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10. Central Conflict in The Marrow of Tradition

April 19, 2012

2. Write an essay that explores the central conflict in The Marrow of Tradition.  What is the nature of the conflict? When, where, and how does it develop or become more complicated as the story unfolds?  How is it resolved at the end of the story?  Why and how is that resolution satisfying?

    After finishing The Marrow of Tradition, I have realized that there are many conflicts throughout the novel.  As we discussed in class, the central conflict is up to the reader's understanding of the book.  There are many conflicts that can be analyzed and some of the central conflicts that my class discussed were racism, change vs. tradition, internal and external conflicts, and hypocrisy vs. righteousness.  I believe that the most obvious conflict, and therefore the central conflict, is the apparent racism and prejudice that is found all throughout the story.  The "race question" is persistent throughout the novel and the action of the story almost entirely revolves around it.  White pride and arrogance is so abundant in the novel, it is hard for me to believe that white people had this mindset in the past and African Americans were treated as badly as the history books tell us.  The central conflict in The Marrow of Tradition is fueled by white arrogance that ends in suffering for African Americans.

    The nature of this conflict is based on white arrogance which leads to racism and prejudice.  Since black people were treated as slaves once in the past, the white citizens of Wellington basically refused to think of them as their equals.  The racism in the South at this time was still very high, even though characters such as Dr. Miller and Watson ended up as very successful African Americans.  However, black people, such as Sandy and Mammy Jane, were still treated as slaves and looked down upon by almost everyone besides their masters.  The race riot began with negative thoughts and words and ended in many deaths and complete catastrophe, and basically an embarrassment, for the white people of Wellington. 

    This conflict begins even before this story takes place, with the fact that African Americans were once only slaves in the past.  Like I said before, even though there were successful black people in Wellington, the white arrogance is really fueled by the "Big Three" near the end of the story.  Almost every character in the story deals with this conflict, and all their lives end up negatively affected because of it.  Although racism was found throughout the entire United States, and in the South especially, the city of Wellington experienced many problems, some of them being monumental.  There would not be a book specially written about this race riot in this city if it was not a big deal.  This conflict remains complicated mainly because of the stubborn white men who have similar mindsets as McBane.  Although white men are the most vocal about this conflict, women struggle with the concept also.  Mrs. Carteret experiences her own white arrogance throughout the novel against her half sister, Janet.  

    The first specific account of white arrogance and black suffering is found in two of the main characters.  Major Carteret is one of the "Big Three" who all throughout the story, is obviously not one to be kind to African Americans.  Even in the beginning of the novel, he denies entrance of Dr. Miller, the black doctor, who is only there to try to help the Major's only son, Dodie, survive.  He would rather retain his white pride than allow a professional to help his son.  However, this event almost backfires for the Major, when, during the race riot, baby Dodie is sick again, once again needing a doctor.  Although the Major tries to find white doctors first, he is desperate and personally knocks on Dr. Miller's door asking for assistance.  Although he is only going to Dr. Miller as a last resort, he still sets aside some of his white pride in order to save his son.  However, Dr. Miller denies the Major's request on the basis that "there lies my only child, laid low by a stray bullet in this riot in which you and your paper have formented;; struck down as much by your hand as though you had held the weapon with whcih his life was taken!" (Chesnutt 206).  In the riot that would not have taken place with Major Carteret's words, Dr. Miller's son was killed, and therefore he was unwilling to help safe young Dodie.  Although, Major Carteret tried to set aside his arrogance, it was still too little, too late in order to save his own son.

    Not only does Major Carteret experience white pride, but so does his wife Olivia.  In the middle of The Marrow of Tradition, one of her most unhappy thoughts is confirmed.  She finds out that her father married his black slave, Julia, and had a daughter, Janet.  Long after her father's death, she discovers the hidden will and marriage certificate that only Polly Ochiltree knew prior to Olivia.  Janet was entitled to half of her father's estate, along with $10,000.  However, Olivia Carteret has never claimed Janet as her sister, knowing that it would be a disgrace to her family name if this wedding was made public knowledge.  At the end of the book, though, when Olivia needs her son's life saved, she literally begs Dr. Miller and Janet, his wife, to save Dodie.  She finally puts her white pride aside and calls Janet her sister, also informing Janet about the marriage many years ago.  Janet, however, knows that it is not enough to save their relationship, although she does allow her husband to try and save young Dodie.

    White arrogance is never really resolved in this story.  Or at least, the reader is unaware if it is.  No one knows what happens to young Dodie or if the relationship between Major Carteret and Dr. Miller or Olivia and Janet is given a fresh start.  I'm sure that white pride did not instantly end after the race riot, but rather hard feelings were still felt many years after the events occurred.  Realistically, Janet and Olivia never develop the bond that most sisters have, but Janet is given the money she is entitled to, because Olivia should be catering to her for the rest of her life, if her son's life is saved.  When I imagine the resolution of this specific event, Major Carteret will probably gain respect for Dr. Miller, although will never publicly show his affection towards the man.  However, Dr. Miller and Janet will both always carry around the memories of this event and will finally receive some of the respect that they deserve. 

Works Cited

Chesnutt, Charles W. The Marrow of Tradition. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1901. Print.