27 Jan. 2010
Charles Chesnutt performs extraordinary feats within the story structure in The House Behind the Cedars: he creates deep and complicated characters, he grapples with social issues of race and prejudice, and he builds suspense throughout the story that propels the reader on to the next page. One of the most interesting ideas that Chesnutt uses to create interest and drama within the story is the idea of Fate. During the early part of the story the idea of Fate is more faint and abstract, but as the story deepens Chesnutt begins to use the word “Fate” at certain key moments in the story, leaving no doubt that Fate plays as strong a role as any human character in the story. Due to the brevity of this format, we will only examine a few ways in which Fate twisted the love affair between George Tryon and Rena Walden in The House Behind the Cedars.
The relationship between Rena and George is the centerpiece of Chesnutt’s story. The hand of Fate directs their relationship as early as their first encounter. During the chapter entitled “The Tournament” the crowd is gathered to watch chivalrous men on horseback perform a series of skills of accuracy. The crowd is going wild and the women are waving their handkerchiefs. As Fate would have it, Rena’s handkerchief escapes her grip and it flies up into the air. George spots the flying cloth and scoops it up with his lance before it even touches the ground. The rider then returns the handkerchief to Rena which, unknowingly for the couple, binds the two of them together for life. If George had not spotted the errant cloth or some other young man had made the same gesture, things would have evolved differently in both of their lives.
A second twist of Fate occurs at the end of the chapter entitled “Doubts and Fears.” Rena has been discussing “coming out” with her brother and they decide to surreptitiously test the waters with Tryon by asking sideways questions regarding what he may feel about the black race. Rena and Tryon are discussing marriage when she points at her nephew’s black nurse and asks, “Would you love me if I were Albert’s nurse yonder?” Although Rena is referring to the color of the nurse, George receives the question in a totally different light; his answer in the positive refers to the nurse’s job, not her color. While George feels it would be perfectly fine to marry a nurse and take her away from such drudgery, Rena thinks his affirmative answer means “it would make no difference with him…” (326). This misunderstanding, or twist of Fate, prompts Rena to answer “yes” to George’s proposal and the next set of circumstances is set into motion.
A precursor to one of the most devastating twists of Fate occurs when Rena begins to have dreams that her dear mother is ill. Rena has been preparing for her wedding to George, but at the same time she has a series of dreams in which her mother becomes more and more sick. Due to these fateful dreams, Rena leaves on the eve of her wedding, headed to Patesville to nurse her mother back to health. If she had not gone Molly may have died, yet Rena’s secret would have been safe… even more secure than when Molly was alive. Later in the story Chesnutt refers back to the dreams: “If she had not been sick, Rena would not have dreamed the fateful dream that had brought her to Patesville…” (398).
The most excruciating twist of Fate occurs when both George and Rena are in Patesville at the same time. Both Judge Straight and Rena’s old friend Frank understand the relevance of having the two lovers running amok in the small town at the same time. As the two men are busy trying to find and reign in Rena, she is fatefully running around town performing errands for her mother. They cannot find her soon enough to save her. Dr. Green and George are together in the doctor’s cart. As the doctor hops down to perform some task he tells George that if he wants to see a good looking woman he should look inside the drugstore. George does not even care that much but, just to pass the time, he takes a look. The scene painted by Chesnutt when Rena steps out of the store is crushingly heartbreaking. “She stood a moment as if turned to stone” (360). If the hands of Fate had placed that young woman anywhere else that day she may have gotten away with marrying George and living happily ever after. Yet would a life of hiding her heritage been carefree? Perhaps that is to debate in another paper.