Connections Across the Color Line in The Marrow of Tradition

In The Marrow of Tradition, the infant Dodie represents the future of the white race in the United States. On several occasions, Dodie’s life is threatened by his parents’ attempts to maintain the rigid color line that separates white and black America. Major Carteret, his father, tries to stop the political and economic advancement of black people by instigating a race riot, while Olivia Carteret, his mother, reinforces the color line in the private sphere by rejecting her half-sister, Janet. In the final scenes of the novel when Dodie’s life truly hangs in the balance, his parents’ efforts to maintain the color line create a physical and emotional environment that hinders their attempts to save him. Although the physical barriers caused by the riot do contribute to the Carterets’ inability to obtain medical attention for their son, it is the emotional barrier, the erosion of Janet’s ability to connect and sympathize with Olivia, which actually threatens Dodie’s life. The severance of Janet’s emotional connection with Olivia results directly from Olivia’s constant rejection. The Carterets’ desire to widen the chasm between the races snaps the thread of humanity that binds them to the Millers. This emotional connection between ostensibly different people allows individuals to relate to one another as human beings and to appreciate the similarities and connections that transcend the artificial boundaries of socially constructed difference. Without it, the exacting standards of justice practically guarantee Dodie’s death by demanding the destruction of the future of one race as fitting retribution for the destruction of the past of another race. By positioning Dodie as a figure of the future threatened by a dearth of human connection, The Marrow of Tradition foreshadows a dire future for America should the racial gap maintained by the color line widen. If the future is to be saved, the slender thread of humanity that still connects black individuals to white individuals must be preserved.

That thread, however, spans the social, political and economic rift that divides black and white Americans, a rift that is slowly, but surely, closing due to African American advancement and miscengenation. By consistently denying her obvious familial connection to Janet, Olivia widens the rift between them. Olivia’s heartless neglect and shameful rejection forces her sister back to the black side despite Janet’s upwardly mobile lifestyle and mixed ancestry, which should give Janet the right to exist on the white side. On two occasions Olivia’s rejection of Janet results in some type of physical endangerment to Dodie. Dodie is born prematurely after Olivia encounters Janet on the street without acknowledging their relationship. Later, Dodie nearly falls to his death as Olivia turns away from the sight of Janet and her son adorned in all their middle-class splendor, refusing once again to recognize Janet’s right to share the rights and privileges she enjoys merely because she is labeled entirely white. By the end of the novel, Olivia separates herself from Janet so successfully that she can not bridge the chasm of difference to inspire the empathy and compassion needed to save her only child. While the riot initiated by his father indirectly causes Dodie’s possibly fatal illness and delays the medical attention that will facilitate his recovery, it is Janet’s inability to feel Olivia’s pain and desperation that truly threatens to end Dodie’s life.

At the opening of the novel, Olivia chances upon Janet and her son in the street and as a result experiences some kind of traumatic shock, which causes Dodie to be born prematurely. Jane’s recitation of the particulars of the incident reveals how the rigidity of the color line in the past and in the present jeopardizes the future. Olivia’s father breached the color line when he legally married Julia, had a child, Janet, with her and left Janet property in his will. Upon his death, Polly Ochiltree repaired the fractured border between white and black by ejecting Julia and Janet from the Merkell estate and usurping their property, name and social position. This history of the color line permeates the figures of Olivia and Janet as they meet just before Dodie’s birth; and Jane’s description of the encounter illustrates Janet’s violation of the color line and Olivia’s adverse emotional and physical reaction:

