Realism with its emphasis on the ordinary, mundane life of the middle class and depiction of the individuals struggle for an ethical responses to life arose as an ‘-ism’ in “the period of time from the Civil War to the turn of the century” and may be considered a response to the rapid changes in society during that period.(Campbell) It is this idea of change and the question of how one should respond correctly to it that tinges Chesnutt’s The Marrow of Tradition. Chesnutt, who passed the bar in 1887, has written a story that is the quintessential expression of Realism.
Through his careful crafting of events and characters drawn from a historic incident, he manages to depict the horror of immoral responses and the monstrous consequences that ensue from the aforementioned. Set in the south, The Marrow of Tradition has as its main characters, not senators and congressman, but a doctor, a housewife, employees of a newspaper, etc. That is, it is set squarely in the mundane. These characters are then depicted going about their daily life. We are witness to a birth. We watch as Tom Delamere woos Clara, and fights his gambling addiction. We see Dr. William Miller navigating the strictures of an unjust law as he returns from the North. Chesnutt drags his reader through the quotidian routine of Southern life, deliberately building up his “individuals” before confronting them with “the struggle for ethical responses to life”.
The climax of this novel may be said to be the riot, a fictionalized version of the Wilmington Race Riot of 1898 in which a mob went on a rampage causing the death of between 6 to 100 people. The original riot, like the fictional one, is not squashed by the government. It runs its course under the raging power of ordinary citizens in the grip of unyielding prejudice. We then have three points of “life” in the novel. There is the first one, which is the riot itself, and then the response to the riot’s aftermath. The riot, itself, is a point in relation to the white Southerners who are faced with a choice between giving into the prejudices unleashed by Captain McBane and his co-conspirators or leaving the individual accountable for the individual. That is, they have a choice between seeing individuals as responsible for their own actions, or blaming an entire group. Chesnutt depicts them as having made the wrong choice at this critical point. They give into emotions and cast reason to the winds.
The second point is in relation to Dr. William Miller, who may be seen as a symbolic representative of a specific class of blacks, ones who have not had to bear the harsh sting of racism in the form of loved one lost and who may still hold a favorable opinion towards the whites. His test comes in his response to Major Carteret’s request to aid his child. Having just lost his own child to the blind fury of rampaging mob who share commonality with Major Carteret, should Dr. William rush to aid this child? Is it ethically wrong to run his back on an innocent babe in need? Chesnutt answers this question in a unique way, reinforcing the Realism in his novel. He, again, shows us a regular, middle class individual giving into his emotions.
Perhaps, had Chesnutt ended the novel there, on such a dark note, it would have been, at the very least, cathartic. However, still working within the framework set out by Realism, he adds a third point: the reunion of the sisters. Janet, having just lost her own child and having born humiliations at the hands of Clara, chooses to forgive her half-sister, and urges her husband, Dr. William, to save the child. Chesnutt anchors this response in reality, acknowledging the pain born by this woman while at the same time allowing her to take the high ground as he writes: “…that you may know that a woman may be foully wronged, and yet may have a heart to feel, even for one who has injured her…”(195) It may be worth noting that Chesnutt makes the character who takes the moral high ground, the one who makes the right and ethical decision, a woman. Perhaps, he is toying with Realism and stereotypical European ideas of womanhood in his time, or perhaps he is hinting that “masculine”, rather than chivalric, codes of revenge will tear the world in two, leaving its burnt husk for none to enjoy.