Theresa Smiles


Consequences of a Secret


    Having a secret is a heavy burden to bear. It carries with it deception and guilt for the bearer. Rena Warwick, the main character in Chesnuttís The House Behind the Cedars has a secret that changed her life. She is a weak character who is lead around in her decisions. Her brother comes and convinces her to start a new life as a white woman. She lives with the secret of crossing over into a white life. She wishes to confess her past and her brother convinces her otherwise. Rena canít keep to her convictions, other people control her life and she pays the price of indecision with her life.

    John Warwick left his mulatto life behind and started over as a white man. He became a lawyer and a well-known man in North Carolina. He crossed the color line without a second thought. He returned after several years like a robber in the night to collect his sister. John and his mother decided that crossing over was the best thing for Rena; "The life her son had described had been to her always the ideal but unattainable life. It had been conquered by her son. It beckoned to her daughter" (18-19). Rena was going off to start a new life as a white woman. She was going to leave her mother and her life in Patesville behind. But little did she know advancement in the case of passing has its consequences and everyone must pay the price.

    Warwick crossed the color line and didnít look back. He Ďrescuesí Rena from her life as a mulatto woman in a small town and gives her a new life as an up and coming white aristocrat. Rena is received favorably into her new world and is courted by George Tryon. Tyron loves Rena as the white woman that he knows, the only Rena that he knows. Rena feels the guilt of leaving her mother behind alone, but her anguish increases as she thinks of keeping her secret from the man she loves. Following Tryonís request for a wedding date, Rena thinks of revealing her secret to Tryon. This is the first time that Rena takes into consideration the results of crossing the color line and the effect it has on her relationship. Is the guilt that is burdening her from crossing into the white world and denying her identity, or is it the thought of being married into a lie.

    Rena feels she must be completely honest with the man she is going to marry, but her brother convinces her otherwise. "What a poor soul it is that has not some secret chamber, sacred to itself. ... We are under no moral obligation to inflict upon others the history of our past mistakes, our wayward thoughts, our secret sins... Still less are we bound to bring out from this secret chamber the dusty record of our ancestry" (54). Warwick convinces Rena that her dwelling about their passing is just a "wayward thought" that should be left alone. Everyone has their secrets and some are better left alone. Their past belongs to them and Tryon has no right to know about things that donít concern him. Rena needs to clear her mind and enter into marriage in honesty. If she canít be honest with herself, how can she be honest to Tryon.

    Warwick knows that his secret is only hidden if Rena keeps quiet so he must convince her to remain silent. Just like he got her to leave her life, he will get her to forget her past life. "With his sister the question had evidently become a matter of conscience,- a difficult subject with which to deal in a person of Renaís temperament"(55). He needs to find a way to convince her to keep silent. She has a persuasive temperament filled with guilt. John just needs to find an outlet that will convince her silence.
    He will persuade her in a way stronger than any moral value of honestly that she could have. "You love him, I imagine, and wish to make him happy?" (55). Warwick convinces Rena that revealing her secret to Tryon would make him unhappy. The last thing a woman wants to do is upset the man she loves. Pleasing a man is more important than honesty. Renaís conscience is free of guilt if she thinks that she is keeping George happy in his ignorance of the family secret. "Would you not be willing, for his sake, to keep a secret- your secret and mine, and that of the innocent child in your arms? Would you involve all of us in difficulties merely to secure your own peace of mind? Doesnít such a course seem just the last bit selfish?" (56). Renaís decision to tell Tryon is changed after Warwick speaks to her. He appeals to Rena as a woman, not a black or white woman, but a woman. Her devotion is to the man she loves over her own conscience. She canít stick to her convictions, her brother is the keeper of her decisions once again.

    Chesnutt wrote many stories about crossing the color line. This story tells of the consequences that a young woman faces as a result of crossing the color line to better her life. She achieves position in her new life, but her world crashes when her secret is discovered. Rena was taken in the night by her brotherís persuasion into a life of deception. She is a weak woman who lets her brother manipulate her decisions. She is living in secret and compromises her morals to keep the man she loves happy. She is devoted to the men in her life, her brother and her lover. Denying her identity and crossing the color line gains nothing for Rena, but a web of deception that leads to her destruction.

This page is the work of Theresa Smiles

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