Dis yer Janet, w’at’s Mis’ ‘Livy’s half-sister, is ez much like her ez ef dey wuz twins. Folks sometimes takes ‘em fer one ernudder…An’ den ‘way back yander jes’ after de wah, w’en de ole Carteret mansion had ter be sol’, Adam Miller bought it, an’ dis yer Janet an’ her husban’ is be’n livin’ in it ever sence ole Adam died, ‘bout a year ago…An’ mo’over, an’ dat’s de wust of all, w’iles Mis’ ‘Livy ain’ had no child’en, be’fo’, dis yer sister er her’n is got a fine-lookin’ little yaller boy, w’at favors de fam’ly…she jes’ had a fit er hysterics right dere in de buggy (473). Jane’s narrative lists the concrete, physical evidence of the weakening of the social, political and economic gap maintained by the color line. The striking resemblance between Janet and Olivia proves that Olivia’s father begot a child with a black woman; the Miller’s ownership of property formerly belonging to the Carteret family illustrates an African American upward mobility that the color line specifically tries to prevent; and finally, Janet’s son’s resemblance to the Merkell family again confirms her father’s disregard for the traditional, social separation of the races. After years of denying any connection with Janet, Olivia comes face-to-face with irrefutable, physical evidence of this relationship. As Olivia’s mind attempts to counteract what her eyes tell it, as she tries to disown her blood sister, her body, as if in protest, rejects her own child. Dodie emerges from the ultimate warmth and safety of the womb into the cold, perilous world several weeks early. Olivia’s struggle to reinforce the color line, to push Janet back into the black side of the line, despite indisputable evidence that Janet does not belong there, results in the exposure of Dodie’s fragile, underdeveloped body to the dangers of the outside world before he is fully prepared to survive in it.

Olivia’s desire to redraw the color line and her insistence that Janet has not claim to Olivia’s side of it also lead to Dodie’s fall from the window. His fascination with the mockingbird that sings outside brings him in proximity to the open window:

The baby was listening intently to the music, meanwhile gurgling with delight, and reaching his chubby hands toward the source of this pleasing sound . It seemed as though the mockingbird were aware of his appreciative audience, for he ran through the songs of a dozen different birds, selecting with the discrimination of a connoisseur and entire confidence in his own powers, those which were most difficult and alluring (555). The feathers of mockingbirds vary from black to gray to white, and they imitate the songs of other birds. Dodie’s "delight" in this mockingbird which skillfully and boldly appropriates the songs of other birds implies that he gladly accepts this form of variety and imitation. As Dodie’s mockingbird sings in the trees, another "mockingbird" arrives below on the ground: "So absorbed were the three women in the baby and the bird that neither of them observed a neat top buggy, drawn by a sleek sorrel pony, passing slowly along the street before the house. In the buggy was seated a lady, and beside her a little boy, dressed in a child’s sailor suit and a straw hat" (555). The generic description of this passage, "the three women," "the baby and the bird", "a lady" and "a little boy" imply an absence of differentiation among the women, baby, lady and boy. Like the mockingbird’s feathers Janet exhibits the shading between black and white, and like the mockingbird’s imitation of other birds, Janet has accumulated the trappings of upper class white society, the "neat top buggy," "the sleek sorrel mare," "the sailor suit," and the "straw hat." Janet’s bold display of her possessions and her Merkell-featured son "mocks" Olivia’s attempts to maintain the separation between them, an ironic separation emphasized by the presence of Clara who just a few minutes before calls Olivia "Sister Olivia" (555). Clara, Major Carteret’s half sister, has no blood connection with Olivia, and in fact, is only as much a sister to Major Carteret as Janet is a sister to Olivia. Yet, Clara lives with Olivia and calls her "Sister" while Janet sits outside and "with a wistful expression…look[s] toward the party grouped at the window (555). Olivia, seeing Janet looking up at them, turns away "with a glance of cold aversion" (555). In turning her back on Janet, Olivia also turns her back on Dodie and he nearly falls from the window. This passage provides a tangible example of how, through rejecting Janet and enforcing the color line, Olivia endangers the life of her own child and, by association, the future.

