restricted access The Absent Man: The Narrative Structure of Charles W. Chesnutt (review)
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Reviewed by
Charles Duncan. The Absent Man: The Narrative Structure of Charles W. Chesnutt. Athens: Ohio UP, 1998. xx + 214 pp.

Scholarship on the work of Charles W. Chesnutt usually falls into two major camps: those who find his works encoded with assimilationist sentiments, and those who find his work true to the goal of unifying all people. These are not always distinct points of view. However, most concentrate only on the representation of his race politics and his plans for mixed-race blacks, while few embark on the more challenging task of investigating issues like his narrative structure. In this detailed and intelligent book, Charles Duncan maps out the ways in which Chesnutt expertly narrates his works to embrace a form of multiculturalism that explores the formation of identity and the preservation of genealogy and family structure.

Duncan demonstrates impressive detail in his research as he concentrates mainly on Chesnutt’s short stories (like the collected works The Conjure Woman and Other Conjure Tales and The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line), but he touches on Chesnutt’s nonfiction and novels as well.

One of Duncan’s points of interest is Chesnutt’s role as a multiculturalist. Duncan asserts that Chesnutt is able to speak for a broad range of characters whom he treats with respect and understanding; also inspiring is his ability to write realistic white characters. Despite Chesnutt’s ability to incorporate a broad range of characters, his authorship is often limited because he explores their stories from an outside perspective. Chesnutt urges his white reading audience to reexamine their social positions by featuring outsider-narrators that are on the periphery of the story. Chesnutt’s white reading audience would be unfamiliar with this position and forced to consider other perspectives.

Duncan introduces four ways to read Chesnutt’s choice and position of narration in his fiction: witness-narrator, detective-narrator, detached-narrator, and divided-narrator. These four narrative voices force his readers to reassess their positions in the world as well as rethink their feelings on race. For example, the witness-narrators, as the name implies, are not active in the narrative, and their function/role is subsidiary to that of the focus of the story, which is an [End Page 1033] unfamiliar position for whites. Detective-narrators try to find out about the world “by establishing and verifying the identities of his subjects.” Like witness-narrators, they are others/outsiders in their own narratives, but detective-narrators stay hidden throughout the text. The detached-narrator structure is characterized by the distance between narrator and author, which also reflects the difference between Chesnutt and his white audience. In these stories black characters’ lives become interwoven into the white families with whom they are attached. Yet, the black narratives are secondary and detached, thus there is never a full connection between the two story lines. The divided-narrator structure is characterized by “illuminating the social and cultural situations confronting African Americans (and women) during the late nineteenth century.” These divided-narratives often feature a third-person story or inside narrator (often a black woman) who tells her own story (usually in dialect) within a larger story. The primary narrators represent the mainstream white audience that “epitomizes the attitudes of a white reading audience toward African Americans,” while the embedded narrator represents the “other,” forcing the white audience to occupy another subject position.

The most engaging example of Duncan’s study is his illumination of Chesnutt’s goals of “re-imagining the American family in broader more multiracial terms” while questioning the idea of a secure racial identity through the choice of narration in “Her Virginia Mammy.” The story features two narratives. The primary narrative is of a seemingly white woman in search of her true background, and the secondary narrative is of a black woman who shields her identity to protect the marital prospects of her daughter, who does not know that she is black. In his exploration of this text, Duncan argues that Chesnutt uses the divided-narrator structure to highlight an obsession with establishing identity. He also states that Chesnutt’s work “reflect[s] his desire to explore...