The Marrow of Tradition

The Marrow of Tradition Summary and Analysis of Chapters 31-37


Chapter 31

Olivia wakes from a “troubled dream.” Her son had been a “fairy prince” in the dream, when a storm came over her, and a wall of water suddenly overcame her and the child. She envisions herself floating on the water while her son slowly sinks and she has no power to save him. She knows that it is her “father’s folly” and the question of her sister’s rights that keeps her awake. She worries that society might believe that she is also the product of an unlawful, “unblessed” union and that her own son might be suspected of being of mixed blood. She decides that the marriage must never be made known.

She still feels uneasy about Janet’s property rights. By law, Janet is entitled to half her father’s estate. It becomes a question so “meum and tuum.” This is especially true because Janet is an educated person of status who had married well. Olivia decides that she must keep the marriage between her father and Julia a secret, but that she must also carry out her father’s request named in his will. This is a problem as well, however, because much of the Carteret’s property is tied up in a mining investment and it is not possible for her to procure ten thousand dollars. She decides that, at some point in the future, she will make a gift in the sum of ten thousand dollars to Dr. Miller’s hospital, thus “indirectly both her father’s will and her own conscience would be satisfied.”

The next morning Major Carteret tells Olivia to conduct any business of hers downtown before the afternoon. She is curious about why, but the Major tells her it is a small matter. She decides to call for Mammy Jane so that “the old nurse might be protected from danger or alarm,” but Mammy Jane had gone to the country to visit a sick woman.

Chapter 32

The Wellington riot begins at three o’clock in the afternoon. Armed white men come into the street “as if by magic” and begin to search and hold up any black man, woman, or child that they see. If he disagrees with the request, there is violence. Dr. Miller is out on a call and as he comes back into town, he sees groups of people with fear on their faces. Miller knows, with his “slumbering race consciousness which years of culture had not obliterated,” that there is racial trouble in town. A man tells him that the white people have risen up and are going to kill all the blacks. The man begs Dr. Miller not to go into town, but Miller fears for his wife and child and so he races back.

On the road back into town, Miller meets Watson on the road. Watson tells him that the white people have “formed a provisional city government à la française” and have ordered many of the more prominent black men to leave town. Watson exclaims that the day before, he had had “a hundred white friends in the town” but that today not one of them even looked at him. As they are talking, Josh Green and a group of men come down the road. Green tells Miller and Watson that their uprising is looking for a leader. Watson and Miller tell them that it is no use and that if they rise up, all will die. Josh tells that “God he’ps dem dat he’ps demselves.” Miller tells Green that he would like to lead them, but that this useless exercise would only result in their deaths. Josh tells Miller that his mother died this morning and asks that, if he should die, if Miller will bury her. Miller and agrees and Josh leads the band of rebels, telling them that “I’d ruther be a dead nigger any day dan a live dog!”

Chapter 33

Miller rushes home and breaks into his own house because everything is locked up so tightly. The Miller’s servant tells him that his wife and child went over to the Butlers’ home. MIller dashes out of the house again and makes rapid progress towards town on his horse. Suddenly, he comes across a dead body in the streets. He realizes that the news from Miller and Green is true. At the next corner, he sees another dead black man, shot through the head. A voice commands him to halt and demands that he comes down off his horse. The white man, a clerk in a dry goods store that Miller saw frequently, searches him and his buggy. When they finish, they tell him to move along and to leave the streets because the town “from now on will be a white man’s town, as you niggers will be pretty firmly convinced before night.” At the next corner, he is stopped again and then almost runs into an injured man down the road. He is stopped three more times before Mr. Ellis sees him and rides in the carriage with him so that Dr. Miller will not be disturbed.

Ellis is horrified at the spectacle of violence. He knows that the “resentment of a proud people at what had seemed to them a presumptuous freedom of speech and lack of deference on the part of their inferiors...were no sort of justification for the wholesale murder or other horrors which might well ensue before the day was done.” When Miller reaches the Butler’s house and says goodbye to Ellis, he is worried because the house is dark and no one appears to be home.

Chapter 34

Miller knocks at the front door, then the back door, and finally summons a frightened Mrs. Butler to the door. She tells him that his wife and child left earlier for home. Miller tries to convince himself that the white people’s savagery would not go so far as to harm women and children. As he walks down the street, he meets Josh Green and his “band of negro laborers.” Miller warns them again, but Green tells him that they are prepared to die fighting. Miller is concerned for Josh, but knows that in the eye of public opinion, a “negro’s courage would be mere desperation; his love of liberty, a mere animal dislike of restraint.” Miller continues walking down the street and stumbles upon the body of a woman. He looks down and sees that it is the body of Mammy Jane. He cradles her head and she whispers to her mistress that she is coming before she dies. Miller continues and, suddenly, sees a sight under a lamppost that makes him turn pale with horror.

