The novel opens on a “hot and sultry” night in the sickroom of Mrs. Olivia Carteret. Dr. Price, who is looking over Mrs. Carteret, gives her hand to Major Carteret, her husband, and tells him to look after her while he goes down to the library for a rest. Major Carteret is as much oppressed by his memories as by the heat. He remembers how, after returning from Appomattox as a boy, he found his family destitute and in ruin. Only after he married Mrs. Carteret and used some of her family fortune to buy the Morning Chronicle, the “most influential paper in the State,” did he find success in life. The only cloud that had marred his life with Olivia had been her inability to have children. Now, she lays in her room, ready to give birth to her first child but in danger for her life because of a “nervous shock” that is causing her to give birth to the child prematurely.
In the library, the doctor sits and talks to Mammy Jane. Jane begins to tell him the story of Olivia’s family. Jane had been the mistress to Olivia’s mother and Olivia’s nurse as a child. When her mother passed away when Olivia was only six, her aunt, Mrs. Polly Ochiltree, came to look after Olivia. Mrs. Ochiltree went to Olivia’s father and demanded that she be made the maid of the household and that they fire the current maid, Julia. Sensing her power play, Olivia’s father told her this would not happen. Mrs. Ochiltree left and an arrangement was made for her to raise Olivia. Julia, the maid, stayed and two years later gave birth to a child by Olivia’s father. While this was a scandalous relationship, the doctor thinks of how such things “had been all too common in the old slavery days, and not a few of them had been projected into the new era.” Olivia’s father soon died as well, but did not leave a will. This meant that Mrs. Polly kicked Julia and her child out of the house. Julia’s daughter (Olivia’s half-sister), Janet, grew up and married an African-American doctor. They opened a school together in the town and now live in the old Carteret house, the same house that the Major’s family had lived in before they became poor. It was seeing Janet and her young child that had sent Olivia into hysterics. Major Carteret calls for Dr. Price and Jane from the stairs and they go up. After two hours of hard labor, a baby boy is born. Jane’s only concern over the child is that he has a small mole under its left ear, which she believes to be a sign of bad luck.
The baby is named Theodore Felix, and the family decides to call him “Dodie.” Six weeks after the birth, the family gathers for the christening. After the service, they all attend a christening party of the Carteret’s house. Only a few people attend since Mrs. Carteret’s health is still weak: the rector of St. Andrew’s, Mrs. Polly Ochiltree, Mr. Delamere and his grandson Tom, Lee Ellis, editor at the Morning Chronicle, and the Major’s half-sister, Clara Pemberton. When old Mr. Delamere arrives shortly after seven in the evening, Mrs. Ochiltree asks to use his servant, Sandy, to serve dinner. Sandy agrees and leaves to change clothes. Soon, Tom Delamere arrives. He is a slender young man, “dark almost to swarthiness...easily the handsomest young man in Wellington,” though his beauty is more “feline than feminine, which subtly negatived the idea of manliness.”
Clara Pemberton comes down and immediately catches the eyes of Ellis and Tom Delamere. She is a beautiful young woman, and Ellis is secretly in love with her and furiously jealous of Tom, who it is understood will marry Clara. When they sit down for dinner, Mrs. Polly sums up the two young men by playfully telling Tom he is not as good as he looks and that Ellis has more character than his looks would give him credit for. Mammy Jane brings down young Dodie, and the table passes him around until he cries. Clara and Tom remind Polly of how she used to give them coins from her old pine chest in her room. Mrs. Carteret remarks that the chest is like “the widow’s cruse...which was never empty,” and Mr. Delamere adds that it is like “Fortunatus’s purse, which was always full.” Major Carteret and Mr. Delamere begin a discussion on whether it is prudent to mention that there is money in the house where servants can here. Mr. Delamere defends his servant, Sandy, as a faithful man. The Major admits that “the negro is capable of a certain doglike fidelity” but that “not all negroes are as honest as Sandy, and an elderly lady might not prove a match for a burly black burglar.” Mrs. Polly ends the conversation by saying that any burglar would have to go up against the pistol she keeps in the chest.
The narrative goes back to a few days after the baby’s birth. Major Carteret returns to work where the office throws a big celebration for him. All of the employees of the office come to congratulate him and smoke a cigar. Jerry, Mammy Jane’s grandson who works at the paper, comes as well, and he is pleased with the Major nods at him and hands him a cigar, though he won’t shake his hand. After the celebration, the Major returns to his desk where he starts to write an editorial on the state of politics. Things are not going well for the Democratic Party. Only recently, the “Fusion” party, a combination of Republicans and Populists, had taken control of the state. African Americans had filled a number of elected seats. The Major’s editorial is on the “unfitness of the negro to participate in government...due to his limited education, his lack of experience, his criminal tendencies, and more especially to his hopeless mental and physical inferiority to the white race.”
