Issues of mixed race and the concept of passing, that is a person of black, white, and other heritage assuming the role of a white person, is a recurring theme throughout Chesnutt=s larger works of fiction. In his novel The House behind the Cedars, Chesnutt presents Rena Walden, a woman who, through the persuasion of her brother, is made to feel that the only opportunity she has for a good life is to pass as a white person in the post Civil War South. A good life being one characterized by the privilege and affluence of the white upper class. As a point of comparison, however, Frances Harper, one of Chesnutt=s contemporaries, postulates an alternative view of passing in the novel Iola Leroy, set before, during, and after the Civil War. We are delving into the world of a character that passed for white during her entire childhood and adolescence and that delineation of the color line was the difference between freedom and slavery. The difference between these two women lies in their resiliency and priority of familial ties. Iola is able to utilize her life as a teaching mechanism and celebration of her mixed race in the recognition and love she shows for her family. Rena, however, is not able to fully recover from the discovery of her secret, and in that concealment she was living a lie that compromised herself and her mother, the only real family she knew. The reader is left feeling uplifted in one novel and disturbed in the other.
We must first consider each novel=s overarching views regarding the very concept of passing. In The House behind the Cedars, Chesnutt utilizes the character of John Warwick, Rena=s brother, to convey the golden opportunities that would be afforded to Rena if she were to conduct herself as a white woman. AIt=s a pity that she couldn=t have a chance hereCbut how could she? As long as she has never known any better, she=ll probably be as well satisfied as through she married a rich man, and lived in a fine house, and kept a carriage and servants, and moved with the best of the land. (Chesnutt, 18) John=s words pull on the heartstrings of Molly Walden, John and Rena=s mother. His description is one of an ideal life, and Mrs. Walden wants only the best for her daughter. John places value on material possessions not available to Rena and Molly before he mentioned them. After listening to her brother for one evening, Rena describes her future as Athe golden vision that lay beyond. (Chesnutt, 25) An emotional chord is struck with both Molly and Rena as John posits this lifestyle, one of infiltrating the white world, as the only way to be happy in this life. This brand of thinking, however, makes Rena entirely dependent upon her brother as her sole means of support and finds her ill equipped to deal with the consequences should her actions backfire.
Upon meeting Iola Leroy the reader is exposed to the very antithesis of Rena Walden and an entirely different perspective on the concept of passing. This character is not even aware of her mixed racial heritage until the tragic event of her father=s death and the subsequent invalidation of his marriage to her mother; these events culminate in Iola being sold into slavery. There is even some partial sympathy expressed on the part of the men luring her home, ATo tell you the truth, Bastine, I feel sorry for this girl. I do not believe she has the least idea of her negro blood. No, Leroy has been careful to conceal it from her. (Harper, 308) The author offers her own sympathy, APoor Iola! When she said slavery was not a bad thing, little did she think that she was destined to drink to its bitter dregs the cup she was so ready to press to the lips of others. (Harper, 309) Therefore, Iola becomes acutely aware that she has been living a lie as a planter's daughter in the privileged white world. She must rethink everything that she has known and valued because her entire world has been thrown into upheaval. Upon being freed from the injustices of slavery, Iola has to start an entirely new life for herself, with the added information that she has so-called black blood flowing through her veins. Both Rena and Iola are discovered and punished for passing as white, but there are different implications for each woman in keeping with the time period. Rena is rejected by the man she loves, and now she must work for a living. Iola, however, is sold as a piece of property. Rena chose to abandon her mother; Iola was forcibly separated from all those she loved.
