Chesnutt’s Evolving Treatment of the Color Line Through Naturalism

Powerful Essays
Chesnutt’s Evolving Treatment of the Color Line Through Naturalism

in “A Matter of Principle” and The House Behind the Cedar’s

Charles W. Chesnutt, a well-educated mulatto man, lived his life on ‘the color line.’ Chesnutt’s skin was very light and was sometimes mistaken for a white man. Chesnutt chose to identify himself as a black man, but in his works, his characters move back and forth across the color line and struggle with the world they exist in. The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line was published one year before The House Behind the Cedars and included the short story, “A Matter of Principle,” where Chesnutt clearly begins to explore what options are available to a mulatto man and his family, which will later evolve in Cedars. Chesnutt incorporates his philosophy of literary naturalism to show John Walden, Rena, and Mr. Clayton in relation to their surroundings and as governed by their instincts, passions, heredity and environment.

The physical nature of a person carried great weight in the South. Both John Walden and Cicero Clayton are very light mulatto men with good educations, wealth, and clear ideas about how the world should work, mostly in their favor. The South Carolina society in which they exist considers the men black, despite their outer appearance and treats them as such. This treatment is often base and degrading causing the men to feel that they have been harmed by the small amount of black blood coursing in their veins. The reader is told that as a young boy, John Walden thinks that “the mirror proved that God, the Father of all, had made him white…having made him white, He must have meant him to be white” (The House Behind the Cedars 107) . The stories reveal John and Clayton’s u...

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...erican Literature." Literary Movements. (Updated 02/22/03). (Accessed 12/08/03). <>.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “A Matter of Principle.” The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line. NC: U of NC at Chapel Hill Electronic Edition, 1997.

Chesnutt, Charles W. The House Behind the Cedars. NY: Penguin, 1993.

Chesnutt, Charles W. “Letter to George Washington Cable.” 25, July 1890. “To Be an Author.” Eds. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., and Robert C. Leitz, III. NJ: Princeton UP, 1997.

Duncan, Charles. The Absent Man: The Narratives of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio UP, 1998.

Works Consulted

Keller, Frances Richardson. An American Crusade: The Life of Charles Waddell Chesnutt. Utah: BYU P, 1978.

Wonham, Henry B. Charles W. Chesnutt: A Study of the Short Fiction. NY: Twayne Publishers, 1998.
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