Unformatted text preview: The Mask as Theme and Structure: Charles W. Chesnutt’s “The Sheriff’s C hildren” and “The Passing of Grandison” P. JAY DELMAR The University of Texas at Arlington We wear the mask that grins and lies, It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,— This debt we pay to human guile; With torn and bleeding hearts we smile, And mouth with myriad subtleties. Paul Laurence Dunbar EVER since 1900 when W. D. Howells analyzed Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899) as a collection which revealed the “tragic position of persons of mixed blood,” other critics have been prone to follow suit, sometimes disparaging Chesnutt’s work for stylistic weaknesses born of his desire to write propagandistic ﬁction.1 While such com- mentary is not incorrect, in two among the nine pieces in the collec— tion—“The Bouquet” and “The Passing of Grandison”—the mulatto theme plays no part, and in two others—“Cicely’s Dream” and “The Web of Circumstance”—-—it is relatively insigniﬁcant. Some other de— vice, then, must help to hold the collection together, for it is clear that these stories of one of the best turn-of—the—century Black Ameri— can writers, a master of the techniques of short ﬁction, are in fact uniﬁed and are designed within cohesive frameworks. Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” suggests a possible solution. The stories in Chesnutt’s collection exploit the theme of the mask. They show how both whites and Blacks are constrained to hide their true per- 1 For a summary of Howells's analysis which originally appeared in the May 1900 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, see Michael Flusche’s “On the Color Line: Charles Waddell Chesnutt,” The North Carolina Historical Review, LIII (Winter, 1976), 13. See also Sylvia Lyons Render, ed., The Short Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt (Washington, D.C., 1974), p. 32, for further discmsion of the major themes in the collection. Sterling Brown, in The Negro in American Fiction (Washington, DC, 1937), p. 81, and Cary D. Wintz, in “Race and Realism in the Fiction of Charles W. Chesnutt,” Ohio History, LXXXI (Spring, 1972), 126, decry the melodramatic style which they feel marks much of Chesnutt’s ﬁction concern- ing the color line. C hesnutt’s Masks 365 sonalities and, often, their true racial identities from themselves and each other. , Chesnutt’s development of the mask theme is not, of course, a constant in The Wife of His Youth. Stories such as “The Wife of His Youth,” “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” and “A Matter of Principle” suggest that all mask—wearing by Blacks is an evil to be avoided; every attempt to deny one’s Blackness or one’s real personality is shown to be destructive and is therefore condemned. Mr. Ryder of “The Wife of His Youth” and Uncle Wellington Braboy of “Uncle Wellington’s Wives” ﬁnd “happiness” when they reafﬁrm their Blackness and renounce their attempts to join white society, while Cicero Clayton’s attempts to reject his heritage in “A Matter of Principle” meet with laughable failure. However, stories like “Her Virginia Mammy” and “Cicely’s Dream” suggest that wearing a mask might be a good thing. In the ﬁrst, Mrs. Harper secures a happy life for her long—lost daughter by not revealing their relation— ship, allowing the young woman to pass and to be blissfully ignorant of her true heritage. “Cicely’s Dream” reveals the trauma that can re— sult from a mask’s being lifted, as Cicely loses the love of a man who, in a state of amnesia, thought he was a mulatto. Apparently, Chesnutt is demonstrating that matters of racial identity are not easy to solve and that the “obvious” virtue of racial pride—obvious to modern racial sensibilities, at least—was not always so obvious to the Blacks of former generations.2 Not only a subject of certain stories, moreover, the “mask—theme” is used to solve structural problems Within Chesnutt’s tales. The stories themselves tend to be masked. Their ultimate meanings and denouements are often hidden from the reader, each piece working artistically through ironic or satiric structures which seek to delay the reader’s perception of the last truth as long as possible. Many stories “mask” their plots, of course, using elements of foreshadow— ing to guide a reader along without giving the ending away too soon. In The Wife of Hi: Youth, Chesnutt consistently uses the fewest possible foreshadowing elements, however, never allowing the reader 2 For discussions of “Her Virginia Mammy” and “The Wife of His Youth," see