The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition Summary and Analysis of Chapters 16-20


Chapter 16

One afternoon, Clara, Major Carteret, Mrs. Carteret, and Ellis all take a trip to the seashore for dinner at a hotel with Tom Delamere. Major Carteret has a fondness for Ellis because of his sharp wit and Mrs. Carteret senses his fondness for Clara, but chooses not to interfere with her love life. On the road, they pass through several toll roads looked over by the “poor whites” of the countryside. Several decades before, Wellington had hosted a booming naval export business, but recent times had left the town’s economy faltering. This left many whites without decent income and reliant upon cotton for their livelihoods. The group also passes several groups of black persons; some are gathered in groups, laughing boisterously while others are more solemn and deferential to the carriage. Major Carteret thoughtfully remarks, “They will learn their lesson in a rude school, and perhaps much sooner than they dream.”

When the group arrives at the hotel, Tom Delamere is not present. They sit down for dinner and Ellis feels the discomfort of Clara’s indifference towards him. He despises Delamere and “but for his engagement to Clara, he would have held his opinions in utter contempt.” He takes heart only in the fact that Clara seems to ignore him, meaning that she actually has kept him in mind and made him “the subject of strong emotions.” Clara asks Ellis to inquire with the hotel staff as to Delamere’s whereabouts and he reluctantly accepts the job.

On the advice of a porter, Ellis goes upstairs and finds Tom Delamere passed out, sleeping and drunk, in a hotel room with several other young men who are playing cards. Not wanting to embarrass Clara, Ellis returns to the table and tells them all that Tom has not arrived. Now bored, Clara decides to go upstairs and play the piano. Ellis makes the snap decision to send the bellboy up to close the hotel room door where Delamere is passed out, saving both him and Clara the embarrassment. Ellis and Clara then take a walk on the beach, though she is distant to him because of her anger at Tom’s disappearance. While they are on the beach, Tom wakes up and freshens himself enough to make an appearance at dinner, telling everyone that he suffered heat exhaustion that afternoon and had been lying down.

Clara then tells Ellis that she wants to see the fires on the beach and leaves with him, not inviting Tom to join them. On the beach, Clara interrogates Ellis as to whether he knew Tom was in the hotel and if he was truly sick. Ellis avoids answering which gives Clara the only answer she needs. On the trip home, she is cold to Tom Delamere, but strangely warm to Ellis. When they return to Wellington, she invites Ellis to come by the house anytime but does not say a word to Delamere.

Chapter 17

After dropping Ellis off at his apartment, Tom Delamere makes his way to the St. James Hotel for some cards and drink before he has to return home. Upon arriving at the hotel, Tom meets Captain McBane and proposes a game of poker in his room. McBane has been waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of Delamere. He has noticed how Delamere cheats at cards and knows that he can take advantage of this trickery. McBane wants to become a part of the Clarendon Club, the one hundred year old social club for those of “birth, wealth, and breeding” in Wellington. He plans to use Delamere to help him get into this club.

After several hours of card playing and drinking, Delamere loses all of his money. McBane extends him credit and by the end of the evening, “flushed with excitement and wine...he was vaguely conscious that he owed McBane a considerable sum” of one thousand dollars. Delamere knows that he does not have the money and McBane tells him they will talk on the matter later.

The next day, at the hotel, McBane brings up the issue of his membership in the club. Tom is annoyed at the request by someone of such low social status but, since his debts are so high, he feels he must oblige. He tries to think of ways to pay off the debt. He knows that he cannot ask his old grandfather for the money since he does not know that Tom drinks and plays cards. Only his old Aunt Polly would have the money, but Tom knows that she will make “him wait until she died, which might not be for ten years or more, for a legacy which was steadily growing less and might be entirely exhausted if she lived long enough.” Tom suggests that they leave the matter open for a few days while he tests the waters with his fellow club members.

That evening, with no money in his pocket, Tom goes to visit Sandy. He asks Sandy if he has any savings he can borrow and Sandy reluctantly lets him take fifty dollars but warns him that if his grandfather were to find out about his misdeeds, it might cause another stroke. Tom agrees to pay the money back. When he returns to the club, he is set up by a group of club members who find out that he is cheating at cards. The members are called together and they agree to spare Tom the shame of the matter if he quietly resigns from the club and pays back all $1500 of his debt within three days. Tom acquiesces, though he does not know where he will find the money.

Chapter 18

Sandy finishes his evening chores and goes out for the night. Usually, he would go to the church, but since being disallowed from attending services he decides to go to “the lower part of town” to visit some friends. On the way, he meets Josh Green who invites him to have a drink with him. The one drink turns into many and by the time Sandy stumbles home at eleven o’clock, he is quite drunk. As he walks home, Sandy sees someone walking ahead of him wearing his same suits and looking just like him. Sandy is convinced that he is seeing his own ghost and that “whichever one of us is de ha’nt, de uther must be dead an’ don’ know it.”

When he gets home, he goes up to Tom’s room and startles him with his knock. Sandy asks if he has seen anyone come in or out of the house and, sensing that Sandy is drunk, Tom tells him that he has not. As Sandy turns to leave, Tom tells him that he can pay him back the money that he borrowed. He counts out five ten dollar gold coins and then gives Sandy an extra coin for the interest. He hands Sandy an old silk purse, telling him that he had owned the purse since he was a boy, and Sandy leaves very pleased. Tom spends the remainder of the evening “burning several articles” from his drawers on a little iron stove. He then wakes very early the next morning and tells the cook that he is going fishing all day and will not return until later.

