The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition Summary and Analysis of Chapters 11-15


Chapter 11

After her rebuff of Ellis, Clara goes upstairs and begins joyfully dancing with little Dodie. Mammy Jane sternly warns her to be careful with the child. Mammy Jane is still very worried about the mole behind the child’s ear and the bad luck that such a mark portends. She attributes her good luck charms and her prayers for saving the child from the evil spirits that almost caused him to suffocate and go under the knife. When Clara puts the child down, a mockingbird flies into the window and begins singing its songs. The bird delights the child, and all three women go to the window to watch the bird. As they watch, a carriage carrying Janet and her son passes by and Janet and Olivia Carteret exchange a cold glance. Mammy Jane is indignant and cries, “Fo’ty yeahs ago who’d ‘a’ ever expected ter see a nigger gal ridin’ in her own buggy?”

In the moment that Mrs. Carteret turns away, Clara accidentally loses her grip on the child and he begins to plunge out of the window. She holds on tightly the child’s skirt and Mammy Jane helps pull the child back in, narrowly avoiding falling to his death. Olivia is horrified and suddenly has a thought that in the past few weeks, every time her child had been in danger, a Miller was involved. Mammy Jane also has a suspicion that Janet cast an “evil eye” towards the child. For her own part, Janet begins to cultivate a cold hatred towards her half-sister for her dismissive attitude.

Chapter 12

One morning Dr. Miller receives a patient with a broken arm. The man is named Josh Green and he works on the docks. Dr. Miller recognizes him as the man he saw steal a ride on the passenger car on the train from Philadelphia. Dr. Miller asks Josh how he broke his arm. Josh replies that he got into a fight with a South American sailor who called him a “low-down nigger.” Josh tells him that the other man left with a broken leg and several of his teeth missing.

Dr. Miller warns Josh that his behavior will get him into trouble and that he should be especially wary of any such violence towards white people. Josh tells him that he has a special grudge for white people. When he was a child, the Ku Klux Klan came to his house and shot his father. His mother was driven mad by the event. Josh got a look at the face of the Klan’s leader and made a promise to one day kill that man. Josh tells Dr. Miller, “I ain’t never had no doubt erbout it; it’s jus’ w’at I’m livin’ fer....” Dr. Miller remembers the look that Josh gave McBane when he got off the train and knows that this is the man Josh wants to kill. Dr. Miller does not approve of Josh’s application of “the Mosaic law” and reminds him that Christianity teaches that one should “‘forgive our enemies, bless them that curse us, and do good to them that despitefully use us.’” Josh says that he has heard all this before, but that “De w’ite folks don’ fergive nothin’ de niggers does.”

Chapter 13

A group of Northern men and women come to Wellington and stay at the St. James Hotel. The men are there in order to look into investing in a cotton mill; the women came to study the social condition of the South, especially “the negro problem.” They are escorted throughout the town by the gentlemen and ladies of Wellington, and the racial problem is explained in such a way that the Northerners cannot help but sympathize with the plight of the Southern whites in dealing with this “dying race, unable to withstand the competition of a superior type.” The Northerners become assured that “no negro was ever lynched without incontestable proof of his guilt.” Since the servants at the hotel seemed pleasant enough and the teachers at the mission school had been “well-dressed, well-mannered, and apparently content with their position in life,” the visitors are assured that “surely a people who made no complaints could not be very much oppressed.”

In order to show them a true Southern negro custom, the people of Wellington organize a “cakewalk” for the Northern guests to observe. The cakewalk goes wonderfully, with a large group of black contestants all dancing and entertaining the guests. Ellis happens to be at the hotel and wanders up to the banquet hall where the cakewalk is being held. He is aghast and offended by one man’s “grotesque contortions” which he thought were “overdone, even for the comical type of negro.” Ellis recognizes the man as Sandy, old Mr. Delamere’s servant. Ellis is shocked because he had witnessed Sandy as a gracious servant at the Carteret’s christening party and he simply could not “predict in advance what any one of the darker race would do under a given set of circumstances.”