Catherine Iuanita Starke, Black Portraiture in American Fiction (New York, 1971), pp. 89, 95—96. I. Noel Heermance treats “Her Virginia Mammy” and “A Matter of Principle” in Charles W. Chesnutt (Hamden, Conn., 1974), pp. 172—473. See also Render for additional dis- cussions of these works. , 366 American Literature to feel too sure of the ending before the climactic psychological moment. He seldom misses a chance to delude a reader with the glimpse of a false trail. In “Cicely’s Dream,” for example, Chesnutt early suggests the possibility that Cicely’s lover might be a white man and that her love for him may be doomed, but he does not conﬁrm the facts until the last page. Instead, he continually stresses the uncertain nature of the relationship, allowing his reader to hope that the relationship might turn out well. “The Web of Circum— stance,” one of the most powerful stories in the collection, has a tragic ending which Chesnutt carefully screens until the ﬁnal moment, even suggesting just before the story’s conclusion that it will end happily.3 And in “The Bouquet,” the central event in the piece, Mary Myrover’s death, is anticipated by only one brief refer- ence.4 Everywhere Chesnutt sets up mutually exclusive possibilities for the development of his plots—Cicely could be happy, or she could be hurt—and consistently delays the reader’s perception of the correct endings. The third and sixth stories in The Wife of His Youth, “The Sheriff’s Children” and “The Passing of Grandison,” illustrate the mask-theme and the mask—structure in Chesnutt’s ﬁction, and the fact that they do so in markedly different ways makes them worthy of separate consideration here. “The Sheriﬁ’s Children” uses his mask theme negatively: hiding one’s true soul leads to tragedy. “The Passing of Grandison,” on the other hand, like “Her Virginia Mammy,” apparently argues that mask—wearing can be a virtue if it is directed toward virtuous ends. “The Sheriff’s Children” uses techniques of subtle foreshadowing to screen its conclusion. In “The Passing of Grandison,” however, Chesnutt succeeds with a bold, dangerous ploy. Though he uses almost no foreshadowing, he suc— ceeds in a nearly complete masking of the story’s surprise ending. The two major ﬁgures of “The Sheriff’s Children,” Sheriff Campbell and his mulatto son, are both plagued by crises of personal 3Render, p. 36, and Heermance, p. 175, consider the story to be one of the best in the collection. Just before its conclusion in which the protagonist, Ben Davis, is killed by Colonel Thornton, the man he blames for sending him unjustly to prison, Davis had decided to forego revenge against Thornton, setting up in the reader’s mind the hope of a “happy” ending. 4 The only reference to Mary’s impending death occurs in the middle of the piece where she tells her little friend Sophy that when she dies, she wants her grave to be covered with roses; this, of course, is what eventually happens. C hesnutt’s Mas/(s 367 identity; their reactions to these crises both exploit the theme of the mask and exemplify Chesnutt’s structural use of the mask concept.5 These achievements make a powerful story of one which might Without them have degenerated into a naive, run-of-the—mill treat— ment of the long-lost son plot. Had Chesnutt made the revelation of the relationship between the Sheriff and the son whom he had abandoned as a child its focal point, his story would never have attained any particular signiﬁcance. Chesnutt instead uses the Sheriff’s parenthood as the starting point for an examination of its tragic results. Campbell is a man who wears the mask of duty and morality. Ronald Walcott stated the case quite well when he argued that while Campbell appears to be free of the primitive impulses which seem to motivate his neighbors, he “possesses his own inhibiting personal code before which all else must pay obeisance, his Southern gentle— man’s concept of duty.”6 The point is that the Sheriff is not free of primitive impulses; the concept of duty which he has adopted has only hidden them. In his youth, he had fathered a child with a Black woman; later, in a ﬁt of anger, he had sold them down the river. As the crisis of the story unfolds with his “child” standing before him—a prisoner accused of murder whom an unruly mob wants to lynch—Campbell begins to see himself for the ﬁrst time without a mask, reﬂected in his son’s eyes: “He knew whose passions coursed beneath that swarthy skin and burned in the black eyes Opposite his own. He saw in this mulatto what he himself might have become had not the safeguards of parental restraint and public opinion been thrown around him.”7 Campbell had always lived by the code of the Southern aristocracy, one which sanctioned his be— havior toward his lover and child. But he had never consciously realized that he was using the code to mask his instincts from him— self. Whether the passions which coursed within him were noble or not, they were his, and he should have come to terms with them. 5 See Render, p. 36, and Heermance, p. 173. 