The Power of Letters

    In House Behind the Cedars, Charles W. Chesnutt uses letters to show the power of literacy. Letter writing was the only way to communicate during this period, yet contents of a letter would easily become obsolete based on when it was received. Chesnutt plays on this aspect of time to add suspense to his tale, which essentially leads to drama. Letter writing also allows the reader to have insight on the character rather than just the narrator's view. By having this insight on the character, the suspense is built up even more because you as the reader want to know how the character will react in the situation. Chesnutt bases his entire book off a series of letters; therefore he understands the power of literacy.

    One of the most important letters to the book happens to be the first, which is the catalyst to all the drama to come. The letter is from Molly Walden to her daughter Rena, urging her to come back home. Rena assumed power by being educated enough to pass for white and therefore having a better life. The letter was actually written by Molly who is illiterate. Therefore by writing her own letter, Molly is sending Rena the message that the matter is urgent. "Calling at the post-office for the family mail, she found there a letter from her mother, which she tore open in great excitement. It was written in an unpracticed hand and badly spelled" (Chesnutt, 63). Molly conveys the message that she was sick, yet she does not directly ask Rena to come home:

I'm feeling mighty poorly, but Dr. Green says that

I'll get over it in a few days. Old Aunt Zilphy is

Staying with me, and looking after things tolerably

Well. I hope this will find you and John enjoying good

health. ( Chesnutt, 63)

It seems as if Molly manipulates Rena into coming home, knowing the consequences it would mean to Rena. Because Molly is illiterate, she makes herself seem weak to Rena who is more educated and would run to care for her mother properly. The reader is put in suspense because you are forced to wonder if Rena will stay home, or be discovered while home. Reading this letter causes the reader to be annoyed with Molly who seems as if she is being selfish, yet not blatantly. Understandably Molly is sick and needs care, but she plays off of Rena's sympathy therefore decreasing Rena's power through her illiteracy.

    Molly has a bond with Rena, which overcomes the boundary of literacy. However, Molly has a different relationship with her son John because they have an obvious boundary of power. In Molly's letter to her son John, she does not manipulate but makes excuses:

And now about Rena. She come to see me, and I got better

right away, for it was longing for her as much as anything

else that made me sick, and I was mighty mizzable.

(Chesnutt, 100).

Yet this letter is in a different tone from Molly's initial letter, because it is written by Frank who is a close family friend. "Frank knows all about it, and so I am having him write this letter for me, as Rena is not well enough yet. Frank has been very good to me and to Rena" (Chesnutt, 100). Molly does not take the initiative to write her own letter because it is addressed to John whom she is not very close with. Molly may also be ashamed of her lack of education, and therefore feels the power difference between herself and John who is a lawyer. Molly is illiterate and therefore is of no use to John.

    Molly's illiteracy and lack of avoiding obstacles causes additional problems when Judge Straight sends her a letter warning her to keep Rena indoors. "If you value your daughter's happiness, keep her at home for the next day or two" (Chesnutt, 81). Unfortunately, a little boy who was sidetracked delivered the letter; so Rena leaves the house before it is delivered. By not catching the letter in time the reader is in suspense on whether she will run into Tryon who does not know she is Black. Of course she does run into him, which leads to the dramatic episode of Rena fainting.

When Rena's eyes fell upon the young man

in the buggy, she saw a face as pale as death,

with staring eyes, in which love, which once

reigned there, had now given place to astonishment

and horror. She stood a moment as if turned to stone.

One appealing glance she gave, -a look that might

have softened adamant. When she saw that it brought

no answering sign of love or sorrow or regret, the

color faded from her cheek, the light from her eye,

and she fell fainting to the ground. (Chesnutt, 94)

Because Molly lacked the ability to read, Rena lost any power she had by being educated enough to pass for white. Molly caused Rena to lose her opportunity. After Rena faints, the reader is left to question what was to become of her and Tryon. The suspense is built up until the end when Rena dies without knowing of Tryon's love.

    Rena does receive a letter from Tryon asking her to meet. In his letter you feel his conflict, "have decreed that we cannot live together, it is nevertheless possible that we may carry into the future a pleasant though somewhat sad memory of a past friendship. Will you grant me one interview?" (Chesnutt, 172). Rena answers a day later by letter asking Tryon to leave her alone because the romance ended "leave me in peace, I beseech you, and I shall soon pass out of your neighborhood as I have passed out of your life, and hope to pass out of your memory" (Chesnutt, 173). Yet the reader does not believe Rena is sincere, or that this is the end of their relationship. Tryon attempts to use his power as a white educated man, to woo Rena who is intelligent enough to persuade him against doing so. Rena uses her own power of self- control in order to control Tryon. Yet the end does occur when Rena dies, and they never have a chance to meet. It becomes another tragic mulatto story.

    Chesnutt used his letters as a guide for the reader through the ups and downs of the book. Though it did end typically with the death of a main character, Chesnutt did keep the reader in suspense about whether she would have that true love again. The letters were very important to the flow of the book along with insight that we ordinarily would not get from a narrator. Chesnutt also displayed the dynamic of those that were literate.

This page is the work of Nadezhda Galera

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