- Charles W. Chesnutt’s Prodigal Son:Scriptural Allusion and Ethnic Treason in “Uncle Wellington’s Wives”
In their commentary on the parable of the prodigal son, David Jasper and Stephen Prickett remark that the parable “has always been a popular one” with writers.”1 They go on to point out that the parable figures significantly in many of the works of major English authors such as Chaucer and Shakespeare, Dickens and Wordsworth, Byron and Ruskin—and even in works by twentieth-century American writers like Jack London and Sinclair Lewis. To Jasper and Prickett’s list of literary artists should be added Charles W. Chesnutt. A gifted novelist and a master of the short story, Chesnutt was not only a pioneering African American writer but a major American literary realist in the great tradition of Mark Twain, George Washington Cable, and W. D. Howells. In his short story “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” Chesnutt adopts the parable of the prodigal son as a model for his tale of ethnic treason, repentance, and familial reunion. Like the authors Jasper and Prickett point to, Chesnutt appreciated the parable’s timeless lesson on loss and recovery and recognized how incorporating “this matchless parable”2 into his short story would crystallize his tale’s main theme and invest it with a significance it might not otherwise have had.
The particular issue that Chesnutt’s use of the parable of the prodigal son brings sharply into focus is racial treason, along with all its offshoots, among them miscegenation, assimilation, and ethnic allegiance. One of the last of the nine tales in Chesnutt’s story collection The Wife of His Youth and Other Stories of the Color Line (1899), it is the last of that collection’s group of stories treating the themes of black-white intermarriage, amalgamation, and racial allegiance. That group of stories within the overall collection is a thematically linked series of tales that, taken together, form what can accurately [End Page 47] be termed (with apologies to the late Chaucerian scholar George Lyman Kittredge) the Marriage Group. Chesnutt’s Marriage Group comprises six of the nine tales in the collection: “The Wife of His Youth,” “Her Virginia Mammy,” “Cicely’s Dream,” “A Matter of Principle,” “The Sheriff’s Children,” and “Uncle Wellington’s Wives.” Each of these six tales is self-contained and can thus be read and appreciated on its own merits, independently of the others. Taken together, however, they coalesce into a kind of literary mosaic, a unified whole with a common thread running throughout it. In each story marriage is the thematic centerpiece. Throughout the sequence marriages are planned then cancelled, put off then entered into, entered into then annulled, disrupted then later restored. In each tale, moreover, marriage is metaphorical, always pointing beyond itself to a more expansive, qualitatively different relationship than the one between a man and a woman. The metaphorical function of marriage is an indispensable part of the Marriage Group, giving life to each individual story in the sequence.
“Uncle Wellington’s Wives” is no exception. As the sixth and final story in the Marriage Group, it is a fitting conclusion to the sequence, bringing it full circle with its treatment of racial treason, assimilation through miscegenation, and ethnic allegiance. Just as the Marriage Group began with “The Wife of His Youth,” which dramatized the conflict between racial fidelity and assimilation, so the sequence ends with Uncle Wellington’s story, a tale that explores this same conflict and in the end reaffirms Chesnutt’s contention set forth so masterfully in “Wife.” In fine, in “Uncle Wellington’s Wives,” Chesnutt is examining—or more accurately, re-examining—some of the recurrent issues in his fiction while at the same time reaffirming his stance on racial fidelity, a stance he frequently adopts in a number of his tales.
Just as in “The Wife of His Youth” Chesnutt conveys his main point in large measure through scriptural allusion, so too in “Uncle Wellington’s Wives” does he draw heavily on scripture to underscore his overarching contention in the tale. Though Chesnutt adopts the parable of the prodigal son as a model for “Uncle Wellington’s Wives...