The Longest Memory

The Longest Memory Summary and Analysis of Great Granddaughter – Forgetting


The narration switches to the voice of one of Whitechapel’s great-granddaughters. She recounts Whitechapel bathing her and telling her about how New England lice bite harder than African lice. He tells her he left Africa as a ten-year-old boy; one day he was playing in a field of tall grass, the next he was marching to the coast and was put on a boat for a journey that seemed like it would never end. He says African lice bite but only tickle, and so children keep them on their skin. She tells him she dreams about flying to African and kissing the ground. She enters a fire-lit hut full of family members and food bubbling in a pot. Whitechapel tells her Africa is not for her, saying she dreams about something she doesn’t know.

Whitechapel’s great-granddaughter recounts how Whitechapel’s new wife revived his spirits, but his son’s death deadened his eyes. Because he caused the death, they all run from him; he is a ghost they all see and ignore because he killed his only son. Having witnessed Chapel’s beating, she doesn’t dream of Africa. The dream has been replaced by nightmares of the whip and Chapel’s dark, detached eyes.

The narration switches to Sanders Junior’s internal monologue as he encounters Whitechapel curled up on the ground; Whitechapel looks like he is napping, but he is dead. Sanders tells Whitechapel he’ll dig his grave and bury him here. He says he shouldn’t have hit Whitechapel but Whitechapel contradicted him in front of everyone; his status as overseer was undermined. Sanders’s father spoke highly of Whitechapel; Whitechapel was a better overseer than Sanders. He woke even earlier than Sanders. Sanders apologizes about Chapel and says he is not his brother; he only knew him as the son of a slave. Chapel was trouble from the start, always asking why. His spirit was wild while Whitechapel’s was tame.

Sanders says there had been too many runaways, and Mr. Whitechapel had ordered that the next would receive two hundred lashes. Even if Whitechapel had told Sanders he was killing his half-brother, Sanders would have continued with the punishment. Chapel forgot that the plantation is a business, not a charity. The slaves don’t work for their own living; they work to make Mr. Whitechapel richer. Chapel forgot, but Whitechapel never did. Whitechapel knew his place, and Sanders liked him for that.

Sanders says he’ll get a grave with a stone. Whitechapel was a good slave, but a slave nonetheless; Sanders wouldn’t want to die alone, in the open, with nothing to his name. Sanders covers him with his jacket, too late to warm Whitechapel. If no one objects, Sanders would like Sanders buried in his jacket, which belonged to his father. Sanders says his father lacked Whitechapel’s courage. If Whitechapel were white, Sanders would have wanted him as his father.

The novel ends with an epilogue in Whitechapel’s voice, presenting an internal monologue of Whitechapel’s dying moments. Whitechapel imagines telling his son he has to answer the call of his own blood, born half a slave, half the master of his own destiny. Whitechapel knows he belongs to another way of life, yet Whitechapel tells him everything he knows as a slave. Whitechapel wants to keep Chapel alive. He does not care about Chapel’s happiness; Chapel’s life is everything to Whitechapel.

Whitechapel hears Chapel shouting Lydia’s name in his sleep. Whitechapel hears but pretends to be deaf. At first Whitechapel takes it as a good sign of Chapel’s blossoming into manhood and believes Chapel’s desire will be channeled appropriately in his waking life. But then Whitechapel understands Lydia is a dream Chapel has tried to make part of his life. Whitechapel wonders if he should tell Chapel about his blood and the two races evenly distributed within it; if he should help Chapel set up a new life elsewhere. But the plantation is the only place Whitechapel knows. Despite what Whitechapel says, all the time Chapel is listening to his blood and following the dictates of his dreams.

Whitechapel says he has been wrong all his days. His skin hangs and is tight over his joints. He would need another life to put everything right—no, several lives would be needed to unravel the knotted mess. But he is too tired to begin. His head is heavy, his eyes have seen too much for one body, his mouth has too much to utter. His mouth is sour with everything he has never spoken. He sees the light going out and knows it is death’s shadow. He must sit down. No, lie down. He rests his eyes and mouth, no longer tasting the mouth’s sourness. He longs to forget, because memory is pain trying to resurrect itself.


In the twelfth chapter, Whitechapel’s great-granddaughter’s narration picks up the thread. In her voice, D’Aguiar introduces the perspective of a young slave on the plantation who is forced to reconcile the once-warm image of her great grandfather with his new image as a ruined man who sacrificed his own son in order to obey his master. In a reversal of their roles, the great-granddaughter goes from being a child Whitechapel bathes to being the one who bathes Whitechapel as he lives out his last days dependent on family members who have lost respect for him.

The great granddaughter’s perspective is significant because her monologue marks the only instance in the narrative of Whitechapel’s childhood in Africa being mentioned. Though she would like to know more about the homeland from which Whitechapel was abducted as a ten-year-old and sold into slavery, Whitechapel’s repressive nature and desire to forget emerges as he evades her questions and discourages her from dreaming of anything other than the life she knows.

In the thirteenth chapter, the novel enters for the first time the perspective of Sanders Junior—Chapel’s killer and half-brother. In Sanders’ internal monologue, D’Aguiar reveals Sanders's ironic affinity for Whitechapel as he finds Whitechapel’s dead body curled on the ground. In the privacy of his own mind, Sanders confesses that he didn’t respect his father as much as he respected Whitechapel, and that if Whitechapel were white he would have preferred to have Whitechapel as a father. Sanders says he will arrange for Whitechapel to have a gravestone—a measly sign of respect that elevates Whitechapel in death over most slaves and a paltry reward for a life of bound servitude.

Sanders’ respect for Whitechapel is ironic not just because the respect is in spite of Whitechapel being a slave, but because Sanders respects Whitechapel for being tame and knowing his place—a model slave. Sanders disapproves of his father’s cowardice just as he disapproves of Chapel’s wildness. Sanders Junior identifies with Whitechapel’s passive, cowed personality, suggesting that Sanders Junior has, like Whitechapel, assimilated notions of his own inferiority as someone whose purpose is to serve his masters.

To bookend the novel by returning to the prologue’s theme of memory, D’Aguiar closes The Longest Memory with an epilogue entitled “Forgetting.” In Whitechapel’s voice, the narrative moves back in time to the moments before Sanders Junior finds Whitechapel dead on the ground. As he dies, Whitechapel adds to his account of his betrayal of Chapel, admitting that he knew Chapel was answering the call to freedom the white half of his blood cried out for. Whitechapel says he didn’t care about Chapel’s happiness though: he believed he could keep him alive by keeping him a slave, the only life Whitechapel knows. The novel ends with Whitechapel losing the energy to continue his internal monologue—i.e. to continue thinking and remembering. He lies down and dies, wanting nothing more at the end of his long life than relief from the pain of having to remember that life.