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Liminality in the works: The novels of Charles Chesnutt

Susan Jane Doyle, University of Massachusetts Amherst


Charles Chesnutt is perhaps best known for his short stories; he also, over the course of his relatively short publishing career, produced three novels, which have been less well represented in the critical community. This neglect is due to some oversimplified readings in the past. My readings offer a revised view of Chesnutt's work, which I have opened up by using the critical lens of liminality, and by drawing on Chesnutt's own natural deconstructionist tendencies to do deconstructive readings of the novels. I draw on Victor Turner's definition of liminality, which comes from Turner's rites of passage studies. I show that Chesnutt's characters frequently attain liminal status in his work--they take on the "betwixt and between" characteristics that Turner defines as essential to the liminal state. But far from attaining the final assimilation that comes at the end of liminality, Chesnutt's characters end up as marginals--Turner's term for permanent outcasts. Thus, Chesnutt, in his typically ironic way, has described the status of black Americans at the turn of the 19$\sp{\rm th}$ century in America. Chesnutt's novels are, when looked at as a continuum, a brooding meditation on the despair of black existence following Reconstruction. In the first novel, The House Behind the Cedars, Chesnutt shows the liminal quality of passing, an option which he chose not to exercise. In the second (and most successful) book, The Marrow of Tradition, he shows the liminal nature of the racial space occupied by a professional black man, who tries to be all things to all people, and who ends up utterly unable to express himself. And in the third, and final, novel, The Colonel's Dream, Chesnutt shows the failure of a white man who tried to go back to his hometown in the South and change the course of its future by combining what he perceives to be the best of the past with the best of the present. But in the frozen landscape of the post-Reconstructionist South, all dreams have become nightmares. Thus, because of his prophetic voice, Chesnutt deserves more appreciative readings in the present.

Subject Area

American literature|African Americans

Recommended Citation

Doyle, Susan Jane, "Liminality in the works: The novels of Charles Chesnutt" (1996). Doctoral Dissertations Available from Proquest. AAI9709591.