The Feminine Mystique

The heroines in most of Charles Chesnutt’s stories and Frances Harper’s Iola Leroy share many of the same characteristics: their beauty makes men look twice; they are often so pale skinned that they can pass for white if they choose; they are cultured and educated, and smart enough to know that the very characteristics that distinguish them from other women in their social and racial brackets can also prove to be their undoing. Despite these similarities, the ways in which these women, specifically, Rena Walden and Iola Leroy, deal with their strengths is completely different, and representative of the way that the authors of their tales see black women in general.

The differences in the authors’ perceptions towards women is most emphatically marked in the way that both stories end. Chesnutt seems to feel that women are more prone to tragedy than men; and ultimately fall victim to it, as Rena does in "House Behind the Cedars, " when she collapses and dies from the emotional strain that her "secret" places on her. Whereas the namesake of Harper’s story turns the tragedy of her life: being sold into slavery after her father dies, into a positive experience, as she accepts the limitations of her race, finds a place for herself, and ultimately becomes a spokesperson for racial discrimination and injustice. Even though Iola keeps her "one drop" blood a secret from Dr. Gresham, a persistent white admirer, she does it in a way to protect herself from losing her identity. Chesnutt’s Rena forsakes her blood in order to pursue the "golden vision that lay beyond," for she "had never been out of the town or its vicinity," (House Behind the Cedars, 25) but in the process she loses herself completely, and she never forgives herself for it. To Chesnutt she is nothing short of the "tragic hero(ine)" on whom all the sins of the father visit. Only Rena suffers from the consequences of her skin color and her attempts to "pass, " while her brother John remains untouched by tragedy throughout, as though he is somehow removed from the sins of the same father. "Since leaving the house behind the cedars, where she had been brought into the world without her own knowledge or consent, and had first drawn the breath of life by the involuntary contraction of certain muscles, Rena had learned, in a short time, many things; but she was yet to learn that the innocent suffer with the guilty, and feel the punishment the more keenly because unmerited. She had yet to learn that the old Mosaic formula, "The sins of the fathers shall be visited upon the children," was graven more indelibly upon the heart of the race than upon the tables of Sinai." (House Behind the Cedars, 50.) Rena’s tragic flaw wasn’t just being a woman, but being a black woman, and Chesnutt alludes to this "double whammy" throughout the novel. But Chesnutt also seems to be iterating a refrain that is common in all of his fiction works, and antithetical to Harper: that the injustice of racism is felt more keenly by those who don’t deserve it.

This sense of injustice is all but invisible in "Iola Leroy." There is a near unsettling sense of karmic justice that sweeps this story; Iola finds her brother, Harry, and marries the man she loves, with whom she doesn’t have to give up her racial identity; Robert finds his mother; and even the minor characters get their just rewards on their deathbeds: When Gracie dies, her death, and its presentiment of heaven, is described as a reward for all the hard work she has endured during her life: "When Mammy had lowered the pillow, an unwonted radiance lit up her eye, and an expression of ineffable gladness overspread her face, as she murmured: "It is beautiful, so beautiful!" Fainter and fainter grew her voice, until, without a struggle or sigh, she passed away beyond the power of oppression and prejudice." (Three Classic African-American Novels, 315.) All her years of struggle and hard labor are finally rewarded in the afterlife, the author seems to be saying here. The idea of "passing" is also treated differently than in Chesnutt’s story; in Iola Leroy, the black characters choose not to pass, and it is considered a noble act, and consequently, its people do not suffer, but instead are rewarded. "Says Robert to Iola’s brother Harry: " I think it would be treason, not only to the race, but to humanity, to have you ignoring your kindred and masquerading as a white man (Three Classic African-American Novels, 393.)

Whereas the men and women of Harper’s story fared equally well, in that race wasn’t a barrier as much as poor education was, in Chesnutt’s story, education, culture and beauty were no match for the injustice of racism. At least, not as far as women were concerned. Chesnutt’s tale hints of sexism, in that the men, primarily John Walden, passed with no consequences. In this way Chesnutt was perhaps alluding to the fact that men, by nature of their gender , will be triumphant; that although "tainted" skin color can be a primary barrier to a dignified life, that men’s natural tendencies towards power can ultimately overrule the handicaps that tend to cripple most women.

Despite the outcomes, the authors at least painted portraits of women who tried to take control of their lives and make a difference. Given the fact that both of these tales were written at the turn of the century, at a time when black men were struggling to find a voice, just the fact that these women were given voice to at all was a positive thing.

The following books were used in the preparation of this essay:

Charles W. Chesnutt’s "House Behind the Cedars"

Henry Louis Gates, Jr’s Three Classic American Novels

This page is the work of Cheryl Miller

Read more about Chesnutt and his contemporaries

Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page

About the Chesnutt Literary Web