The week after the cakewalk, Sandy is summoned before the disciplinary committee of his church and charged with “unchristian conduct” in “dancing, and participating in a sinful diversion...calculated to bring the church into disrepute and make it the mockery of sinners.” Sandy denies the charges, but several witnesses swear he was there. Sandy is banished from the church until he repents, which he simply cannot bring himself to do. In order to cheer Sandy up, Tom Delamere often tells him to go take a drink of liquor and take heart that “the devil’s church has a bigger congregation than theirs, and we have the consolation of knowing that when we die, we’ll meet all our friends on the other side.”

Chapter 14

Mrs. Carteret takes her carriage out one day to visit old Mrs. Ochiltree. Mrs. Ochiltree has been in poor health as of late and does not leave the house much. Olivia had attempted to persuade her to move into their estate, but Mrs. Ochiltree maintained her fierce independence and declined the offer. Though she lives in a small house on a quiet street with only two servants, people in the town suspect that she is worth a great deal of money and will give that money to both Olivia and Tom Delamere when she dies.

Olivia has Mrs. Ochiltree’s servants wake her. They rouse her from a dream in which she is muttering of how she would never have married any man, even John Delamere. Once she is woken, she and Olivia begin their carriage ride, driven by William, one of Mrs. Carteret’s servants. Aunt Polly is disoriented and loses track of her memories easily. She points towards a great brick building and believes it to be the house of Hugh Poindexter, although it is the hospital that Dr. Miller has built. The carriage passes Dr. Miller’s wife and Aunt Polly has a flashback to how she kicked Julia Brown and her daughter out of the house and saved Olivia from being displaced. Olivia tries to hush these stories for she does not want William, the servant, to overhear. Finally, the carriage passes Sandy who bows with “a slight exaggeration of Chesterfieldian elegance.” Mrs. Ochiltree asks how old Mr. Delamere is doing and then proceeds to tell both Olivia and Sandy that she is sure she will outlive that old man by at least twenty years. As the carriage pulls off, Sandy thinks to himself that the old woman will not last another year.

Chapter 15

Mrs. Carteret is troubled by what she heard from her Aunt. When they return from their carriage ride, she goes into the house and sits with her for a while. She tells her, “I want to know what you meant by what you said about my father and Julia, and this - this child of hers?” Olivia wants to know why she should thank her Aunt for saving her inheritance. Aunt Polly relents and begins to tell her a story.

Mrs. Ochiltree had been able to keep abreast of news in the household of Olivia’s father because Mammy Jane’s sister had worked there. Therefore, she very quickly heard the news when Mr. Merkell fell ill. She went immediately to the house and snuck in just in time to hear Mr. Merkell give Julia his final words. He told her that he loved her more than anything, and that she did a great service to him, “you saved me from Polly Ochiltree!” He tells Julia that there is a locked drawer in his office desk and that there are three papers there, which will make sure she is provided for upon his death.

Moments later, Mr. Merkell died. Aunt Polly burst into the room as if she had just arrived and demanded that Julia take her child and leave since she had no rights to be there anymore. Julia protested and told Aunt Polly that she could prove that she has the right. Julia went into Mr. Merkell’s office and opened the desk drawer only to find a roll of money and a lady’s watch. Aunt Polly then entered the office and accused Julia of stealing. She told Julia that she should leave immediately or else she will have her arrested.

Julia realized that Mrs. Ochiltree had stolen the papers. She told her that she had married Mr. Merkell, but Aunt Polly demanded for her to prove it. Knowing that she had been defeated, Julia took her child and left the house. That, Aunt Polly tells Olivia, is “how I saved your estate and why you should be grateful to me.” Once the story is over, Olivia is pensive and asks only one question: “What became of the papers, Aunt Polly?” Aunt Polly only laughs and reminds her that Julia found no papers.


