The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory Summary and Analysis of Chapel – Cook


The narration switches to lines of verse spoken in Chapel’s voice. In a series of rhyming couplets, Chapel says his father is the oldest man in the world. His mother is an angel without wings; a pure light radiates from her. She is young enough to be Whitechapel’s granddaughter. Whitechapel washed Chapel with Whitechapel’s great-grandchildren. Whitechapel carried a birch branch as a threat to the children to know their station. Chapel loved the days when he hung onto his mother’s dress while she worked in the master’s kitchen. She fed Chapel sugarloaf and sang him sweet songs.

From Mr. Whitechapel’s daughter Lydia Chapel learned about books, which she peered at motionlessly for hours. She showed him how to read, as long as he promised on a Bible not to tell a single soul. Then she taught him how to write, reminding him that he, as the child of a slave, isn’t allowed to read or write. One day Chapel was reading Romeo and Juliet to Lydia when her father caught them. Mr. Whitechapel sent Lydia from the room and lashed Chapel with a belt, telling him never to read again. From then on Chapel never opened a book or picked up a pen, but he composes in his head or aloud. He meets Lydia at night and she tells him what she remembers from books. Chapel recounts a conversation with his father, in which his father tells him he fears Chapel is the type of slave who learns from being whipped and beaten for making mistakes rather than the type who observes others and follows suit. Chapel walks away shaking his head. They are both with her when Chapel’s mother dies. With her gone, nothing can keep Chapel there. He runs, feeling joy, not fear.

The narration shifts to Mr. Whitechapel’s voice saying “I leave my plantation to face the ridicule of my peers.” The narration then shifts to a second-person “you” address, with Mr. Whitechapel telling himself he is split in two about whether to go to the Gentleman’s Club. He is heading for the club his father and his father’s friends helped to build, now full of their sons, and he fears derision. Mr. Whitechapel reminds himself he is a Whitechapel; his father’s dust is between the boards of the club. Mr. Whitechapel considers turning around, not wanting to face the mockery. Mr. Whitechapel enters, reassuring himself he belongs there. The other plantation owners bare their teeth and shout hip hip hooray. Mr. Whitechapel says it was a lesson that went wrong. The disembodied voices of the plantation owners suggest other slaves will take Chapel’s death as a warning they can’t run. They mock Mr. Whitechapel for his attitude of treating slaves like humans and not just tools, repeating his words in the context of a slave of his being whipped to death.

Mr. Whitechapel says he stands by his words; his Christian beliefs are true. They joke that Mr. Whitechapel is an Abolitionist and that they should string him up. They say he promotes the African at the expense of his own white Christian brother. They say his beliefs will lead to a slave revolt. They say he cannot mix God with the slave business. They treat their slaves severely in the hope the other slaves will behave out of fear. Eventually Mr. Whitechapel tells the men that Sanders Senior violated Whitechapel’s mistress. The men express surprise that Whitechapel didn’t tell Sanders during the whipping. Impressed with Whitechapel’s deference to authority, a few try to buy Whitechapel from Mr. Whitechapel. They raise a toast to Mr. Whitechapel and his slave. Mr. Whitechapel reflects that he is at last without shame; his name is restored.

The narration shifts to Lydia’s first-person, present-tense voice. She begins as being akin to Chapel’s big sister, taking his hand instinctively when he comes from the kitchen into the reading room. Lydia reads aloud to Chapel at first, then teaches him to read. His face lights up as he reads. She eventually feels foolish for not at least teaching him to write his name. Lydia asks his mother why she shortened the boy’s name to Chapel, and she says she did it because her husband and her son would answer when she called Whitechapel.

The narration shifts back to Cook’s voice saying that all her life two pots are never empty. One pot is in the master’s kitchen, the other in her own. She sometimes takes from one to fill the other. She is stirring her master’s pot when she calls for her son. He doesn’t answer, so she goes looking and hears a voice that both is and isn’t her son’s. It comes from the room where her master keeps his books—a room she has never dared enter. She sees Chapel reading aloud to Lydia, who sits with her eyes closed. Cook covers her mouth to stifle her scream. She runs back to the kitchen.

Soon Chapel returns and lies when asked about where he was. She reminds him that his duty in the house is to assist her in the kitchen. She can’t bring herself to mention that she saw him reading. She would like to summon disdain but feels only pride: her son can open a book and sound like the master. She can’t hide her smile and gives her son a big hug. She vows to herself not to tell her husband; as strong as his reason might be for telling Chapel not to read, her son’s voice is stronger.