6“Chesnutt’s ‘The Sheriff’s Children‘ as Parable,” Negro American Literature Forum, VII (Fall, 1973), 83. See also Gerald W. Haslam, “ ‘The Sheriff’s Children’: Chesnutt‘s Tragic Racial Parable,” NALF, II (Summer, 1968), 25. Haslam sees the story as Chesnutt's ironic recasting of the Cain and Abel legend; both discussions are excellent studies of the work. 7 Charles W. Chesnutt, “The Sheriff’s Children," in The Wife of Hi: Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (Ann Arbor, Mich., 1968), p. 86; all further references to the stories in the collection will be taken from this edition. 368 American Literature When he learns who his prisoner is, Campbell begins to get an inkling of the existence of the mask which he has worn so long. The prisoner, though, does not really come to grips with who and What he is. He feels trapped between two racial worlds. As Mr. Ryder says, in a story which satirizes this viewpoint, persons of mixed blood “are ground between the upper and the nether mill— stone” (p. 7). They may be accepted by either the white race or the black but the former does not want them, and acceptance by the latter would be a disgrace. Ryder would prefer acceptance into the white world, and, here with Chesnutt’s apparent sympathy, Sheriff Campbell’s son has also selected that goal. The prisoner cries that he is “despised and scorned and set aside by the people to Whose race [he belongs] far more than to [his] mother’s” (p. 86). The mulatto rejects his Blackness, but the rigidity of white society prohibits him from taking up the white man’s mask. Essentially, the Sheriff’s son feels robbed of his birthright; he has grown rebellious as a result of his inability to wear a mask which appears to him to be not a mask at all but rather his true spirit. He feels that he is being forced to wear a mask of Blackness. Whatever the merits of Chesnutt’s point about the proper sphere of the mulatto, it is clear that the Sheriff’s mask of duty and the mulatto’s mask of Blackness are evil forces; they cause the prisoner’s death and the father’s failure to atone for his past misdeeds. This out— come, tragic because both ﬁgures are basically noble men whose personalities reveal weaknesses which lead to their downfall, is a part of the story’s mask-structure.8 Two elements of the work are crucial here——the Sheriff’s daughter’s wounding of the prisoner and his subsequent suicide—and both are well disguised. The ﬁrst event occurs after the prisoner asks the Sheriff at gunpoint to let him escape. Paralyzed by his sense of duty, the Sheriff cannot agree to what Chesnutt unmistakably feels is a proper course of action: “It may seem strange that a man who could sell his own child into slavery should hesitate at such a moment, when his life was trembling in the balance. But the baleful inﬂuence of human slavery poisoned the very fountains of life, and created new standards of right. The sheriff was conscientious; his conscience had merely 3 Haslam discusses both the ironic structure of the plot and its tragic qualities, pp. 22—25. For a fuller analysis of tragic action, see my “Tragic Patterns in Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children," NALF, X (Spring, 1976), 3—12. C hesnutt's Mark: 369 been warped by his environment” (pp. 87—88). In all justice and mercy, as Chesnutt suggests, Campbell should let his son go. Even if he were guilty of murder, his chances of escaping the lynch mob are minimal at best; should he somehow escape its rage, his chances of receiving a fair trial in Troy are even worse. Although Campbell is now beginning to understand these truths, he cannot break through the barriers thrown up by years of tradition. He hesitates, and his son declares that he must die. A reader might expect such a tragic result of the Sheriff’s person— ality since hesitation is often a mark of a tragic ﬁgure, and Chesnutt does carry Campbell to the brink of catastrophe: the prisoner “raised his arm to ﬁre, when there was a ﬂash—a report from the passage behind him” (p. 88). Just as he was about to pull the trigger, he was shot by the Sheriff’s