When it is said that it was done to please a woman, there ought perhaps to be enough said to explain anything; for what a man will not do to please a woman is yet to be discovered. Nevertheless, it might be well to state a few preliminary facts to make it clear why young Dick Owens tried to run one of his father’s negro men off to Canada.
So begins Chesnutt’s story, disarming the reader immediately by making her or him think this will be a tale more of romance than race. Within this context of “a man pleasing a woman,” Chesnutt satirizes the stereotype of the “happy slave” as well as plantation life in general by allowing one such slave to dupe his master and in so doing achieve freedom not only for himself but for all of his relatives as well.
Young Dick Owens, as indolent as he is rich, wants to marry Charity Lomax, but she will have none of it. Criticizing him for being “too lazy for any use,” Charity says she will “never love him” until he “has done something” that “proves he is a man.” Just recently, a young white man from Ohio had been imprisoned for helping a slave escape, and while in jail, he had died of cholera. This tale catches Charity’s attention, not because the man had done something good, but because he had at least done something, which is more than she can say for Dick. “Will you love me if I run a negro off to Canada?” he asks Charity, hoping to please her. Although she protests that doing such a thing would be “nonsense” and “absurd,” she also says, “seeing is believing,” for in her mind, even if he does something wrong, it is better than doing nothing at all.
Dick begins to conspire to take one of his father’s slaves on a trip to New York and give him the opportunity to escape. Telling his father that he needs a short vacation in the North, Dick asks to bring a slave with him as valet. His father agrees, but only after he rails and warns his son about the abolitionists, who will do anything they can to help a slave escape. Colonel Owens decides that it is not Tom—whom Dick would like to accompany him—but Grandison who would be the best “bondsman” for the job. Why? Because Grandison shuffles and protests that nothing makes him happier than being a slave on the colonel’s plantation. When the colonel...
(The entire section is 957 words.)
The Passing Of Grandison Summary
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics. This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of The Passing Of Grandison by Charles Waddell Chesnutt.
Charles Waddell Chesnutt’s short story “The Passing of Grandison” appeared in his 1899 collection, The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color-Line. The setting is Kentucky in the early years of the 1850s in the United States during the abolitionist movement in the northern states after the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.
As the story begins, wealthy, young Dick Owens is at a trial. There, a Yankee is found guilty of stealing a slave from a harsh master. The man is convicted and, while assisting others who are afflicted with cholera, dies of the disease. A woman, who is the object of Dick’s affection, is especially impressed by the man’s actions. The woman, Charity Lomax, tells Dick that she could never love him, because he has never done anything of a heroic nature to compare with the man who died of cholera. Dick decides that he must find a way to prove himself heroic in the eyes of his beloved. To this end, he steals a slave from his own father with the intent of setting him free in Canada. Slavery, by that time, had already been abolished in Canada. To set his plan in action, he decides to take the slave on a trip to the North to let him see what freedom is like or to have him be taken by abolitionists.
Dick begins to plan the trip and selects Tom, the slave that attends directly to Dick, as the one to accompany him on the journey. Colonel Owens, Dick’s father, rejects that choice, as he has his doubts about Tom’s loyalty. He has Dick replace Tom with Grandison, a slave Colonel Owens considers to be more trustworthy. The first place they stop as they proceed to the North is New York City. Here, Grandison is afforded much freedom by Dick. Try as he might to give Grandison the opportunity to escape, every evening, the slave returns to the hotel and waits for his master.
With New York City proving itself not to be the path to Dick’s success, he decides that they should move on to Boston, where Dick believes even stronger temptations await Grandison. Upon checking in at the hotel, Dick goes beyond what he attempted in New York and anonymously drafts a letter to the abolitionists telling them that a cruel slave owner is in Boston along with his slave. This he hopes will encourage them to convince Grandison to take his leave. Once again, Dick is unsuccessful.
Having become desperate at this point, Dick goes to the Canadian side of Niagara Falls with Grandison, who, there, is legally a free man. Once again, however, Grandison seems impervious to the abolitionist movement and seems determined to remain steadfastly loyal to his master. At this point, Dick thinks of kidnapping to try to achieve his goal. Eventually, Dick simply leaves Grandison and returns to Kentucky after sending his father a letter saying that Grandison has fled. The Colonel is angered that his trust in Grandison seems to have been incorrect. Dick, meanwhile, tells Charity the true story of what happened, and she accepts his marriage proposal. They are wed shortly thereafter.
About one month after Dick’s return to Kentucky, Grandison reappears. He is in bad shape, but he is welcomed with open arms by the Colonel, who once again believes he can trust his slaves to be loyal to him. Grandison joins the ranks of the household servants and is granted permission to marry Betty, an enslaved girl with whom he is in love. The peace of mind and household bliss that Colonel Owens found was short-lived, however. Within a matter of weeks, Grandison and his wife, along with his parents and siblings, have all gone missing. The Colonel puts forth full effort to retrieve the group but his attempts prove fruitless. At the end of the story, the Colonel sees them on a steamboat on Lake Erie on its way to Canada.
Chesnutt uses characterization coupled with the expected stereotypes of the time period to make a statement about the times. Dick is the stereotypical southern, rich, privileged white boy so accustomed to getting what he wants that he goes to great lengths to appear the opposite of what he is to woo the girl. Dick’s multitude of unsuccessful attempts to provide his slave with freedom paint him as almost a bumbling oaf. Grandison, meanwhile, shows far more cunning than his master, proving himself to be crazy like a fox, as he, unbeknownst to Dick, puts off his easily available escape to bide his time and bring his family with him as well.
The short story form is but one of the venues Charles Waddell Chesnutt utilized to explore the racial and societal issues for which he became a political activist. His work as an essayist and lawyer expanded his influence. His writings took on a renewed popularity after the Civil Rights Era of the twentieth century.