The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition Essay Questions

  1. 1

    Discuss the symbolic aspects of Dodie Carteret’s character in the novel.

    Dodie Carteret symbolizes the “new white man” of the South’s post-reconstruction era. He is a white child in a new generation of Southern racial conflict. His father wishes for Dodie to represent a new period of white supremacy. His mother, however, subconsciously understands that such a wish will not stand in the coming era. Her dream in Chapter Thirty-one in which Dodie sinks from her grasp into a murky abyss is Chesnutt’s depiction of the white subconscious understanding that their heirs will not dominate the black race in future generations, thus displacing the notion of family and lineage in white Southern culture.

  2. 2

    In what way did Chesnutt hope for his novel to be the next Uncle Tom’s Cabin?

    Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Harriet Beecher Stowe to protest slavery and advance the abolitionist movement, is considered the first and greatest social novel of the nineteenth century. Chesnutt hoped for his novel to be a successor to Stowe’s. Stowe’s novel is credited with influencing public opinion for the abolition of slavery. Chesnutt saw his novel as a mode of influencing opinion against lynching and other forms of racial mob violence, much of which was glamorized or justified in national publications during the final decades of the nineteenth century.

  3. 3

    What literary techniques does Chesnutt use to present his moral case against racial violence and prejudice?

    Chesnutt uses the literary techniques of the omniscient narrator and the aside to present his own moral case against racial violence and prejudice. The omniscient narrator allows Chesnutt to tell readers things that the novel’s other characters do not know. The reader’s understanding of the personal feelings, prejudices, and vices of each character are especially important in The Marrow of Tradition for understanding why each character does or does not participate in the violence of the riot. The aside is a technique in which the narrator pauses the action of the story to provide extra information for the reader. In the case of The Marrow of Tradition, Chesnutt uses the aside to elaborate on the profundity of moral choices and customs of the Southern community.

  4. 4

    What audience did Chesnutt intend for The Marrow of Tradition?

    Like previous nineteenth century social novels involving race and politics, Chesnutt did not specifically address his novel to the Southern establishment of his day. This was not possible because of the atmosphere of post-Reconstruction racial strife. Chesnutt alludes to this fact in the novel when the “Big Three” leaders of Wellington condemn a black editorial on lynching not because of the truth of falsity of the argument but because “no damn nigger has any right to say it.” Chesnutt also found himself in this situation. Chesnutt, therefore, intended his book for a Northern audience, some who would have already been sympathetic to the cause of racial tolerance and others who might lend their voices to the cause.

  5. 5

    Discuss the competing assumptions of race within the black community in Chesnutt’s novel.

    Chesnutt’s novel not only shows the variety of assumptions and prejudices of race in the white community, but it also highlights the tension over the issue within the black community. Two characters are illustrative of this tension: Janet Miller and Mammy Jane. Mammy Jane represents the old generation that suffered under slavery, and whose survival depended on serving and pleasing the white people. Mammy Jane’s mode of survival is to defer to her white superiors and to denigrate any black person that does not do the same. Janet represents a new generation not born under slavery but that still suffers prejudice and oppression. This new generation contains the promise of reconciliation as illustrated by Janet’s secret love for her sister, Olivia Carteret, and Olivia’s desire to reconcile their relationship at the novel’s end.

  6. 6

    Discuss Chesnutt’s use of mixed race characters in the novel.

    Chesnutt uses characters of mixed race to demonstrate that Southern culture of his day contained elements of both the antebellum slaveholding era and the post-Reconstruction era. These mixed race characters are the result of an antebellum secret in which white masters and black slaves produced mixed race children, an act of disgust and sin within the white community during this time. These characters also represent the promise of peaceful and prosperous relations between races in the future just as characters such as the Millers demonstrate the African American community’s ability to transcend hardship and to contribute to societal advancement. Violence caused by unfounded prejudice retards this reconciliation.

  7. 7

    What is the “male hysteria” that Chesnutt writes of in his novel?

    In the novel, Chesnutt depicts a male hysteria amongst the Southern white males of the ruling class. This hysteria is brought about by racial, economic, and social panic. As demonstrated by the characters of Carteret, McBane, and Belmont, these men are first concerned with their social and economic displacement by the “negro domination” of Reconstruction. This hysteria is also caused by the perceived threat that black males imposed on white female sexuality. This assault upon white womanhood, often because of false accusations, became the justification for mob violence and lynchings.

  8. 8

    Discuss Chesnutt’s use of double characters in the novel.

    Chesnutt uses several pairs of characters to represent the dual nature of race tensions in the late nineteenth century South. The first pair is Tom and Sandy, both members of the Delamere family. This is an example of irony; Tom represents the decline of white aristocracy while Sandy, the former slave, represents the only hope of the white family’s ongoing integrity. The second pair is Janet Miller and Olivia Carteret. Descended from the same father, this pair leads parallel lives in different racial worlds, ultimately representing Chesnutt’s belief that both black and white must find ways to coexist and respect each other in order to advance Southern society.

  9. 9

    What does General Belmont mean when he advocates the “age of crowds?”

    Belmont’s reference to the “age of crowds” shows recognition that changing technologies such as mass distributed press and books creates a situation in which large segments of the population can be both educated and mislead regarding events of common concern. In the case of the Wellington riot, information is misused and misinterpreted by those that control a public voice (Major Carteret’s newspaper) to induce violence. In a twist, Chesnutt also seems to refer to his own use of this “age of crowds” as a hope that his own novel would influence public opinion against violence in the South.

  10. 10

    Discuss Chesnutt’s argument against lynching.

    The Marrow of Tradition can be seen as a sustained argument against the Southern white practice of lynching. During the 1890’s, thousands of African American men were lynched, often accused of crimes of rape or some other offense to white women. Chesnutt understood lynching as a form of mob violence intended to strip dominance and masculinity from black men. In psychological terms, lynching was a white male expression of anxiety over their economic and social displacement in Southern culture.