a false mask of Blackness, one which his master expects to see, in order to survive and to escape his bondage.” Chesnutt uses the “mask” in four ways: first, with the colonel selecting Grandison to accompany Dick on his trip to the North; second, through Grandison’s reaction to Northern abolitionists; third, through his reaction to a trip to Canada; and fourth, through his return to his master’s plantation. P. Jay Delmar argued that Chesnutt constructs Grandison’s mask so tightly...

(The entire section is 585 words.)