Chapter 19

Ellis leaves the Morning Chronicle offices at about eleven and walks towards his boarding house down the same street as the Carteret and Delamere residences. Earlier in the day, Ellis went to the club to verify the rumor that Tom Delamere had been kicked out of the Clarendon Club. He is hopeful that Clara Pemberton will not be allowed to marry a man “who had been proved dishonorable” though he knows that many important people will be involved in the Delamere case and that nothing will probably come of it.

As he walks down the street, Ellis observes two men, one walking in front of the other. The second man seems to be sneaking behind the first as if he does not want to be seen. Ellis sees the first man stop under a lamppost carrying some sort of small sack and Ellis immediately recognizes the man as Sandy because of his old-fashioned coat. This first man goes into the Delamere house quietly. The second man follows him, stopping briefly under a tree and Ellis is surprised to see that this man looks just like Sandy as well. Ellis is confused over the whole matter but even that mystery cannot distract his thoughts of Clara for long. He is sure that with Tom’s demise, he might have a “fair play.”

Chapter 20

On Friday morning, Mrs. Ochiltree’s cook, Dinah, goes to wake her and find her murdered body lying on the floor. Dinah hurries over to Mrs. Carteret’s house and announces the death in a terrified fashion. Olivia is filled with terror but also remembers that she had meant to ask her Aunt Polly about the papers that she mentioned that might give legitimacy to her father’s black mistress. When she enters the room, she quickly searches for the papers and finds a wrinkled envelope amongst the scattered belongings of her dead aunt.

A committee is formed to track down the killer. The entire black population of the town is immediately suspected. “The suspicion was not entirely an illogical one. Having been, for generations, trained up to thriftlessness, theft, and immorality, against which only thirty years of very limited opportunity can be offset, during which brief period they have been denied in large measure the healthful social stimulus and sympathy which holds most men in the path of rectitude, colored people might reasonably be expected to commit at least a share of crime proportionate to their numbers. ...The Southern tendency to charge the negroes with all the crime and immorality of that region, unjust and exaggerated as the claim may be, was therefore not without logical basis.” Wellington’s black population goes into spontaneous hibernation. Everyone knows that there will be calls for a lynching and the best way to gain immunity was “a temporary disappearance from public view.”


Chapter 16 offers a glimpse of the economic anxiety that will be a cause of the riots in the novel’s closing chapters. The Civil War caused economic devastation in the South and the proceeding years of Reconstruction did little to diversify the Southern economy. By 1900, the South was still largely dependent on cotton as its main export, but without the free slave labor, the cotton economy could not provide for white Southerners as it had before the war. Traveling through the economically depressed countryside, the Carterets see white families suffering the same as black families. This only undergirds Major Carteret’s sense that there will be a restoration of white power, though this will prove to be only fantasy.

Chesnutt continues this theme of economic justice in the next chapter focusing on Captain McBane. In Southern hierarchy, the slave drivers and poor whites of the antebellum South have retained few rights and those that they did have come only because of race. McBane represents this crude class of poor white Southerners who, by the fortune of capitalism, was able to pull himself into respectable society. Chesnutt uses an aside by his narrator in Chapter Seventeen to reveal to the reader McBane’s true feelings and aspirations -- just as McBane seeks to attack the black community, he also plans to “assault society in its citadel” by seeking to become a member at the Clarendon Club. That Tom Delamere speaks on his behalf is only a demonstration of the decline of white aristocracy from its principles and its past.

The narrative of Sandy’s false imprisonment and near lynching in the book’s middle chapters is a sub-plot of the novel’s larger narrative. Chesnutt has been slowly building up this sub-plot, with Sandy’s dismissal from the Methodist Church and Delamere’s gambling problems as the crises leading to the murder of Mrs. Ochiltree. This sub-plot foreshadows the riot that will take place in the novel’s closing chapters. It also involves several characters that will prove pivotal during the riot, most importantly Josh Green.

Chesnutt uses this sub-plot to illustrate the common practice of false accusations that often led to the lynchings of black men. Though Polly Ochiltree is a despised woman, Chesnutt demonstrates how the town’s white males will use her murder and alleged rape to persecute a black man -- any black man -- as a defense of feminine honor. Chesnutt suggests that Southern white culture used female sexuality as a veil to disguise their racial hatred and contempt. This also ties into laws of mixed marriage and mixed race children, which were considered impure. Chesnutt argues that racial purity is a delusion of hatred, not of honor.

This “shocking crime” is the basis for a proposed lynching. Lynching was a crime committed by white mobs throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries against black men and, sometimes, women. The black person would be accused of a crime, often rape, and the mob would carry out a violent act of justice, usually hanging or burning at the stake, as a way to punish the criminal. The act, however, was actually meant as a mode of violent oppression and warning to the black community. The Marrow of Tradition can be seen as an argument through storytelling against the practice of lynching. According to Chesnutt, lynching is a misuse of justice because it undermines the democratic legal proceedings upheld by the public. It is a perversion of justice meant not to keep order but to subject a people to an unjust order of racial domination.