Although the riot causes Dodie’s illness and delays his treatment, it is the hardening of Dr. and Mrs. Miller’s hearts that truly jeopardize Dodie; for, it is not hard to image that, had the Millers not been continuously and mercilessly rejected by the Carterets, they would have put aside their personal grief to help a dying child. When the novel first introduces Janet, she is described as having a "tender heart" and a "forgiving nature" and as a person with an "exhaustless fountain" of sympathy (531) who "could never bear malice" (521). In the following passage, Janet responds to Dodie’s first illness with tremendous compassion and empathy: " ‘O Will,’ she adjured her husband anxiously, when he told her of the engagement, ‘you must be very careful. Think of the child’s poor mother! Think of our own dear child, and what it would mean to lose him!’ " (522). At this point, even after years of nothing but contempt and rejection from Olivia, she can still empathize and connect with Olivia as a mother. How different this reaction is to the one depicted at the end of the novel when Olivia begs Janet to allow Dr. Miller to save Dodie. Janet’s sentiments begin to change after Dodie’s fall from the window: "Meantime Janet, stung by Mrs. Carteret’s look,—the nearest approach she had ever made to a recognition of her sister’s existence,--had turned away with a hardening face. She had struck her pony sharply with the whip, much to the gentle creature’s surprise…" (556). This passage implies a cause and effect relationship between Olivia’s heartless disregard and Janet’s "hardening face," suggesting that Janet’s future inability to sympathize with Olivia spawns from these incidences of rejection. The little pony’s "surprise" at Janet’s harsh actions illustrates a change in behavior from the "gentle" treatment to which the pony is accustomed to the "sharp," unsympathetic behavior engendered by Olivia’s "cold aversion" (555). Finally, at the conclusion of the novel, Janet’s heart, frozen by Olivia’s coldness and shattered by the death of her son, can no longer feel for anyone but herself. " ‘If you have a human heart’, " pleads Olivia, " ‘tell your husband to come with me.’ " (745). Janet’s reply demonstrates how her heart has been decimated by years of indifference and by the last few moments of pain: " ‘I have a human heart, and therefore I will not let him go.’ " (745). The "human heart" can only take so much abuse until it dies; Janet’s "human heart" has been petrified by Olivia’s persistence in preserving the false division between them and crushed by the sorrow of her son’s death, which is brought about by a riot organized to maintain the color line. The thread of humanity that linked Janet and Olivia together as sisters, mothers and humans is continually stretched by the chasm of racial difference that separates them, a gap incessantly and mercilessly expanded by Olivia’s endless emotional neglect. The strength of that connecting thread, already sorely tested by years of rejection and derision, frays to the breaking point under the weight of the Miller boy’s death. The strands of common humanity begin to snap as the Millers’ grief pulls the unifying thread past its capacity to stretch until, finally, the Millers and the Carterets are connected only by a single strand that connects the core of one human heart to another. While the strength of this heart-string is hardly infinite, it can endure if the gap that separates the races is narrowed thereby relieving the tension that threatens to snap it. A question remains as to the condition of Janet’s heart by the end of the novel. The degree of connection between two hearts makes no difference if one heart is dead, and the death of her child pushes Janet’s heart nearly past its breaking point.

While the vulnerability of the human heart jeopardizes Dodie, the figure of the future, that same human-ness of the heart —the humanity of the heart—will inspire the possibility of salvation. The greatest weakness of the human heart is also its greatest strength. Janet’s decision to send her husband with Olivia to save Dodie illustrates the power of the heart over the mind. Her heart’s ability to combat the logic of justice, the rational idea that evil on one side must balance evil on the other, may potentially save Dodie’s life, thereby clearing the way for a promising future. The male sense of rational justice depicted at the conclusion of this novel guarantees Dodie’s death and fulfills Jane’s prediction of Dodie’s ultimate "judicial strangulation." Fortunately, on the final page of this novel, the feeling female heart conquers the logical male mind , and redemption in the future becomes possible. Janet’s last words to Olivia testify to the way in which the regenerative capacity of the heart can save the future from a past filled with hatred and injustice: " ‘But that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her, you may have your child’s life, if my husband can save it!’ " (474). Janet’s ability to sift through the wreckage of her devastated heart to find the one ounce of human flesh remaining is engendered by Olivia’s willingness to humble herself and to disregard the color line and call Janet "sister" (745). If Olivia had not rushed to the Millers’ door and thrown herself down at their feet, the possibility of Dodie’s survival would not exist. Abandoning the pride of her race, Olivia prostrates herself like "a trembling supplicant" before Janet, the "avenging goddess" (744). The possibility of a future for Dodie depends upon humanity on both sides. One side must find the humanity to resist the temptations of "strict justice" (740), the vengeance of the gods, and the other side must cast aside its pride and superiority, discovering a different sense of humanity, a human-ness, the puny, earthly, humanity of the "trembling supplicant." This convergence where the two sides of the color line meet is the place where salvation for the future lies. Should the white race continue to enforce the boundaries that separate them from the black race, ever widening the distance between them, this meeting of the heart may never take place; and the greater the distance becomes, the less likely it becomes that it ever will.

This page is the work of Carey Ann Kotake.

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