If there is one that can be said about “The Passing of Grandison” it is that right from the opening line the story consistently challenges the reader to examine how their own limited frame of references leads them to misinterpret meaning in the text. The bitterly corrosive irony that inevitably dawns on the average reader by the end is that their swift indictment of Col. Owens for exhibiting a truly colossal gift for thinking he understands other people better than he actually does has been turned back on them. “The Passing of Grandison” is a mirror that author Charles Chesnutt holds up to the reader as a way of forcing them to realize they, too, bring their own socially engineered expectations when interpreting meaning.
Everything begins at the beginning. The story commences with an observation by the third-person narrator that one thing is yet to be discovered is what a man will not do to make a woman happy. The next line foreshadows the narrative to come by mentioning a major white character by name while referring to the story’s only major black character as “one of his father’s negro men.” Thus, the natural inclination is to expect that the white man mentioned by name whom the author informs us will be attempting to take the unnamed black man to Canada and free him will likely confirm once again that there is nothing a man won’t do to please a woman.
But is that really a natural inclination? Do black readers also immediately expect that to be how the story turns out? How many white readers expect that the man who turns out to go to great lengths to make a woman happy is not Dick Owens and not his father, but the unnamed negro? Such questions are not mere flights of fancy, but exactly the kind of thing that Chesnutt was aiming for. After a brief expository paragraph outlining the history of the Fugitive Slave Act, this natural inclination is further prodded with a scene between Dick Owens and the woman he loves which reveals that her words become his motivation for that trip to Canada to with his father’s negro man in tow. Later on, however, it becomes clear that that this entire scheme was cooked up by Dick directly as a result of misinterpreting the full meaning of what the woman he wants to please said to him.
During the same conversation, this woman—Charity Lomax—flat out says to Dick that “I’ll never love you, Dick Owens, until you have done something.” When she finds out exactly what it is that Dick has done later in the story, however, she agrees to marry not on the premise that he has finally done something worthwhile, but that his recklessness requires someone to look after him in order to stop him from doing something!
Shortly after drawing inspiration from his misinterpretation of Charity’s words, Dick almost immediately seeks out a slave named Tom. The natural assumption here, of course, is that this is the unnamed negro man mentioned in the opening paragraph, but that assumption is quickly proven wrong. Dick first goes to Tom because he must have recognized earlier than Tom had an urge to escape slavery. The problem is that Dick is not the only one to have interpreted Tom’s unspoken behavior correctly. Despite assurances that he won’t be a threat to run away, Dick’s father puts the kibosh on Dick’s taking Tom as a body-servant and suggests he take Grandison instead. After warning the slave of the dangers presented to his quality of life and happiness posed by abolitionists—along with a threat against the woman Grandison wants to marry should he not return to the plantation veiled as a promise of reward if he does—Colonel Owens declares Grandison to be “abolitionist-proof.” The narrator makes it clear that the Colonel is quite proud of his ability to understand his slaves and his insight into the personality of Tom as a potential threat to escape temporarily misleads the reader to suspecting it may not be an empty boast.
Eventually, it will be proven not just empty, but so completely lacking in substance that the Colonel’s self-assured confidence of his ability to understand the mind of not just his slaves, but the entire black race as a collective entity is revealed as one of the most ironic aspects of a story slathered in irony. It is the Colonel’s socially engineered expectations when interpreting others on which the entire plot turns. If the Colonel really were able to understand the slave mind as well as he asserts, he would easily calculate that Grandison’s servile and fearful personality ready to lap up anything his master says as gospel truth is all an act. If Grandison’s servile and fearful personality were not all an act, the final twist in the plot would not occur. But Grandison does return after being left to claim freedom in the North and the Colonel does misinterpret this shocking act as confirmation that he possesses tremendously acute insight into the mind of slaves and the reader does come to realize just how ironic this claim really is when the final revelation comes that not only has he overestimated his own ability, but he underestimated everything about Grandison.