daughter. This type of masking is well known to viewers of Westerns. Whenever the hero is in danger of being bushwhacked, an unseen marksman brings the villain down. One’s expectations are keyed to an “anticipated event” (the death of the hero), but the event which actually occurs (the death of the villain) is its exact opposite. Such a situation is intended to shock the viewer momentarily, and Chesnutt intends a similar effect here. Of course, the tactic can be abused. In the worst examples of grade—B Westerns, the viewer is given no hint that the hero will be saved. In better examples, though, some foreshadowing hints at the truth; the ﬁlm might show the hero’s sidekick riding to the rescue, then leave him until he ﬁres the mysterious shot. “The Sheriff’s Children” provides such foreshadowing just before the girl wounds her half-brother: “So absorbed were the two men in their colloquy and their own tumultuous thoughts that neither of them had heard a light step come stealthily up the stairs, nor seen a slender form creep along the darkening passage toward the mulatto.” Without this suggestion—which only makes sense after the reader learns that the Sheriff’s daughter has shot the prisoner—the “actual event” would come as a complete surprise to the reader; the antici— pated event (Campbell’s death) makes sense, and nothing would cause the reader to doubt its probability. So great a surprise would shock the reader too much; it would tend to annoy, rather than satisfy. If the foreshadowing were too heavy, on the other hand, there would be no surprise at all. In this case that charge cannot be 370 American Literature made. There are 162 words heavily charged with emotional energy between the foreshadowing element and the prisoner’s wounding, so the foreshadowing itself does not receive too much emphasis when the reader ﬁrst encounters it. Moreover, the foreshadowing passage does not necessarily suggest the shooting, since “slender forms” do not generally carry horse—pistols. The second crucial situation in the story, the mulatto’s suicide, is equally masked. After the prisoner is injured, the Sheriff bandages his arm and tells him to lie about his escape attempt if he is ques— tioned further. These are acts of kindness which apparently bode well for the Sheriff and his son, and they are followed by almost four pages which reveal Campbell’s ruminations on his past life. When the Sheriff ﬁnally decides to “atone for his crime against this son of his—against society—against God” (p. 93), the reader feels that the story might end on a positive note. Even though a tragic atmosphere has been already established, a happy conclusion is not completely unlikely because of the inherent nobility of the characters. The qualities which make a tragic fall tragic could also be used to avert the tragedy. Campbell is basically a good man, and his son is not inherently evil. However, Chesnutt soon lifts the mask and reveals the actual ending. The tragedy is not averted because the mulatto kills himself while his father, still hesitating, slowly arrives at the decision to aid him. This turn is clearly plausible, and, even more important, Chesnutt foreshadows it while he establishes his false trail. First, the mulatto had spoken of death as something he did not fear when he denounced his existence as a non—white, non-Black man: “When I think about it seriously I do not care particularly for such a life. It is the animal in me, not the man, that ﬂees the gallows” (p. 87). Secondly, after he is wounded the mulatto’s attitude of deﬁant rebellion transforms itself into sullen dejection; he simply gives up. Finally, the Sheriff himself tells his son how to die. The injury is described as a “ﬂesh wound,” something normally not very serious. However, as Campbell warns his son after bandaging him, “I’ll have a doctor come and dress the wound in the morning. . . . It will do very well until then, if you will keep quiet” (p. 89). If he does not keep quiet . . . the conclusion is left unsaid, but the prisoner knows what his father meant. During the night, the mulatto tears his bandage off and C hesnutt’: Masks 371 bleeds to death. The suicide does not come as a complete surprise to the reader, then; it does fit the tragic atmosphere of the story, and Chesnutt has shown it to be a reasonable occurrence without focus— ing upon it as an obvious ending. “The Sheriff’s Children” uses both mask—theme and mask—structure. The Sheriff and his son fail because they cannot accept their true identities or, perhaps in the case of the mulatto, because he cannot