The Role of Fate in The House Behind the Cedars

Tiffany Akin

Dr. Menson-Furr

Engl 8328

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.

 

 

 

W.E.B. Du Bois The Souls of Black Folk

Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk

Is the book a coherent whole or a set of disparate essays? Explain.

After examining the themes of each individual chapter of The Souls of Black Folk I feel that instead of the text hanging together as one entire body, it more reflects different viewing points on one particular topic. Obviously, the progress of the African American was the one unifying topic that ran throughout the finished book.   I understand that Mr. Du Bois wrote all of these pieces as essays and was later asked if he would allow his essays to be collected into a book.  I can easily see the differences of mindset between the chapters.

In chapter one Du Bois asks how the race should progress and in what directions now that they have been emancipated?  In chapter two the aim is to understand and criticize the freedman’s bureaus and other emancipation agencies that were formed during that time.  In the same way, Du Bois examines and criticizes Booker T. Washington’s views in chapter three.  Chapter four completely switches gears by discussing the meaning of African American progress.  Skipping ahead to chapter seven, Du Bois writes from a unique amalgam of cartographer and sociologist while discussing the various Cotton Kingdoms in Georgia. Chapter twelve examines a true human character in Alexander Crummel while in the very next chapter Du Bois creates two fictitious peripatetic young men both named John who are forever changed by their color and education.  I would venture to say, and this is only a guess, that the forethought and afterthought, along with the chapter-opening sorrow-songs, were added as a coalescing element to the final form of the book.

Let us look for some type of grouping of these chapter topics.  What we find is some observations, ideas and guidance in the form of chapters 1, 4 and 9.  There are geographical studies in chapters 5 and 7.  There are examinations of those living in chapters 3 and 12.  Du Bois  gives a directive in chapter 6.  There are informative chapters in 8, 10 and 14.  In my opinion the chapters that most fall from form are 11 and 13.  Chapter eleven takes us to an extremely personal space with Du Bois.  In this chapter we witness the birth and death of his child.  The only consolation Du Bois offers is that he feels death for his child would be preferable to his life behind the Veil.  “Better for this nameless void that stops my life than a sea of sorrow for you” (742).  Of the many difficult things Du Bois describes in vivid detail in his novel, “Of the Passing of the Firstborn,” in my opinion, is the most heart-wrenching.

The chapter that seems to fit the least, or makes its most awkward debut in the novel, is chapter 13, “The Coming of John.”  This, one supposes, is a fictional story of two young men, one black one white, both carrying the name of John.  Both go off to school, and upon returning home their lives are changed forever.  White John ends up raping black John’s sister, black John avenges his sister’s honor, killing White John, and in the end John Jones is hung for the murder.  Not only does the chapter stand out as a fictional piece, which does not play the role in any other parts of the novel, it is also a somewhat odd mixture of intellect and pathos that makes no one happy in the end (not that this is the goal).

 

Question two: discuss philosophical differences between Du Bois and Washington

I find the philosophical differences between W.E.B. Du Bois and Booker T. Washington interesting because these two vantage points give the reader a window into the multi-faceted struggle of the emancipated black race.  Du Bois devotes Chapter Three in The Souls of Black Folk to discussing Washington’s “…programme of industrial education, conciliation of the South, and submission and silence as to civil and political rights…” (699).  As one can easily tell from the variety and depth of Du Bois’ writing, the man was highly educated and won a scholarship to Yale as well as a Ph.D. from the University of Berlin.  Perhaps because he well understood the intellectual levels that could be attained by an African American, he seemed to sneer at Washington because he felt Booker T. had allowed commercialism to kill his fire for higher education.  Further, Du Bois feels that Washington’s “…educational programme was unnecessarily narrow” (700).  Du Bois chafed against the idea that the freedmen should study mostly industrial arts and concentrate on the accumulation of wealth; he felt everyone should be able to acquire the type of education that would take a student as far as their abilities and desires would take him.  Du Bois solidly believed in college and university-level aspirations that were within the grasp of the new aged black man and he disagreed with anyone steering them away from such untapped possibility.

Du Bois also did not find value in Washington’s philosophy of submission to the white race.  In one way, Du Bois felt that this submission “overlooked certain elements of true manhood” (700).  Du Bois also felt that the idea of allowing the white man to believe he was still running the show was an outdated way of handling this new found freedom in America.  Not only that, by working within the former paradigm of one race being submissive to the other, Washington was by default admitting that his own race was inferior.  Naturally, if one believes they are equal to another they will not stand for any form of degradation or prejudice.  Du Bois resides on the other side of the coin by believing that a man who demands respect will earn respect.  This point is very poignant for Du Bois as he says that Booker T. Washington is to be especially criticized for his leniency on the white race.  “His doctrine has tended to make the whites, North and South, shift the burden of the Negro problem to the Negro’s shoulders…” (707) while white America stands back and analyze the scene from afar.  Du Bois did not condone violence but felt the black race must insist on the “rights which the world accords to men… (708).

 

WORK CITED

 

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk.  The Norton Anthology of African American       Literature. Henry Gates, Jr. ed. New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 2004.