Charles Waddell Chesnutt

The Marrow Of Tradition

  • 42-page comprehensive study guide
  • Features 37 chapter summaries and 5 sections of expert analysis
  • Written by a college professor with a PhD in English from Brown
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The Marrow Of Tradition Summary & Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 42-page guide for “The Marrow Of Tradition” by Charles Waddell Chesnutt includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 37 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like The “Poetry” of Racism vs. the Reality of Racism and Respectability Politics in the Face of Racism.

Plot Summary

Charles W. Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition is a 1901 historical novel based on the events of an 1898 white supremacist riot in Wilmington, North Carolina. Chesnutt’s novel takes place in the fictional town of Wellington and focuses on the intertwined fates of two couples: Major and Mrs. Olivia Carteret, and Dr. William and Mrs. Janet Miller. Olivia and Janet are half-sisters; while they share the same white father, Samuel Merkell, Janet’s mother was a black servant, Julia Brown. Narrated in the third person with free indirect discourse, the novel delivers insight into both the black and white characters’ frames of mind.

At the outset of the novel, Olivia goes into early labor after seeing her half-sister Janet (whom Olivia does not acknowledge as family) and Janet’s son. Olivia and the child Theodore “Dodie” Carteret both survive. Though this is a relief to her husband, Major Carteret, the incident does not allay tensions between the Carterets and the Millers.

As editor of the Morning Chronicle, Major Carteret uses his newspaper and family gatherings to share his racist views. At Dodie’s christening party, he debates with old Mr. John Delamere whether a black man can ever be trusted. Frustrated by Mr. Delamere’s views (which are more racially tolerant), as well as with the state of affairs in Wellington, the major endeavors to stir up anti-black sentiment. He enlists the help of a Southern gentleman, General Belmont, and a nouveau-riche social climber, Captain McBane. Major Carteret finds an article in the Afro-American Banner that decries the practice of lynching black men for interracial relationships when religion, nature, and the laws of other states pose no barrier to such marriages. He makes a plan to use the article—but not yet.

Meanwhile, we learn that Dr. Miller—an accomplished black surgeon—chafes against the prejudices of his fellow citizens, but has a philosophical viewpoint: He truly believes that it is only a matter of time before his white neighbors accept him. Dr. Miller must confront the town’s racism when Dodie falls ill and requires an operation. A specialist surgeon, Dr. Alvin Burns, is called down from Philadelphia. Dr. Burns, Dr. Miller’s mentor, asks that his pupil be present at the operation—and  Dr. Miller is eager to assist because his wife Janet cares so much for her half-sister Olivia and Dodie’s fate. But Major Carteret does not allow Dr. Miller to be present at the surgery. Dr. Miller confronts how deeply felt some prejudices are. When, a few days later, he treats a black man named Josh Green for a broken arm, the patient confesses that he plans to die killing McBane, the man who killed his father.

As Major Carteret and Dr. Miller attend to their families and their ideals, Mr. Delamere’s grandson Tom Delamere attends to his own follies. Tom has a reputation for gambling and drinking. When Major Carteret suggests he quit both, Tom is angry and blames the rumors about his behavior on his romantic rival Lee Ellis, an editor at the Morning Chronicle. After he resumes gambling and drinking, Tom owes General McBane $1,000; he also borrows money from Mr. Delamere’s servant, Sandy Campbell. Then, to repay his debts, Tom dresses in Sandy’s clothes and kills the wealthy Mrs. Polly Ochiltree (Olivia’s aunt), giving some of the stolen gold to Sandy to repay his debt.

The Morning Chronicle publishes a special edition detailing the crime and identifying Sandy as the perpetrator. To prevent a lynching, Dr. Miller finds old Mr. Delamere and brings him to town. Mr. Delamere interrogates Sandy, confers with Ellis, and inspects Tom’s room, discovering the truth of the crime. While these efforts thwart a lynching, Tom never pays the price. Major Carteret makes the matter a racial one, and he goes to great lengths to conceal that a white man committed the heinous crime.

After her aunt’s death, Olivia learns from Mrs. Ochiltree’s papers that her father married his servant Julia, and that her half-sister Janet is a legitimate child who should have received some of his estate. Olivia wrestles with this information, wanting to do right but unwilling to bring embarrassment upon herself.

In the wake of these events, a wave of anti-black sentiment sweeps Wellington and the nation. Major Carteret and his group finally release the editorial from the Afro-American Banner with their commentary. White men take to the streets with the goal of overturning the current government and driving prominent black men out of town. Almost immediately, the violence turns murderous. Olivia’s nursemaid, Mammy Jane, tries to make her way to Olivia and Dodie, but Mammy Jane is killed. Josh murders McBane. Major Carteret is disgusted by the events, which he knows are out-of-hand, but he sees no way to stop them. Dr. Miller makes his way through the mob to search for his wife and child.

When Major Carteret returns home, he finds Dodie grievously sick and in need of surgery: Dr. Miller is the only physician who can help him. Major Carteret wants to personally ask for Dr. Miller’s aid but finds Dr. Miller and Janet mourning the death of their only child. Dr. Miller lays the blame squarely at Major Carteret’s feet. Next, Olivia tries to persuade Dr. Miller and Janet. Olivia reveals to Janet the truth of her paternity and offers Janet half the Merkell estate. Janet refuses her father’s name and the money, but she instructs her husband to attend to Dodie.

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Chapters 1-3