House Behind the Cedars by Charles Chesnutt

Cedars

The Ethical Dilemma of the House Behind the Cedars

Morally, the gut instinct of every prospective spouse is that everything should be revealed before marriage between the soon-to-be husband and wife. Who wants to wake up next to someone, only to discover after the honeymoon that suddenly one has an unexpected stepchild, that one's spouse is questioning his or her sexuality, or even that one's spouse has accumulated thousands of dollars in unpaid credit card debt? At first, in the 1900 novel the House Behind the Cedars, it seems as if John Warwick is openly revealing all of his sister's history to her prospective suitor, George Tryon: "I think you ought to know, George,' continued Warwick, without waiting for a reply to his question, 'that my sister and I are not of an old family, or a rich family, or a distinguished family; that she can bring you nothing but herself; that we have no connections of which you could boast, and no relatives to whom we should be glad to introduce you.'" (83) but John is not telling the full truth, at least not in Tryon's later perspective -- John is not revealing that John and Rena have a different racial status then George assumes they have.

The racial status of one's spouse, along with the spouse's previous marital status, sexual orientation, and desire to have children would all seem to be issues that require 'full disclosure.' But that attitude is a comfort individuals of the present may have, from the comfort of living in more enlightened times. The House Behind the Cedars, is a 1900 novel by the African-American Author Charles Chesnutt that tells the story of two light-skinned African-Americans engaged in the concealed practice of socially "passing." That is, they are engaged in a social 'lie' of presenting themselves as white, even though their heritage if African-American. However, the ability of 'passing' to be a social issue in the South of the day highlights the fluidity and fiction of racial constructions themselves. Southern society made a fetish of racial distinctions, true -- but if these distinctions were so important, why were they not immediately obvious to the eye? The act of 'passing' raises the question of how can race be so important, when it is so easy to mistake someone's race? Furthermore, one of the reasons that John and Rena appear white is because African-Americans did have sexual relations with whites, often-enforced relations between slave owners and slaves in the past. But if the children were raised by their Black parents, they were condemned to the social restrictions imposed upon Black sin the South -- why shouldn't John and Rena take advantage of this presumption, one could argue, and why should race matter in marriage, as it evidently did not to their father when he engaged in sexual relations with their mother?

Neither of the two 'passing' siblings, John and Rena Walden, African-Americans of mixed-race ancestry, actively lies about their race. They merely take advantage of the presumption that they are not Black, and…