achieve recognition for What he perceives to be a true identity. And by the use of foreshadowing Chesnutt is able to hide the story’s tragic outcome, increasing its emotional impact when readers ﬁnally recognize the truth. “The Passing of Grandison” also uses the mask— theme and structure, but in a different way. As Joel Taxel notes, 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.9 That is obvious—as soon as one has read the entire piece. Until the end, though, even astute readers cannot tell what is really going on because Chesnutt carefully disguises the fact that Grandison is indeed wearing a mask and that, in this case, the mask has a positive virtue. Even more signiﬁcant, Chesnutt does so without using any foreshadowing to speak of. Instead, he plays Grandison’s apparent characterization and the plot’s apparent development against the reader’s logical and more humane perception of the realities of slavery until he is ready to reveal the story’s true meaning. Chesnutt, that is, so carefully manip— ulates irony and satire that the reader is not certain about whom or what is being satirized.10 F our situations in the work reveal the nature of Chesnutt’s use of the mask structure: (I) Grandison’s selection for a trip north as a bodyservant to his master’s son, a young man who wants to “steal” one of his father’s slaves, (2) Grandison’s reaction to North— ern abolitionists, (3) his reaction to a trip to Canada, and (4) his return to his master’s plantation. Colonel Owens allows Grandison to go north, for instance, only after being convinced that his slave is absolutely loyal and “abolitionist—proof” to boot. When he asks Grandison if he does not believe himself to be better off than the “free negroes” of his acquaintance, Grandison replies with an answer 9 “Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s Sambo: Myth and Reality,” NALF, IX (Winter, 1975), 108. 10 See Render, p. 43, concerning “ironic overtones" in the piece. 372 American Literature which conﬁrms the Colonel’s fondest opinions of slavery: “Well, I sh’d jes’ reckon I is better off, suh, dan dem low—down free niggers, suh! Ef anybody ax ’em who dey b’long ter, dey has ter say nobody, er e’se lie erbout it. Anybody ax me who I b’longs ter, I ain’ got no ’casion ter be shame’ ter tell ’em, no, suh, ’deed I ain’, suhl” (pp. 178—179). Although all of this seems a bit much, there is no indication that Grandison does not mean exactly what he says. The satire seems to be directed at the Colonel, who believes that slavery is a sophis— ticated form of chivalry, but the reader does not yet know what to make of the Colonel’s slave. When the elder Owens broaches the subject of Grandison’s going north and indicates that he might run into some “cussed abolitionists” there, Grandison reacts with horror: “ ‘Dey won’t try ter steal me, will dey, marster?’ asked the negro, with sudden alarm” (p. 181). While the reader might believe that no sane slave could react this way, Chesnutt says nothing in the entire section to indicate that Grandison is not being truthful; the authorial commentary in the phrase “with sudden alarm,” after all, is seemingly straightforward. How different was an earlier case, though, when Colonel Owens’s son Dick approached another slave, Tom, with the idea of going north. Chesnutt says, “Now, if there was anything that Tom would have liked to make, it was a trip North. It was something he had long contemplated in the abstract, but had never been able to muster up sufﬁcient courage to attempt in the concrete. He was prudent enough, however, to dissemble his feelings” (p. 174). Here Chesnutt through his commentary explicitly reveals that Tom’s hope for “safety” in the north is merely a smokescreen and that he would fulﬁll Dick’s desire to aid the escape of a slave the ﬁrst chance he got. In fact, Dick’s cautious father refuses to let Tom leave the plantation because he had not dissembled his feelings quite well enough on previous occasions. In his portrayal of Grandison, how— ever, Chesnutt never gives any indication that the slave is anything other than the Sambo he appears to be. Once Dick and Grandison arrive in the north, everything the slave does conﬁrms the reader’s suspicion that he is as foolish as he seems. At one point during their stay in Boston, Dick sees Grandison talking to a young white preacher; as soon as Grandison sees Dick, “he edged away from the preacher and hastened toward his master, C hesnutt’s Mas/(s 373 with a very evident expression of relief upon his countenance” (p. 187). Grandison then proceeds to tell young