The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt

The House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt

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Tryon’s Transformation
Norman Vincent Peal once remarked: when a person changes their thoughts, they change their world. Unfortunately, too many individuals do not want to make that change. Human nature causes one to stick to what he knows, to be cautious and remain within his own boundaries. Some people, however, accept differences and embrace change; they may not know what to expect but they are ready to change. In The House Behind the Cedars, Charles Chesnutt writes of George Tryon, who is able to take such a step. Tryon, a young white man who has lived a very sheltered upper class life, is a very self-centered, racist man, who finds extreme pride in his race. Chesnutt describes this character as someone who does not want to change one detail of his own life, yet is willing to completely alter the lives of those around him for his own benefit. When he wins the heart of Rena Warwick, he finds that if he truly cannot live without her, he needs to make a lifestyle change. Although Tryon has difficulty choosing love over status, he ultimately realizes what matters more. He therefore changes from a racist, close-minded man to a more open, accepting individual.
Tryon’s prejudiced personality does not present itself until he makes his first trip to Patesville. While courting Rena, he never mentions or speaks badly of a person of color; had he done so, she may have been more cautious. When Rena tests Tryon’s love, asking “would [he] love [her]...if [she] [were] Albert’s nurse”, Tryon joyously replies, “If [she] were Albert’s nurse… within a week [they] should be married” (59). He pays no attention to the race of the nurse but rather her occupation. It is later that he realizes what Rena was trying to tell him with this question, and how oblivious he was to reality. Certain that Rena is white; Tryon has no care for her background and ancestry. To Tryon, “[Rena] represented…the finest flower of the finest race that god had ever made… the flower would soon be his, why should he care to dig up the soil in which it grew” (66). Tryon feels he is marrying the most attractive white woman in the world so why should he care who her ancestors could have been. Ironically, her ancestors actually matter so much to him that he breaks her heart.
Once Tryon sees Rena’s true identity he knows he has to choose between the life he lives or the woman he loves.

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His need to be accepted in his racist, status driven society makes him turn his back on Rena. During Tryon’s first visit to Patesville we learn of his negative, chauvinistic thoughts on interracial relations. When he hears Rena’s voice which disturbs his nap at Dr. Green’s office he feels “a momentary touch of annoyance that a negro woman intruded herself into his dream” (72). This voice, when he believes it belongs to his beloved Rena sounds so real and beautiful to him; these thoughts, however, are all erased once he finds that the voice he hears belongs to a colored woman. This encounter foreshadows the impending destiny, for when Tryon sees Rena in Patesville, he can not contain his disgust: “A negro girl has been foisted upon him for a white woman and he had almost committed the unpardonable sin against his race of marrying her” (96). Tryon feels that Rena has made him a victim because she lied and pretended to be white. He believed her, loved her and almost married her, which would be an unforgivable sin against the white race. As he explains in a letter to Warwick, “[he] [takes] this opportunity of renouncing any pretensions to Miss Warwick’s hand”, feeling that “few white men would deem it necessary to make an explanation under the circumstance” (102). He believes it is obvious that there is only one reason he is leaving Rena since he feels that few white men would stay under such conditions, accepting the love of a colored woman. He turns his love for Rowena Warwick into anger and revulsion against Rena Walden. “She was worse than dead to him, for if he had seen her lying in her shroud before him, he could have at least cherished her memory”; he would rather grieve and cherish the memory of a dead, white, Rowena Warwick than accept the colored Rena Walden who is living in the house behind the cedars (96). Had Rena died, Tryon could not bring himself to find fault with her. He would rather make himself miserable from her loss than feel such anger and pure hatred towards her.
Just when it is too late, Tryon finally realizes that living the socially acceptable lifestyle he wants is not worth giving up love. He finally changes his ways and accepts Rena, understanding how much love truly matters. When Tryon first returns home to live with his mother and Blanche Leary, he wants to erase Rena completely from his memory, freeing him of the grief and anguish he suffers from since Patesville. Sadly, “reason, common-sense,…-the deep-seated prejudices of race and caste- commanded him to dismiss Rena from his thoughts. His stubborn heart simply would not let go” (129).Everything in his mind tells him to flee from any thoughts of Rena Walden, but his heart wants to hang on to the beautiful Rowena Warwick whom he truly loves. Slowly during his second trip to Patesville, he starts to realize he has just been ignorant to her clues, blinded by fascination, not comprehending what she had been trying to tell him. Tryon feels he has superiority over Rena, being white: “He would make [Rena] white; no one beyond the old town would ever know the difference” (140). Tryon wants to be with Rena yet he is not ready to accept her true identity. He still considers himself superior, having the power to change her entire individuality. He plans to go to her, and prove his love to her but this soon changes when he sees Rena dancing with Mr. Wain. Realizing that she is not weeping and distraught, he feels dismayed and regretful. Tryon was grateful “that he had been saved a second time from a mistake which would have wrecked his whole future” (150). When he realizes that she is not suffering as he is, he decides to move on and starts his new life, with Blanche. Later, through Blanche and his mother, Tryon learns of Rena’s teaching job at the school so he asks to see her one last time, an opportunity she denies him. Finally, when she flees from him during the storm, he realizes he must go after her. He realizes that if she dies it would be because of his cruelty “…no less surely than if with his own hand he had struck her down” (194). When Tryon discovers Rena’s escape and subsequent illness, he realizes that should anything happen to her, he will feel guilty, not only because he feels that he was the reason she fled during the storm but also because he rejects and leaves her. Finally he is ready to change, ready to accept Rena and ready to give her the love she deserves. Tryon finds “Custom was tyranny. Love was the only law” (194). He does not care about her race or his customs, thinking that their love will carry them through. Once her life is placed in danger, he realizes that he cannot live without her, no matter what her race, status or customs. He no longer feels ashamed to love her or accept her; he knows his life may change but he is now ready to make those sacrifices for love.

Though Tryon comes to his realization too late to share their love together, he does finally make the change. Tryon transforms his entire personality for Rena, no longer caring about status and race; he wants to love her totally. Chestnutt uses the Rena’s sudden death to show us that one may not always get a second chance at love. Tryon, having changed, will have a more open outlook on life. Although he may not be able to share it with Rena; he now has many more possibilities.
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