The stately, beautiful, and light-complexioned mulatta heroine of Charles Waddel Chesnutt's The House Behind the Cedars (1900), attempts to pass for white in the Reconstruction South only to see her secret inadvertently revealed and her young life cut tragically short. In certain ways an alter ego for Chesnutt himself (who was light enough to pass but chose not to), Rena embodies the aspirations and frustrations of those African Americans barred by the color line from the social, intellectual, and economic rewards available to “pure” whites. In comparison to her brother John, a mulatto who has passed successfully for ten years, Rena also illustrates the special constraints on the mobility of African American women, as her prospects appear limited to those conferred by marriage. Although Rena's own limitations—particularly her lack of imagination—may contribute to her downfall, she is in general more sympathetically portrayed as an innocent woman punished for the sins of her African American mother and white father. Yet Rena is no mere pathetic symbol of the supposed destructiveness of interracial sexuality. Despite her tragic end, at the close of the novel Rena is earnestly (if belatedly) sought by her former white fiancé, who has struggled to rid himself of his preconceptions about racial mixing. Rena's tale thus partially transcends the late-nineteenth-century conventions of the “tragic mulatto” formula and in so doing anticipates the powerful explorations of passing and assimilation in the works of such later writers as James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Nella Larsen.
William L. Andrews, The Literary Career of Charles W. Chesnutt, 1980.SallyAnn H. Ferguson, “Rena Walden: Chesnutt's Failed ‘Future American,’” Southern Literary Journal 15 (Fall 1982): 74–82.
William A. Gleason