The Marrow of Tradition Summary and Analysis

Chapters 6-10

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Summary

Chapter 6

The train pulls into the station and Dr. Burns meets Dr. Price on the platform. Burns informs Price that he has invited Miller to assist in the surgery, and Price tells them to be at the Carteret house at eight in the evening. Dr. Price and Dr. Burns leave the station and both are complimentary of Dr. Miller. Miller goes to his own carriage and meets his wife and child. He is happy to return to his loved ones and is pleased to have been accepted by both Dr.’s Miller and Price as a professional equal. As they ride home, Miller’s wife Janet ponders over her secret thoughts for her sister Olivia and the pain she must be going through with the sickness of her child. She secretly “worships” Olivia, her half-sister, and does not think wrongly of Olivia for her attitude towards her and her child. “Blood is thicker than water, but, if it flow too far from conventional channels, may turn to gall and wormwood.” She implores her husband to take great care with this young patient.

Chapter 7

Dr. Price worries that Dr. Burns does not understand the Southern customs when it comes to race. He talks to Burns about Carteret, and about why he will not allow an African American doctor into his house, but Burns tells him that he misjudges his own people. At the Carteret house, the doctors all gather but Miller has not yet arrived. Price hopes that a fortunate accident delays or detains him. As they prepare to go into surgery, Burns asks about Miller and Carteret questions him. Burns assures him that Miller was his “favorite pupil...a graduate of the Vienna hospitals, and a surgeon of unusual skill.” Carteret informs Burns, “In the South we do not call negro doctors to attend white patients.” Burns asserts his professional honor and declares that it is a matter of principle that he has Miller assist in the surgery.

Price steps in to mediate the situation. Carteret eventually humbles himself and tells Burns that his desire to exclude Miller comes not just from his race but also from a matter of personal import. He thinks of his wife and her shock at seeing Janet Miller and her son. Burns wavers and eventually agrees to begin the surgery without Miller, though he feels like “Pontius Pilate.”

Miller arrives at the house and Dr. Price meets him before he can enter the surgical room. Price has a hard time confronting Miller with the truth and is reticent to tell him anything that will “wound his feelings.” Price feels that Miller is “a sort of social misfit, an odd quantity, educated out of his own class, with no possible hope of entrance into that above it.” Price tells Miller that the child took a turn for the worse and that the doctors were forced to begin the procedure sooner than expected. Miller leaves the house, disappointed that he was not able to participate, yet thankful that he should be invited to assist. As he is leaving, one of Carteret’s servants whispers to him that everything he was told was a lie. The servant tells him about the argument between Burns and Carteret. Miller leaves the house dejected and humiliated. Just as the doctors prepare to administer the anesthetic to Dodie in the surgical room, the child’s airway clears. He coughs up a small piece of the rattle and it lands on the floor.

Chapter 8

A day after Dodie’s narrow escape for surgery, Major Carteret, General Belmont, and Captain McBane meet in the Chronicle’s office. Their campaign for white supremacy is not going well and they decide they need to find a new strategy to attack the rise of African Americans in North Carolina. “Negro citizenship was a grotesque farce -- Sambo and Dinah raised from the kitchen to the cabinet were a spectacle to make the gods laugh.” McBane is impatient with their tactics. He is ready to “put the niggers down” quickly and violently. General Belmont appeals to him that this might not be the best strategy. “This is the age of crowds,” he tells him, “and we must have the crowd with us. McBane suggests that Carteret use the power of his paper to influence public opinion. He argues, “The man who would govern a nation by writing its songs was a blethering idiot beside the fellow who can edit its news dispatches.” He tells them that the paper must document every crime that a black person commits. They must also oppose the town’s black newspaper. Carteret remembers that he threw a copy of it away this morning and looks for it in the wastebasket.

Chapter 9

The town’s black newspaper contains an editorial on lynching. It argues that lynchings are an attempt by the white ruling classes to maintain an unjust rule over the African American race. It also argues that neither religion, nor nature, nor state law should forbid interracial marriage. McBane and Carteret are outraged. McBane angrily declares that the editor be “horsewhipped and run out of town.” General Belmont tells them that the article might be put to good use later. Carteret, still furious, declares that the article “violates an unwritten law of the South. If we are to tolerate this race of weaklings among us, until they are eliminated by the stress of competition, it must be upon terms which we lay down.”

The General calls in Jerry and sends him to Brown’s for two “Calhoun cocktails.” McBane is rude to Jerry and this annoys Carteret. McBane, he thinks to himself, is from a lower class of white people. Even though he is rich now, his father had been nothing more than a slave driver. For his own part, Jerry is troubled that General Belmont did not offer him the change and he decides that he will pretend that he forgot to give it to him and keep it for himself. As the men drink, Belmont suggests that the men shelve the article for the time being. They should focus, instead, on working up public opinion against the black community. When it is election time, they will print the editorial and divide the electorate along racial lines, winning the state “for white supremacy....” As the men leave the office, Belmont suggests that Carteret speak to Tom Delamere about his card playing and drinking habits, as they are not suitable for men of their aristocratic heritage.

Over the next few months, the three men work tirelessly to influence opinion against the African American race in the South. The narrator claims, “How well [their] bait took is a matter of history -- but the promised result is still in the future...the negro question was, for a century, the pivot of American politics.”

Chapter 10

A few days later, Tom Delamere comes to the Chronicle’s office to place an ad for timber. While there, Major Carteret gives Tom a kind lecture on the responsibilities of members of the aristocratic families. This lecture angers Tom greatly and he suspects that Ellis told the Major of his card playing and drinking at the Clarendon Club. As he is leaving the Chronicle, Tom meets Ellis and gives him a “scowl that disfigured his handsome features.”

