Fables and Justice

            Fables pass on moral lessons disguised as stories. They teach people how to behave, they instill morals and they provide a code of ethics. That means that they define justice. Charles Chesnutt's book The Marrow of Tradition reads like a collection of fables. The chapters contain stories portraying events and dictating the proper behavior and ethics for the proposed scenario all linked with the common thread of justice and equality along the color line. This theme is pivotal to all of Chesnutt's writing and he uses this book to explore different scenarios and outline a moral code by juxtaposing two opposite characters. The individual lessons are a major element of the book and seemingly the main point of the endeavor, but underlying it all is the search for proper justice or justified justice.

            Captain George McBane provides many lessons for the reader. Chesnutt uses McBane to illustrate that money and status do not make you a success. McBane has a great deal of money but his character is very poor. 'Money is the root of all evil' is an established lesson and McBane's money was acquired through unscrupulous evil means and at the expense of innocent (somewhat) people. He took advantage of the briefly legal practice of convict labor, which greatly resembles slavery and quickly amassed a fortune.

He had, until recently, as the reward of questionable political services, a contract with the State for its convict labor, from which in a few years he had realized a fortune. But the methods which made his contract profitable had not commended themselves to humane people, and charges of cruelty and worse had been preferred against him (The Marrow of Tradition 34).
McBane shows the reader that the costs of acquiring money may outweigh the rewards of owning it and that it is wrong to gain at another's expense. This whole notion is the foundation of slavery and the cancer of legal and moral justice. There could not be equal treatment under a legal system that did not provide justice for all citizens equally.

            McBane was an overseer's son and a member of the Ku - Klux. The group actively pursued white supremacy and defended it with violence and murder. There was no black equivalent to the Ku - Klux because law enforcement would have forbidden it but the law turned a blind eye toward the Ku - Klux because the law favored whites. This is clearly a huge imbalance. The white man's Ku - Klux thrived in relative acceptance with a white consensus that the group's activities were morally justified and necessary. McBane truly enjoyed lynching blacks with his fellow Klan members, and one-day he lynched Josh Green's father. Chesnutt juxtaposes McBane and Josh Green who are similar in their violent problem solving, dedication to their convictions and prejudices and low mental capacity. Murdering Josh Green's father was a minor offense to McBane because of how worthless he considered blacks; however Josh Green devoted his life to revenge and considered himself to be fully justified in his quest for McBane's blood.

One night a crowd er w'ite men come ter ou' house an' tuck my daddy out an' shot 'im ter death, an' skeered my mammy so she ain' be'n herse'f f'm dat day ter dis. I wa'n't mo' 'n ten years ole at de time…I hid in de bushes an' seen de whole thing, an' it wuz branded on my mem'ry, suh, like a red-hot iron bran's de skin. De w'ite folks had masks on, but one of 'em fell off, - he wuz de boss, he wuz de head man, an' tol' de res' w'at ter do, - an' I seen his face. It wuz a easy face ter 'member; an' I swo' den, 'way down deep in my hea't, little ez I wuz, dat some day er 'nother I 'd kill dat man (The Marrow of Tradition 111).
This was Josh Green's story and he made good on his promise to kill McBane. The riots that broke out provided the setting for Josh to fulfill his vow and when he burst from a flaming hospital through a shower of bullets and plunged his mammoth buck knife into McBane, he also breathed his last breath. McBane lived by the sword because he was protected by the lack of equal justice under the law, but he died by the sword because suppressed people will eventually find their own justice. Who is wrong or unjust here? McBane murdered and abused the black race with enjoyment and satisfaction, but Josh Green planned and sought revenge for years before he enacted it in cold blood.