Jerry comes in and announces to visitors, General Belmont and Captain McBane. The General is “a dapper little gentleman” with blue eyes and a Vandyke beard and Carteret cordially shakes his hand. The General comes from good ancestry, was an important part of Democratic politics, and had owned slaves. The Captain is “burly” with an unbrushed coat and a diamond-studded shirt with tobacco stains on it. He had made a fortune by holding a contract with the state for providing convict labor. Major Carteret greets the Captain with a “perceptible diminution of the warmth with which he had welcomed the other.” The men begin to talk about several instances of “negro domination”: a black justice of the peace called a white man before his bench, a group of black girls forced a group of white girls off the sidewalk, and a white and black convict crossed the city chained together in the charge of a black officer. The men declare, “Something must be done, and that quickly!”
Major Carteret sees a chance for something to be done, and the men begin to talk seriously of a solution to this problem. Jerry overhears some of this conversation, but cannot follow it all, partly because he cannot hear it all and “partly because of certain limitation which nature had placed in the way of Jerry’s understanding anything very difficult or abstruse.” The men call Jerry into the office and both the Captain and the General give him money to go buy shots of liquor. When Jerry returns with the drinks (only the General lets him keep the change), all three men share a toast to “White supremacy everywhere” and “no nigger domination!” Overhearing this part, Jerry cannot understand why they would make a toast to “no nigger damnation.” He vows to keep his eyes and ears open because he knows something is happening. He says to himself, “Ef dere’s gwine ter be anudder flood ‘roun’ here, I wants ter git in de ark wid de w’ite folks, -- I may haf ter be anudder Ham, an’ sta’t de cullud race all over ag’in.”
Mammy Jane is ebullient over Dodie Carterets health and growth in six months. According to Mammy Jane, he “weigh ‘bout twenty-fo’ poun’s....” Her praise of the child greatly encourages Mrs. Carteret. However, Mammy Jane is being forced to leave the household because of her inflamed arthritis. The Carteret’s have hired a new, young nursemaid. Mammy Jane does not trust this new maid. She tries to give the new nursemaid a stern talking-to, but the maid ignores her. This young woman is in the “chip-on-the-shoulder stage, through which races as well as individuals must pass in climbing the ladder of life.” In an aside, the narrator tells the reader that this young woman is worth mentioning in the story because of this stage of Southern life, “which, with its as yet imperfect blending of old with new, of race with race, of slavery with freedom, is like no other life under the sun.”
Major Carteret enters and he and Mammy Jane lament of the “old times.” They both agree, “The young negroes are too self-assertive. Education is spoiling them...They are not content with their station in life...The white people are patient, but there is a limit to their endurance.” Mammy Jane tells the Major that she teaches humility and obedience to these younger generations. They do not listen to her, however. When she sees that little Dodie is coughing, Mammy Jane takes the baby from the Major. Something is wrong, however, and they discover that the baby has swallowed a small piece of his rattle. Dr. Price is called for. His diagnosis is that the piece of rattle has lodged itself in the child’s trachea and that surgery is needed. The family calls a specialist in Philadelphia to assist. Mammy Jane reburies the vial of water in the front yard and makes symbols of the cross over it. She hopes that this will protect the child, but she is worried because of the mole behind the child’s ear. It is a symbol of bad luck.
Dr. Burns takes his place in his train car in Philadelphia and begins to read his newspaper on the journey south to Wellington. A man approaches him and begins to speak. Dr. Burns recognizes his as Dr. Miller, a former student who started a medical school and hospital in Wellington. The narrator notes that an American traveler would note that the first man is “white and the second black, or, more correctly speaking, brown...a ‘visible admixture’ of African blood.” They discuss their lives and Dr. Burns invites Dr. Miller to assist him on the surgery that he will perform in Wellington.
Dr. Miller’s father had been a slave who had bought his own freedom and began making money loading and unloading ships in the port of Wellington. He had sent his son to Europe to study medicine and, upon returning, Dr. Miller founded a school to train African American nurses and doctors. Although he had been tempted to leave the South for a less oppressive locale, “his people had needed him, and he had wished to help them.”
The conductor of the train comes through and curiously asks if Dr. Miller is traveling with Dr. Burns. Dr. Burns assures the conductor that he is. The conductor moves to the front of the train car where he begins to talking to a man that Dr. Miller recognizes as Captain McBane. Dr. Miller knows what is coming. The conductor comes and begins a verbal argument with Dr. Burns -- Dr. Miller must move to the “Colored” train car because there is a law in Virginia that forbids African Americans from riding in the same train car as whites. It is a system of “strict impartiality -- it applies to both races alike.” Dr. Burns is outraged, but there is nothing he can do. In the “Colored” car, Dr. Miller has time to philosophize his situation; “It was a veritable bed of Procrustes, this standard which the whites had set for the negroes. Those who grew above it must have their heads cut off, figuratively...those who fell beneath the standard set had their necks stretched, literally enough.” As the train pulls into Wellington, Dr. Miller notices a “burly” black hobo jump off the back of the train. He has an angry look to him. The man says, “But I got my job ter do in dis worl’, an’ I knows I ain’ gwine ter die ‘tel I’ve ‘complished it.”