An integral point in the comparison of these two novels is each character=s actions and thoughts regarding the importance of family and maintaining close familial bonds. In The House behind the Cedars, Rena must leave her mother in the hopes of starting a new life as a white woman. Her brother John attempts to console his mother by reassuring her that it is all for their happiness. You=ll have your home, mother, said Warwick tenderly, accepting the implied surrender. You=ll have your friends and relatives, and the knowledge that your children are happy. But you must let her go, mother, -it would be a sin against her to refuse. (Chesnutt, 19) In Chesnutt's writing, the family must be disconnected in order for the light-skinned black person to successfully pass into the white world; knowledge of one's history, background, and hometown would inextricably link that person to the black life. Although Rena loves her mother very much, she is able to sacrifice that bond for the fine life her brother has made available to her. John is telling Mrs. Walden that her children will be happy, but that happiness is only possible if Molly Walden is left by herself. Rena's mother and the house behind the cedars in her hometown of Patesville symbolize her old life that was simple and true. Her new life, however, one of white privilege, wealth, and high society, comes at the expense of her conscience, peace of mind, and familial bond with her mother.
In this manner of comparison, Harper's depiction of Iola Leroy can be read as a direct reply to Chesnutt's characterization of Rena Walden. The white Dr. Gresham makes the same opportunity of white privilege available to Iola in the form of a marriage proposal, and she has the following reply for him, When the war is over I intend to search for my mother. Doctor, were you to give me a palace-like home, with velvet carpets to hush my tread, and magnificence to surround my way, I should miss her voice amid all other tones, her presence amid every scene. (Harper, 323) Cohesion of the family unit is more important to Iola than achieving the previously unattainable dream of wealth and opportunity. She is not interested in the material possessions and notoriety that draws Rena to a life not really hers. In addition, the reader must keep in mind that Iola lost contact with her mother due to the outbreak of the Civil War; Rena consciously left her mother for what she thought as the only opportunity to attain the ideal life. We must also remember that the weight of Rena's secret hinders her from ever becoming truly happy; she is constantly worrisome over anyone finding out the truth. In Iola's case, however, it is the very acceptance of her heritage and the denunciation of passing that allows her to live a truthful, fulfilling life after the close of the Civil War.
At the conclusion of these novels, the reader experiences conflicting emotions of disturbance and joy at the life paths chosen by the respective female protagonists. Never able to fully recover from the divulging of her secret, Rena Walden dies in a most tragically, disturbing way on the run from two men in the woods. The exposure for several hours in her wet clothing to the damps and miasma of the swamp had brought on an attack of brain fever. (Chesnutt, 183) Rena was able to experience the white privilege if only for a moment, but when that life was wrested from her she is unable to recover her full psychological well being. She had nowhere to turn and no one to protect her from her fate; the reader is left feeling distressed and confused as to why Chesnutt had to end Rena's life in this way. Perhaps the only way to understand his ending is within the context of the novel as Rena was the subject of three men's desire, but only one had her heart in mind. The man that did love her was cast away because his skin was darker than hers was. When it came down to it, Rena had no one to share her sorrow with, not her mother, her brother, or any of her prospective suitors. Rena suffered alone as a result of the inner turmoil she endured, and the lie that she propagated. In contrast, however, upon discovery of the Warwick's passing, John's life remains unaffected. The family bond remains severed because John will not compromise his own deception of passing at the possibility of losing his place in society. Rena possessed neither John's lack of conscience nor the resiliency needed to reclaim some place in her social world. She is seemingly a white woman in a black woman's social station; therefore her psychological and physical states are thrown into upheaval leading to her demise.
Juxtaposed to Rena's tragedy, is Iola Leroy=s victory. Frances Harper ends her novel with Iola's marriage to a man also of mixed race, But as the waves leap up to the strand, so her soul went out to Dr. Latimer. Between their lives were no impeding barriers, no inclination impelling one way and duty compelling another. (Harper, 453) This chapter of Iola=s life is concluded through happiness wrought with lofty purposes; she is living a humble and true life with a man that can relate to her struggles and background. All this is so nice, but the reader cannot help but wonder if this is Harper's way of condemning passing in favor of the respect and loyalty to the black race. We could say that Rena was serving her race and being loyal to those she taught; in her story, however, the exposure to that unattainable white life tainted her soul and rendered her unable to be truly happy with her station. It seems that the underlying message is that passing as something you are not can only bring tragic consequences, that is if you are a woman.
This page is the work of Michelle Salvaggio.
Read more about Chesnutt and his contemporaries.
Return to Chesnutt Literary Web Home Page
About the Chesnutt