Chapters Eleven and Thirteen allow the reader to observe and compare the religious beliefs and rituals of both white and black culture. The reader receives a brief look into the rituals of white culture during the book’s first chapters and the christening of the baby. Chesnutt depicts white religion as an institution of history and lineage. White families participate in religious ceremonies in order to establish their place in society. Rituals such as christenings are ceremonies of passage that all established white children must go through. In this way, white religion serves the purpose of reinforcing the social structures of separation and white supremacy.

Chesnutt depicts African American religion in a much different way, however. The first example of this is Mammy Jane’s superstitious belief in Dodie Carteret’s mole. She sees the mole behind the child’s ear as a portent of bad luck and evil. This mole is the mark of lynching. Mammy Jane notes in the first chapter that a black person with such a mole was bound to meet a bad end. In an attempt to negate this evil, she buries a vial of the baby’s bathwater, blessed by a religious shaman in the community, in the Carteret’s yard. Mammy Jane’s beliefs are a fusion of Christianity, a religion inherited from white culture, and an amalgamation of folk religions brought to America by African and Caribbean slaves. Sandy, old Mr. Delamere’s servant, is an example of moralistic Christianity in the black community. Sandy is Methodist, a denomination with evangelical roots that places a high priority on moral behavior. Thus, when Sandy is caught dancing in the cakewalk, he is cast out of the Methodist society and loses his moral standing in society. In this side of religion, the reader can see how religious values inherited from white culture served to create a set of moral structures that contained and restricted African American social life.

In chapter Twelve, the reader sees the frailty of the structure that religion provides for the African American community. Josh, the man who broke his arm in a fight with a South American sailor, represents the harshest side of black life during this time. Josh’s father was killed by the Ku Klux Klan. The Klan was a secret white organization begun in Tennessee shortly after the Civil War. It used tactics of terrorism and violence to intimidate both African Americans and whites who supported the Reconstruction government of the post-War South. The death of Josh’s father, therefore, is an act of terrorism for which Josh remains violently bitter. Josh and his mother lived in poverty throughout their lives, a state that he has not been able to overcome. Josh’s anger is born out of his social condition. He has no money and no rights. He sees his one purpose in life is to avenge the death of his father. Dr. Miller invokes the New Testament’s teaching of forgiving others as opposed to the “Mosaic law’s” prescription of an “eye for an eye.” This does not seem to matter to Josh, however, because his anger is too great. Chesnutt means to show the severity of the social conditions for the African American community is eroding the moral and social structures of the community.

The cakewalk scene is an important part of the novel for understanding how African American culture played the role of both amusement for white culture and satirizing of white culture. Chesnutt clearly seeks to show that the cakewalk, a dance competition whose tradition dates back to slave plantations, is a form of black spectacle meant to entertain and demean African Americans. In the novel, it is performed in order for white Northern guests to see how happy and content the African American race is in the South. Chesnutt misses what later sociologists and historians have suggested is a satirizing of white culture in the cakewalk. The cakewalk, in its original form on the plantation, emulates and makse ridiculous the manners of white people in the plantation homes. In this way, black slaves were able to gain a sense of autonomy and self-identification in the culture of chattel slavery.

In the cakewalk scene, Tom Delamere participates in the cakewalk, rather than Sandy, though it will be Sandy that is blamed by his religious community for his participation. Tom is able to imitate a black person through paint, clothing, and mannerism. Tom and Sandy, thus, are doubles in the novel in both a physical and a symbolic sense. Physically, Tom is able to impersonate Sandy and will, in fact, use his persona to commit murder. Symbolically, both Tom and Sandy were raised by the same family and are expected to uphold the same values and traditions. Ironically, it is Sandy who upholds the values of truth, honesty, and virtue and not Tom. Tom’s decline and Sandy’s moral uprightness is Chesnutt’s attempt to chart the white aristocracy’s decline into injustice and the African American community’s moral uprightness.

The story that Aunt Polly tells Olivia Carteret in chapter fifteen is a flashback moment that provides back-story for the novel’s narrative. This story of Aunt Polly’s deceit aligns her with the novel’s other antagonists. Her growing dementia allows Chesnutt to further her characterization as a woman with evil and greedy motives interested only in securing the supremacy of her white family.