Owens how the “aboli- tioners” have been bothering him, how he fears that he might be forced to hit one of them, and how he longs to return to Kentucky. Dick himself curses “the stupidity of a slave who could be free and would not,” but he believes it to exist in Grandison. Here one may begin to think Grandison has come clear, even though Chesnutt’s commentary is again straightforward. Grandison saw Dick approach the preacher and him; perhaps he is covering his tracks after all. As soon as Chesnutt opens the shade, however, he unmistakably closes it, blinding his reader as much about Grandison as ever. Dick leaves Grandison alone with a hundred dollars, after telling him that he could do Whatever he pleased with it, but when he returns after an absence of two days he ﬁnds “the faithful Grandison at his post, and the hundred dollars intact” (p. 188). If Grandison had been dis— sembling before, why had he not taken advantage of this new oppor— tunity? Chesnutt is still taking extraordinary pains to mask the true nature of Grandison’s character. By illustrating Grandison’s reacting to situations in ways which defy logic, Chesnutt is able to build up tension within an essentially comic framework, tension which will only be released when the mask itself is removed. Desperate to lose Grandison, Dick takes him to Canada and, standing on the Canadian side of Niagara Falls, carefully describes that country as a place where a slave may simply walk away from his master without any fear of being caught or punished. Grandison’s reaction?: “Let’s go back ober de ribber, Mars Dick. I’s feared I’ll lose you ovuh heah, an’ den I won’ hab no marster, an’ won’t nebber be able to git back home no mo’ ” (p. 191). Nothing in this dialogue even hints that Grandison would really like to escape. His reaction is presented as straightforwardly as possible, even if it appears too stupid to be credible. When Dick leaves Grandison alone on the Canadian side and he still makes no attempt to escape, the reader almost gives him up. Finally, Dick resorts to having Grandison kidnapped in Canada since the slave refuses to accept freedom on his own. The reader’s tension appears to be relieved; at least Grandison is free, and one’s View of slavery as something to be escaped is reconﬁrmed. 374 American Literature Within three pages, however, the reader’s conﬁdence in his / her perceptions is destroyed. Chesnutt pulls the structural mask on tighter as he shows that even enforced freedom is too much for Grandison (p. 197). As Chesnutt describes it, without any trace of irony directed toward Grandison, the prodigal returns to servitude and his old Kentucky home: “The colonel killed the fatted calf for Grandison, and for two or three weeks the returned wanderer’s life was a slave’s dream of pleasure. His fame spread throughout the county, and the colonel gave him a permanent place among the house servants, where he could always have him conveniently at hand to relate his ad— ventures to admiring visitors” (p. 200). The reader is thoroughly puzzled, as Chesnutt intends. Has this Black author written a story extolling slavery? Is Grandison a real Sambo, and does Chesnutt see a virtue in such blatant Uncle Tom—ism? As soon as Chesnutt has “masked” the reader into asking these questions, he pulls the mask off with a vengeance, and the reader’s tension is ﬁnally, explosively, relieved. The next paragraph reveals that three weeks after Grandison’s return from Canada, not only he but his new wife Betty, as well as his father, mother, sister, and two brothers—seven of his master’s most prized possessions—are missing from the plantation. Now the reader knows the truth: Grandison had been dissembling all along. He had been “passing” all the time, passing to freedom and passing for Black—or for his master’s view of what constituted Blackness. The careful reader now remembers the only true foreshadowing which Chesnutt had provided; when the Colonel had ﬁnished quizzing Grandison about his attitude toward abolition, he had mentioned that Dick might buy a wedding present for Betty when she and Grandison got married in the fall (p. 181). Grandison had not made good any of his opportunities to escape simply because he refused to escape alone. He would not leave his family or his lover; he would carefully hide his time, and they would all escape, or they would all suffer, together. The mask of the Sambo has allowed Grandison to gain his “marster’s” conﬁdence; moreover, it has allowed him to marry Betty sooner than they had expected and thus to escape sooner than they had