The voice shifts back to Lydia. She recounts the day her father enters the room and brings the days of reading to an abrupt end, two years after it began. Her body grows hot as she listens to the cadence of Chapel’s voice and realizes she is in love with Chapel’s voice. When her father orders her from the room she realizes she is in love with a boy three years her junior; she is in love with a slave. Mr. Whitechapel tells her she has done Chapel a great injustice by teaching him skills he can never use and that she must have no contact with him. She wants to say that a law that says a slave cannot read or write is unjust but she acquiesces, nodding and looking at her feet.

Cook tells Lydia the days are getting short, which is a blessing because there is a particular spot outside where people can view the stars. If another person happens to be there at the same time, Lydia should not be afraid because he is there for the same purpose of viewing the night sky. That night Lydia goes out after her parents go to bed and she meets Chapel in the dark. They sit back to back and talk, watching the winking stars. He asks her to memorize something from a book for when they meet on the next clear night. Chapel says he mustn’t disobey her father, so he will not write or read. She says she will devour her father’s library for him. They both have tears in their eyes. Chapel tells her not to turn around, otherwise he will have disobeyed her father. He tells her he loves her, and Lydia says she loves him. The nights go on like this, even though they know they can’t.


Continuing with the motif of shifting voices, D’Aguiar narrates the fifth chapter in Chapel’s voice. However, Chapel’s voice is distinct from other characters’ voices because it comprises mostly rhyming lines of verse. The justification for such a stylistically conspicuous choice is not apparent until D’Aguiar reveals that Chapel learned to compose verse in his head as a condition of obeying Mr. Whitechapel’s demand that he never read or write again.

Up until this point in the novel, it has been a mystery what exactly motivated Chapel to try to escape the plantation. In Chapel’s poetic voice, D’Aguiar touches again on the theme of memory by taking the reader through Chapel’s earliest memories up until his decision to run. In an instance of dramatic irony, Chapel is raised without the knowledge that his biological father was a white overseer. Knowing only his mother’s and his adoptive father’s lives as slaves, the child Chapel hangs onto his mother’s dress as she cooks.

The seed of freedom is planted in Chapel when Lydia, Mr. Whitechapel’s daughter, teaches Chapel how to read and write. Although she knows slaves aren’t allowed to be literate, she and Chapel develop a secret relationship, reading aloud to each other in her father’s study. Chapel recounts how Mr. Whitechapel catches him reading to Lydia and lashes him with his belt—a smaller-scale version of the punishment that will eventually end Chapel’s life. In another instance of irony, Chapel is reading Romeo and Juliet when Mr. Whitechapel catches him. By alluding to Shakespeare’s famous tragedy about “star-cross lovers,” D’Aguiar places in the novel an example of doomed lovers to foreshadow the tragic trajectory Chapel and Lydia’s relationship will follow.

The narration in the sixth chapter shifts to Mr. Whitechapel’s internal monologue as he goes to the plantation owners’ club to face his fellow slave masters’ mockery. The inner workings of Mr. Whitechapel’s mind present a sharp contrast to Chapel’s romantic, poetical point of view. While Chapel is devoted to finding for himself a life in which he is free to think, to love, and to create poetry, Mr. Whitechapel’s concerns have to do with how Chapel’s death by lashing will impact Mr. Whitechapel’s reputation as a benevolent slave owner. He enters the club full of shame and hesitation, on guard for the dressing-down he receives from the fellow plantation owners at the club, who Mr. Whitechapel likens to a pack of ravenous animals.

The plantation owners—anonymized by lines of disembodied dialogue—point out the hypocrisy of letting an overseer whip a slave to death while preaching Christian leniency toward slaves. The chapters also touches on the theme of justifying slavery. Among their equals, the plantation owners are frank about their beliefs that Africans are an inferior sub-race of human and therefore worthy of tough handling and undeserving of even the most basic of human rights. The theme of abolishing slavery arises for only the second time in the novel. However, the theme only arises because one of the plantation owners jokingly accuses Mr. Whitechapel of secretly being an abolitionist. Ultimately, Mr. Whitechapel wins the plantation owners over when he tells them Whitechapel’s deference to authority—in other words, his having assimilated his inferiority—prevented Whitechapel from telling Sanders that he was whipping his own half-brother to death.

For the seventh, eighth, and ninth chapters, the voice shifts between Cook and Lydia. Their accounts piece together an account of how Lydia and Chapel continue to meet after Lydia’s father forbade them seeing each other. Because of her pride at knowing her son is as literate as the master, Cook arranges for Chapel and Lydia to meet on a bench outside at night. In a tableau befitting star-crossed lovers, Lydia and Chapel weep and confess their love for each other while sitting back to back on the bench under a sky full of stars; technically, they are obeying a literal interpretation of Mr. Whitechapel’s command to not “see” each other.