For his part, Ellis does harbor a secret love for Clara and does not like Tom at all. In his mind, Tom Delamere belongs on the “downward slant” of a family’s nobility. Tom is “a valiant carpet-knight, skilled in all parlor exercises, great at whist or euchre, a dream of a dancer, unexcelled in cakewalk or ‘coon’ impersonations.” He is careless over money matters and represents the worst traits of the privileged aristocracy. The next day after their meeting, Polly Ochiltree stops Ellis as he is walking down the street and interrogates him on Tom’s drinking and gambling habits. Ellis refuses to give a straight answer, but Polly says that she can read the truth in his eyes. When she returns home, she tells Clara of these indiscretions though Clara denies that they are true.

The next time that Tom visits the Carteret household, Clara confronts Tom with the rumors that she has heard. Tom tactfully denies the charges. He tells her that these rumors have come from “the tongue of calumny.” He proposes that they be married as soon as possible so that he will be saved by marriage’s “steadying influence.” The Major eventually agrees and the date of marriage is set for six months in the future. On Ellis’ next visit to the house, he is greeted by Clara’s cool reception.

Analysis

This section of the novel opens with the drama surrounding Dodie’s respiratory affliction and the surgery needed to fix it. This illness, and the drama surrounding it, represents two important social conditions during the time about which Chesnutt writes. The first is the way that Dodie represents the hopes of continued white domination of Southern culture. His father puts these hopes upon the child. The Major’s hope is that this continued custom of white male primogeniture continues through his aristocratic family. Chesnutt clearly sees this institution as in decline.

The second social condition that the child represents is the anxiety of this white ruling class regarding their domination through lineage. Chesnutt uses the state of feminine hysteria to symbolize this anxiety. This hysteria is first seen in Mrs. Carteret’s panic at seeing her half-nephew while riding along the road in the first chapter. It is continued through Dodie’s accident with the rattle. Mrs. Carteret’s hysteria is so severe that she is absent for much of this emergency. Dodie’s escape from a traumatic surgery that likely would have killed him or shortened his life is Chesnutt’s commentary on the decline of the Southern aristocracy; it is not a sharp decline but, instead, happens in fits and starts and maintains its power through sheer luck.

Tom Delamere’s descent into drinking and card playing -- vices that the reader first learns about in the book’s second chapter and which is elaborated upon in Chapter Ten -- is another symbol of this aristocratic decline. Ellis’s thought that “it takes three or four generations to make a gentleman, and as many more to complete the curve and return to the base from which it started...Tom Delamere belonged somewhere on the downward slant,” is again Chesnutt’s belief in the political and social leveling that would occur sometime in the future. It is important to note Chesnutt’s tone of hope throughout the novel. Chesnutt’s narrator frames this hope for racial conciliation in the closing paragraphs of Chapter Nine, when he declares that the strife of racial conflict might have divided the nation and sent it into the bloody Civil War but that it would one day be settled “upon principles of justice and equity.”

Chapters Seven, Eight, and Nine begin to deal with the anxiety over race felt by this Southern aristocratic society. In the novel’s opening chapters, the Carteret family maintain their strict distance between African Americans, but in these chapters, the reader begins to see that part of the hatred towards the African American community is a result of the anxiety that this race would use its numbers and influence to rise into social prominence. Two quotes illustrate this: the first is the statement in Chapter Eight that “Negro citizenship was a grotesque farce -- Sambo and Dinah raised from the kitchen to the cabinet were a spectacle to make the gods laugh.” The names “Sambo” and “Dinah” are derogatory racial names. These names date back to the early nineteenth century and appear in novels such as Vanity Fair and Uncle Tom’s Cabin. This colloquial expression, “raised from the kitchen to the cabinet,” implies the unreasonable social advance of a person or group of people.

The second quote that illustrates this anxiety is Carteret’s claim that the African American race is to be “eliminated by the stress of competition.” This refers to the idea of Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism is the use of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution and the survival of the fittest in the context of social interaction and advancement. Carteret is expressing a common belief of many in the white ruling class of that day -- the African American race, because of its inferior intelligence and physical traits, would soon be eliminated from society through the gradual process of natural selection. The anxiety is also demonstrated in Chapter Nine, as Carteret, Belmont, and McBane read over the town’s African American newspaper. Though it is a crude newspaper, Belmont cannot help but note that it is an intelligent publication put together by a race of people for whom learning and reading had been forbidden in the previous generation.

A few other references are worth noting in this section. The first is Belmont’s ordering of a “Calhoun.” This is a reference to John C. Calhoun, a politician from South Carolina and the seventh Vice President of the United States. He was an advocate of slavery and states’ rights. This reference is a demonstration of the way that the white ruling classes instilled their political and racial culture into common society. Belmont’s statement that their day is an “age of crowds” is a reference to the theory of mass psychology first developed in Europe in 1895 and which would be advanced in the twentieth century by figures such as Sigmund Freud. Belmont sees the psychological benefits of using the media to influence a critical mass for the political cause. Finally, Janet’s thought that “blood is thicker than water” is a colloquial expression meaning that the bonds of family are stronger than those of unrelated people. Her comment that such bonds may turn to “gall and wormwood” is an allusion to Deuteronomy 29 in the Hebrew Bible in which God warns the people of Israel that their unfaithfulness to him would result in the destruction of the people.