planned. Far from being a stupid, childish Uncle Tom, Grandison proves to be repre— sentative of the noblest qualities in human nature—self—sacriﬁce, courage, and an indomitable will. C hesnutt's Mask: 375 The mask structure succeeds without signiﬁcant foreshadowing in this case because the foreshadowing is already present in the reader’s mind. Despite the fact that Chesnutt never gives any indica—' tion that Grandison is wearing a mask, the reader cannot completely believe that anyone could be so naive or that Chesnutt could write such a naive story. Even if the reader had never heard of Chesnutt, he/ she would still experience a paradoxical reaction to the work until the structural and thematic masks are removed. The story’s ending, then, does not completely surprise the reader any more than such a work with adequate foreshadowing as “The Sheriff’s Children,” but it surprises one enough to produce a powerful emo- tional response. While the masks are at their tightest, readers “know” that Grandison is a fool and that Chesnutt is perhaps a fool as well, but this knowledge does not seem quite “right.” The removal of the masks resolves this conﬂict, and the resolution in turn produces pleasure. “The Sheriff’s Children” and “The Passing of Grandison” demon- strate Chesnutt’s use of the mask, doing so in essentially opposite ways. The remaining seven stories in The Wife of Hi: Youth also use the mask structure and theme, providing artistic unity in the collection in a way not always recognized. Why the mask theme varies from story to story is explained by Chesnutt’s biography. A mulatto himself, one who experienced ﬁrst hand the sensation of being trapped between two worlds, Chesnutt vacillated between a desire to be considered white and a pride in being identiﬁed as Black. At various times he had been Mr. Ryder conﬁrmng his Blackness and the Sheriff’s son renouncing it; he had been Uncle Wellington removing the mask because it was wrong, and he had been Grandison wearing a different mask because it led to right. The mask fascinated Chesnutt because he could not decide what to do with his own. The stories of The Wife of Hi: Youth, in both theme and structure, amply reﬂect that fascination. Copyright© 2003 EBSCO Publishing ...
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Essay on Charles Chesnutt’s “The Passing of Grandison”
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Charles Chesnutt’s “The Passing of Grandison” is a satirical short story about southern plantation life in the early 1850s. Dick Owens, the spoiled first-born son of a rich Kentucky slaveholder named Colonel Owens wants to impress a young woman named Charity Lomax enough to get her to marry him. To do so, Dick decides to secretly free one of his father’s slaves. With his father’s permission, Dick travels North with one of the slaves named Grandison. He does not tell anyone that he intends to leave Grandison behind in a free state. Although Grandison has no intention of escaping, claiming to love his life as a slave, Dick manages to leave him in Canada. Dick returns home and marries Charity Lomax, having mildly impressed her with his…show more content…
When Grandison returns home after being left behind in Canada, his master celebrates by “killing the fatted calf” (Chesnutt, 623). He is so happy and relieved to have Grandison home that he treats him like the prodigal son. True to his character, Grandison persists in how thankful he is to be back safely. However, three weeks later he has escaped along with his wife, maid, mother, father, uncles, and sister.
Although Grandison fools everyone into believing he loves his life as a slave, it becomes apparent at the end of the story that he had the desire and intention to escape from the start. Not wanting to reveal his true intention, Grandison acted like a model slave and showed no interest in escaping throughout his entire trip North with Dick. His almost over-the-top praises of slavery and criticisms of abolitionists and free life actually convince both Colonel Owens and Dick Owens that he enjoys his life as a slave. However, he ultimately “passes” from slavery to freedom, bringing his family with him. It may seem irrational that Grandison made the perilous journey all the way home just to escape again, but he did so to free his family too. This shows how much Grandison cared about his family and how blind Colonel Owens and Dick were to overlook that possibility. In the situation with Grandison, Chesnutt is poking fun at the conception of plantation life. Colonel Owens is convinced that his