            How about Chesnutt's irony or poetic justice in the book? Mrs. Polly Ochiltree robbed Janet of her just inheritance and concealed the truth of her lineage for years. Janet was the product of a freed slave woman and the widower Mr. Merkell (Polly's brother-in-law) who secretly married. Such a union would have been scandalous to say the least so the secret and the documentation remained hidden. On his deathbed, Mr. Merkell told Janet's mother about the documents but unbeknownst to him Mrs. Ochiltree was already stealing them. Years later, Mrs. Ochiltree was murdered for her fortune, which she kept liquid in a safe place right next to the missing documentation. This event twins two events - the robbery of Janet's inheritance and banishment to a life of suppression and poverty, and the robbery of Polly's money and her life. What goes around, comes around so is this justice? Janet never receives the inheritance robbed from her as she would with legal justice, but Mrs. Ochiltree is similarly robbed though much later on. It is a sort of an eye for an eye situation…but is it? Janet was gypped out of her money as Mrs. Ochiltree was, but Janet was not murdered. Should the reader feel satisfaction in the justice of this outcome? The scales do not quite hang evenly in this case, but for once they tip in the favor of the blacks. Being that justice is blind, however, race must be ignored and the problem considered individually; in that case there is clearly no justice because the punishment does not fit the crime. What about the innocent then - the ones who have had nothing to do with the injustices of the past - what about the children?

            Janet is one of the most morally righteous characters in the book. Her sister Olivia Carteret, Mrs. Ochiltree's niece, denies their relation throughout the book. They are two identical characters in appearance and bloodline as well as the fact that they are both mothers. Chesnutt 'twins' them to make the comparison between their characters center on only one variable, race. Janet's child is killed by a stray bullet from the riots and Dodie's life is threatened by a throat ailment. The life of Dodie, Olivia's baby, is constantly being threatened. In the final scene of the novel, Dodie is on the brink of death and the only available doctor who can save him is Dr. Miller, Janet's husband. Miller is not interested in providing any help to the Carteret family because they had earlier snubbed him when he offered his service to an ailing Dodie. Mr. Carteret would not allow Miller to help because he was black and there were other white doctors available.

I ought to have told you this before, but I could n't very well do so, on such short notice, in Miller's presence - we are a conservative people, and our local customs are not very flexible. We jog along in much the same old way our fathers did. I 'm not at all sure that Major Carteret or the other gentlemen would consent to the presence of a negro doctor" (The Marrow of Tradition 69).
Now, at the end of the story, Miller is the only available doctor and he denies the Carterets. Miller exacts his just revenge for the insult of denying his professional services, and even more so, for the untimely death of his innocent son. But how can a doctor morally justify squandering a life for a personal vendetta? That is not justice so Miller does not act justly. Olivia pleads for her son's life with Janet who is mourning over her own son's corpse. After years of concealment and denial, Olivia in a final tearful plea confesses her knowledge of the union between Janet's mother and Olivia's father simply as a means of bargaining.
    "Listen, sister!" she Said. "I have a confession to make. You are my lawful sister. My father was married to your mother. You are entitled to his
name, and to half his estate."
    Janet's eyes flashed with bitter scorn.
    "And you have robbed me all these years, and now tell me that as a reason why I should forgive the murder of my child?" (The Marrow of Tradition 327)
Janet makes a decision here that is very admirable. She instructs her husband to go and save Olivia's son; the son of the woman who denied Janet all of her life and the son of the man who helped start the race riots that led to the death of the Millers' child. Janet is the bigger person and she does what is right and just. Justice is impartial, or at least it should be. Janet swallows her anger and her animosity and makes the morally sound decision, the just decision.

            Chesnutt was very concerned with justice. He wrote this book to teach the reader about right and wrong and about fair and equal treatment. Interestingly, the unjust characters, the Carterets, are not punished for their sins and the injustices they have inflicted. Dodie is saved and they retain their fortune. The Millers, however, loose their son, are treated horrendously, Dr. Miller's life's work of building a hospital for blacks is literally reduced to smoldering ashes, and they do not seem much closer to equality. What is Chesnutt saying then? Is the dream of equality unattainable? Small steps are made, but not really. Josh Green has his revenge but at the cost of his life, and revenge is not a just motivator. Janet is finally recognized by Olivia as a sister, but only as a leverage tool to get Dr. Miller to save Dodie. Dr. Miller finally gets the chance to practice medicine on a white person, but it is only because there is no one else available. Chesnutt is therefore saying that the world is not just and fair and people need to change. Justice must be blind and absolute. The law must apply to all people equally, swiftly, and without regard for race, class and social status. Learn from these characters and do not make the mistakes they make and always remember that no matter how hard it is, be the 'Janet,' and treat all people fairly because that is the first step to equality.

This page is the work of Dan Jalil

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