Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In some ways, Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s fiction anticipates that of William Faulkner and other later southern writers. He immediately establishes the pervasiveness of the Civil War even among southerners who lived far from the principal action. In a simpler way than Faulkner, he presents the evil that continues to flow from slavery and particularly from miscegenation under the slave system. Furthermore, Chesnutt depicts the conflict between educated but guilt-ridden southern leaders and a citizenship generally marked by ignorance and insensitivity to the claims of the law.

However, Chesnutt’s purposes in this and other stories of “the color line” are quite different from those of Faulkner. As a black who had grown to manhood and trained for the law during Reconstruction, Chesnutt felt keenly the failure of that program and the blighting of the hopes of the immense majority of less fortunate blacks after the earlier promise of the Emancipation Proclamation. Tom is intelligent and well educated but has turned into a petty criminal facing the prospect of hanging for stealing a coat, and he is desperate enough to kill his father. His fate is not that of a typical freed plantation hand in a segregated society but that of a man who has no place in society, a man who has learned enough to interpret his situation and feel the full bitterness of unfulfilled human aspirations.

The author also wishes to explore the conscience of the ruling...

(The entire section is 506 words.)


(Short Stories for Students)

Race and Racism
The themes of race and racism are integral to ‘‘The Sheriff’s Children.’’The story takes place in the...

(The entire section is 955 words.)