Chapter 35

The riot is deemed a “revolution” by the white people, but by seven o’clock it had become a murderous riot. Josh and his group of men make their way to Dr. Miller’s hospital with the idea of protecting every important negro institution that they could. The white mobs hear that there is a band of black men preparing to attack and so Josh’s group makes their way into the hospital to seek safety. As they make their way towards the building, Josh’s group meets Jerry who is very much afraid. Josh grabs Jerry, though he protests, and drags him with them. They enter the hospital and barricade themselves in.

The mob reaches the hospital and Josh eyes Captain McBane, the man who had killed his father. McBane threatens them all that they will be shot if they continue to resist. Suddenly, a gunshot rings out and the black men in the hospital returns fire. A white man is killed, another is injured, and the mob’s fury rises.

Outside of the mob, Major Carteret and Mr. Ellis watch the proceedings. Carteret tells Ellis that this must be stopped since women and children were now being killed. Ellis tells him that the mob is now in the fever stage and that it “must burn itself out.” Carteret insists that he did not mean for this to happen. He elbows his way through the crowd and makes his way to the front. He tries to make a speech and to tell them all that their actions are a disgrace, but they do not hear him and believe that he is talking about the black men. The mob surges and sets the building on fire. Inside, Josh Green knows that the time has come to fight and die.

The door of the hospital is thrown open and the black fighters rush out. Many are shot are killed but Josh Green takes out a huge bowie knife and runs straight for Captain McBane. Josh is shot just as he reaches McBane and plunges his knife into him. Both are dead. “One of the two died as the fool dieth. Which was it, or was it both?” Shortly, the mob disperses and the hospital burns down.

Chapter 36

Carteret returns home and finds the door locked. When a servant lets him in, he finds that his child has become sick with the croup and that the situation has become quite severe. Carteret begins questioning whom they contacted about the situation, but Mrs. Carteret and the nurse tells him that no doctor was available and that medicine and ice were not available either because all stores were closed for the riot. Carteret rushes out of the house and knocks on the doors of several of the town’s doctors. All are out seeing other patients. At Dr. Yates’s house, Carteret meets a young student who offers to treat the baby if he can. When this young doctor, Dr. Evans, finds Dodie, however, he realizes the situation is worse than he suspected. He tells the family that he does not have the expertise or tools to perform a tracheotomy, the only operation that will save the child. Evans tells Carteret that only one other doctor in town can save his child, Dr. Miller.

Evans goes to Miller’s house to request his services but returns shortly to tell Carteret that Miller would not come without the Major’s personal request for he had been turned away at an earlier call. Carteret feels that this is justifiable and rushes out of the house. He arrives at Miller’s in only a few minutes and tells Miller that his child is sick and that he requests his services. Miller is furious and opens the door to his house to reveal his wife, kneeling over the rigid dead body of his own son. “There lies my only child, laid low by a stray bullet in this riot which you and your paper have fomented; struck down as much by your hand as though you had held the weapon with which his life was taken!” Miller refuses to see Carteret’s child.

Carteret has a brief moment of clarity. “In the agony of his own predicament...for a moment the veil of race prejudice was rent in twain, and he saw things as they were, in their correct proportions and relations, -- saw clearly and convincingly that he had no standing here, in the presence of death, in the home of this stricken family.” Carteret returns home with the news. All of the others present seem to understand the doctor’s position, but Olivia Carteret refuses to accept his answer. She dashes out into the street to go to the doctor.

Chapter 37

The doorbell at the Miller residence furiously rings. Miller is in a dazed grief, but rises to answer it. He finds Mrs. Carteret begging him to save her child. Miller tells her that he will not -- “Love, duty, sorrow, justice, call me here. I cannot go!” Olivia falls to her knees, begging Miller and praying to God that he would come and save her child. Miller is moved by her prayers and remembers that, though unrecognized, she is his wife’s sister. He tells her to rise and to go to Janet. If she allows it, he will go and save her child.