The Marrow of Tradition is a novel that deals with the complex issues of racial tension between white and black in the late nineteenth century U.S. South. The tensions of the novel are not just between races, however, but also internal to the African American community as well. It is a novel filled with characters of complex identity; race is an internal matter as much as an external social and political matter.
The book’s title comes from a line in a poem by Charles Lamb, a nineteenth century English writer. The book’s epigraph contains a few lines from the poem; “I like you and your book, ingenious Hone! / In whose capacious all-embracing leaves / The very marrow of tradition’s shown.” This poem refers to an 1824 book written by a British bookseller entitled The Every-Day Book. This volume was a chronicle of everyday British life with commentary upon both important days and events, such as Saints’ Day and the major religious happenings of the year, as well as the banal everyday street life of London. Lamb praises the book in his poem because, as he says, it embraces all of life and an essence of an antiquarian tradition. Chesnutt uses this quote ironically because this “marrow of tradition” is a white tradition. It does not include an African American point of view. This quote illustrates the book’s overarching theme: the tyranny of the white ruling class in their efforts to recover a slaveholding tradition, and the struggles of African Americans to overcome this tyranny.
The book’s setting is Wilmington, North Carolina. It is based upon the Wilmington Massacres of 1898. The book falls into the genre of “historical fiction,” a work in which the setting, events, and characters are often drawn from real life, but fictionalized into a coherent and gripping narrative. The author’s intention is to capture the spirit, meaning, and conditions of the historical event instead of the actual details. The book is thus a novel instead of a work of non-fiction. The novel is also a didactic work of fiction. It is an argument against racial prejudice and the violent act of lynching.
Marrow focuses on families and relationships more than events. This allows Chesnutt to explore the complex set of emotions that fostered the violence of the Massacre. Since the novel was written in 1901, the novel’s setting exudes a mood of an antebellum South; there is an anxiety felt by all the characters for a time that is passing and a future that is uncertain. The novel shifts points of view between many characters, though the main points of view are from the novel’s three interconnected families: the Carterets, the Millers, and the Delameres.
The first chapter introduces the white family upon which much of the novel’s action revolves around, the Carterets. There are brief passages of back-story that illuminate the character’s feelings and philosophy towards race in the novel’s present. Major Carteret is a Civil War veteran from a proud family who lost everything in the war. Chesnutt’s use of the place name “Appomattox” is an example of metonymy; in this case, it represents all of the fighting that Carteret participated in during the Civil War. The reader learns that, after the war, Carteret is able to advance in life only because of his wife’s family and their money. Slave nursemaids raised Olivia Carteret, but she has a half-sister that is African American, a child borne from an affair her father had with his African American maid. Mrs. Carteret’s own anxiety over her ability to bear children causes her to go into a state of shock when she meets this bastard child and her early labor is the novel’s first action.
Chesnutt’s writing is highly stylized. He focuses less on describing specifics of place and more on the interior and exterior characteristics of his characters. His language can be described as often flowery or ornate, and he goes into detail in describing a character’s physical appearance. Their exterior appearance mirrors their interior thoughts and motivations; for instance, in chapter three Major Carteret and General Belmont are described as neat and formal in appearance, while Captain McBane is described as disheveled and sloppy. Though all three men harbor sinister motivations against African Americans, Captain McBane’s appearance alerts the reader to his greater propensity for cruelty and violence. The physical characteristics often have double meanings in Chesnutt’s writing. Tom Delamere is often contrasted with the term “manly” or “manliness.”
This reference is also a pun suggesting the loss of white Southern masculine identity in the post-Reconstruction South. The pun is in the reference to Alexander Manly, an African American newspaper editor whose editorial criticizing lynching was a catalyst for the Wilmington race riot on which Chesnutt’s novel is based. Manly was threatened and expelled from the community, an act that Chesnutt suggests is representative of cowardice and of the lack of “manliness” on the part of white supremacists.
Chapter Five first introduces the reader to the injustice of Southern Jim Crow laws. Jim Crow laws, named after a play performed in the early nineteenth century demonstrating white superiority to the African American race, mandated “Separate but Equal” status for all African American citizens of U.S. Southern states. This meant that African Americans were forced to use separate and inferior public and private services. In the case of Dr. Miller, this means using an inferior train coach. The reader is given glimpses of the anger brewing in the African American population of Wilmington and the events that cause such anger.