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  • Rena's Two Bodies: Gender and Whiteness in Charles Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars
  • Melissa Ryan

In a letter thirty years after The House Behind the Cedars was published, Charles Chesnutt referred to the novel as his "favorite child," because its protagonist, Rena Walden, "was of 'mine own people'. Like myself, she was a white person with an attenuated streak of dark blood, from the disadvantages of which she tried in vain to escape, while I never did" (An Exemplary Citizen 257). That he should refer to his character in such personal terms, so many years later, suggests that Rena functioned as his imagined second self, offering a way for him to try out in fiction what he chose not to do in life. Able but not willing to pass, he sent Rena across the color line in his stead. 1 But while there is nothing unusual about such a relationship between author and protagonist, it is interesting that he cast himself as a tragic mulatta. In other words, in this tale of passing he is in some sense himself crossdressed.

Despite this provocative possibility, there has been little critical exploration of gender issues in the novel. At its most basic level, it is a love story whose fundamental conflict, as many critics have observed, is that between natural affection and unnatural law. Given this framework, perhaps Chesnutt's treatment of gender roles seems to be so conventional as to merit scant attention; his tragic heroine may strike readers as insufficiently complex, a flat character whose femininity is shaped by the demands of sentimental fiction and the limitations of the masculine imagination. A closer look, however, suggests that there is more to be said. Gender difference is central not only to the plot but also to the larger questions of identity Chesnutt pursues, both in this novel and in tales of the color line like "Her Virginia Mammy" and "The Wife of His Youth." Taken together, these texts raise questions about bodies and names, [End Page 38] properties and property, that may shed some light on the fraught relationship between race and gender in Chesnutt's imagination.

The House Behind the Cedars follows a pair of siblings, John and Rena Walden, over the color line—and, in Rena's case, back again. The offspring of a free woman of color and her gentleman protector, the Walden siblings are light enough to pass for white—and from childhood, John went even further in insisting that "His playmates might call him black; the mirror proved that God, the Father of all, had made him white; and God, he had been taught, made no mistakes,—having made him white, He must have meant him to be white" (107). Having inherited his father's library—though not his name—John finds his ambitions larger than his expectations in Patesville, North Carolina. So, with the encouragement of his father's friend, Judge Straight, he cuts family ties and relocates to South Carolina, beginning life anew as the white man he believes himself to be.

When the novel opens, John has returned to Patesville to persuade his sister Rena to join him on what his mother calls the "other side" (116); he needs a caretaker for his now-motherless son and promises to Rena the wide world of white opportunity. He encounters little resistance from his sister. Though Rena is a dutiful daughter, her life is made to seem suddenly confining in contrast to John's adventures. Situating John's story in the literary terrain of bondage and freedom, Chesnutt writes that John's tale "had for the women the charm of an escape from captivity" (15). His presence in their house behind the cedars seems to turn blackness into a death sentence and that home into a tomb: "As Rena listened, the narrow walls that hemmed her in seemed to draw closer and closer, as though they must crush her" (15). 2 She finds new life—and love—in South Carolina, but her secret is ultimately revealed: when her mother falls ill, Rena returns to Patesville—and to her black identity—just when, inconveniently enough, her lover, wealthy plantation owner George Tryon, chances...


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