Olivia and Janet confront each other. Olivia begs her to allow her husband to come and save her child. Janet refuses the request. Olivia calls her “sister,” but Janet rebukes this name saying, “I have been your sister for twenty-five years, and you have only now, for the first time, called me so!” Olivia admits that Janet is her lawful sister and that she means to make restitution for robbing her of her father’s estate. This is a bitter admission for Janet. She “had obtained her heart’s desire, and now that it was at her lips, found it but apples of Sodom, filled with dust and ashes!” Janet makes a speech, telling Olivia that her mother had died of want, that she had been raised in poverty, and that now her child had been taken from her, all because of Olivia and her family. Olivia exclaims that she will forfeit her own life and livelihood. Janet tells her that she will not take the wealth and name of Olivia’s father, but “that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her, you may have your child’s life.” She sends her husband to care for the Carteret child. As Dr. Miller enters the house, he asks if the child is still alive. Dr. Evans tells him that he is and says, “There’s time enough, but none to spare.”


The title of Chapter 31 is “The Shadow of a Dream.” This title is a reference to Shakespeare’s Hamlet in which Guildenstern says, “Which dreams, indeed, are ambition, for the very substance of the ambitious is merely the shadow of a dream.” Olivia’s dream, Dodie as a “fairy prince,” is meant to represent the anxiety of the white ruling class over the future of their race. This anxiety is through Dodie’s character. The Carteret’s ambitions for their child are representative of the larger ambitions that white Southern culture has for its future. These ambitions, like Hamlet’s own, are but “the shadow of a dream,” as the novel will show in the final chapters.

The placement of Chapter 31 is important to note. Olivia’s concern over her child’s future and her concern over her sister’s property rights come just before the outbreak of the Wellington riot. By placing this particular plot point at this juncture of the story, Chesnutt is suggesting that property rights and questions of inheritance are pivotal to the issues of racial identity and compassion. Olivia’s denial of her sister’s identity and inheritance is representative of the larger cultural problem of racial disinheritance. Thus, in the next chapter, the violence begins.

In the chapters depicting the riots, Chesnutt is careful to demonstrate that the order perceived by the white ruling class (that of “negro domination”) is a false perception. In fact, the white community dominates the black community. This is readily apparent in the ease with which the white mob participants are able to overtake, bully, and kill any black person that stands in their way. Chesnutt uses several juxtapositions of belief, especially religious belief, to demonstrate the insanity and false underpinnings of white aggression. He sarcastically notes that it would be impossible for anyone not of Southern heritage to believe that the “good Christian people, who thronged the churches on Sunday, and wept over the sufferings of the lowly Nazarene...could be thirsting for the blood of their fellow men.” Chesnutt’s theological point is that one cannot serve the “lowly Nazarene,” Jesus, who submitted his own life to death for the salvation of others, while also propagating messages of hate and prejudice. These belief systems are incompatible.

Chapters 33 and 34 are also named after concepts from the Bible. “Into the Lion’s Jaws” is a play on the phrase “into the lion’s den.” This phrase is taken from the book of Daniel from the Hebrew Bible. In this story, Daniel is sent by King Nebakanezer into a lion’s den to be executed. God closes the jaws of the lions, however, and Daniel is saved. The title of this chapter is meant to suggest that God is not willing, or able, to save the black community on the day of the riot and sends them not just into the lion’s den but into their open jaws. This idea is alluded to by Josh in Chapter 32 when he tells Dr. Miller that God “mus’ be ‘sleep, er busy somewhar e’se ter-day.” The title of Chapter 34, “The Valley of the Shadow,” is an allusion to Pslam 23 from the Hebrew Bible, “Yeah, htough I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; for thou art with me; thy rod and they staff they comfort me.” This title expresses the situation that Dr. Miller is walking into, finding his child dead upon the streets of Wellington. The title does not allude to God’s comfort, however.

The novel’s climax is actually a reflection on justice and compassion. These are two traits that are interposed with each other through the actions of the Carteret and Miller families and the situations that they find themselves in. The title of Chapter 36 is “Fiat Justitia,” latin for “Let justice be done.” This phrase would have been written in parliamentary law on a bill brought before parliament to correct an error in law. For Miller, his refusal to treat Dodie Carteret is his fiat justitia; his attempt to correct the injustice done to both him and his family through the riots. Carteret has a brief moment of clarity as he sees that this act of justice is warranted and fair, regardless of race.

Compassion, however, wins the day in the novel’s closing pages. Compassion does not mean a lack of anger or bitterness. Janet Miller remains extremely bitter for the wrong that is done to her by her sister. Chesnutt suggests, though, that this bitterness can be overcome with the hope of reconciliation between the races. Chesnutt proposes that Janet’s acceptance into and inheritance from the Carteret family is the basis for moving forward. Chesnutt’s message of acceptance is directed towards his white audience; his message of compassion is directed towards his black audience. The novel does not end with a denouement. The narrative ends before the reader learns if Dodie Carteret survives. This is meant to leave a question in the reader’s mind -- will the legacy of lynching, violence, and prejudice survive, or will it be changed in a fundamental way?