Opportunity and Burden in the Privileged Woman Illustrated in Chesnutt's, The House Behind the Cedars

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In the memorable novel by American author Charles W. Chesnutt, The House Behind the Cedars, we are driven to examine and understand the predicament of the privileged woman at the beginning of the 20th century. The main character, Rena Walden, is given the opportunity to pass in a high, white society thereby attaining great hopes for status, luxury, and prominent marriage. However, she is required to leave her racially coloured past behind her in order to successfully cross the colour line. Rena’s predicament is that she wants to belong to two very different worlds at the same time but simply cannot in such a deeply segregated society. As a result she is constantly forced to choose one over the other which eventually results in dire consequences.

Rena is thought to be the perfect Southern belle. She is described as “strikingly handsome, with a stately beauty seldom encountered” (Chesnutt 5). It is her exquisiteness that gets her noticed and ultimately promises trouble in a number of situations. Rena is an item to be desired and often the male characters lose sight that she is another human being albeit a woman. Her brother John, lover Tryon, and the despicable Wain all try to possess her to some degree for their personal gain. If she had been a homely, meek woman she would not have access to the opportunities offered to her. Rena tends to forget the individual she is because she allows herself to be torn in so many different directions. Her new life in South Carolina as Rowena Warwick finds her quickly and gracefully climbing the social ladder, however she jumps the colour line still an emotional, unsure young woman. Rena is thrown into situations too quickly and despite her intelligent disposition she does not have en...

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...for her to obtain despite a favourable looking surface.

Rena infers that “A man may make a new place for himself—a woman is born and bound to hers” (Chesnutt 121). As a sheltered young girl, the prospect of an awakening start in a world full of opportunity, known as the American Dream is a truly great gift. However, as an accepted Rena enters into the politics of the new social class and the better race, she quickly learns to ask the question “Why should I seek the society of people whose friendships—and love—one little word can turn to scorn?” (Chesnutt 121) Rena’s predicament is tragic because despite her knowledge and experience in both worlds she still cannot come to a decision. She does not have anywhere to go because she does not know who she is. Consequently, Rena dies from failing to live a carefully examined life, move forward and away from her quandary.

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