Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow and Madness (Group 1)

The slides discuss Chesnutt’s complex relationship to Plantation Tales.  The tales offered him a respectable path into publication in prestigious magazines such as The Atlantic, but Chesnutt also subverted the typical racial messaging of the genre.  “The Doll,” unlike “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss,” is not a Plantation Tale.  What do you make of the Barber’s powerful impulse to murder and the long account of his thoughts?  Does the story see black “madness” in the same way as Chesnutt’s plantation tales, an inevitable product of brutally racist system?  A different way?  Is there a passage that influenced your thinking on the matter?  As always, let us know your thoughts in a paragraph or two.

4 thoughts on “Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow and Madness (Group 1)

  1. Paolo Gonnelli

    I found the account of the barber’s thoughts to be, if anything, the opposite of the sign of madness. There were in fact multiple occasions when he could have killed the colonel and blamed it on a simple distraction. The “noisy opening of the door to admit a patron diverted the barber’s attention” (p. 410) is one of those moments, when out of habit he turns to see the entrance. It would have been easy enough to feign distraction and slit the colonel’s throat. Or even, when a shaving cup drops on the floor breaking (p. 411) the barber could have again made a mistaken stroke and killed the man. However, he is able to reason with himself, consider pros and cons, and even his tunnel vision is perfectly understandable as in his mind “the whirlwind of emotions […] settled upon the particular injury” but it is once again that same attention to the specific that stops his hand. He thinks of his own daughter and how no one would be left to take care of her. The narrator says that “personal vengeance was not accepted by the courts as a justification for murder” (p. 412) unlike in the South. He is perfectly capable of understanding himself as a legal person with rights and duties. Thus, with the tale I think Chesnutt is subverting the ideas of the time about black madness. He is elevating the black body at the same level if not higher of the white body. The barber is capable of restraint, while the colonel was not, back when he was young. The colonel is trying to prove a “natural order” but I think the story shows actually the “sanity” in adhering to society and seeing every person as a person.

  2. Thomas Dillon

    The barber’s powerful impulse to murder and long account of his thoughts throughout the unfolding of “The Doll” demonstrates a character with a yearning for vengeance and blood, yet is calculated enough to restrain himself and his emotions. In my opinion, the barber is completely antithetical to any sort of “madness” or “insanity” due to his autonomy, which ultimately leads to his great sacrifice of sparing the colonel. The barber practically completes a sort of calculation in his own head during the tense encounter with his father’s killer. Essentially, the barber realizes he has much more to lose than to gain if he were to give in to his powerful desires and fantasies of extracting revenge upon this brutal, bigoted murder. This is an encounter rooted in severe, sustained emotional trauma for the barber. The barber is completely selfless; turining his blade away from the barber in order to protect his fellow workers and daughter. It is fair to assume that most people would not have operated under the rationality and calmness that the barber does. A specific passage that sheds light on this particular development occurs on page 412: “Whether he died or not, he would be lost to Daisy. His wife was dead, and there would be no one to take care of Daisy. His own father had died in defense of his daughter; he must live to protect his own.” There is certainly something poetic about the barber managing to resist his long, awaited hopes of avenging his father’s death by putting his daughter’s life and the love he has for in perspective, which then protects and ensures his continued status as a free, alive man. His refusal to let his daughter grow up fatherless, as he did, is the ultimate sacrifice.

  3. Madison Brito

    In all honesty, I have a hard time seeing any madness in “The Doll” at all, at least insofar as the character of the Barber. It is perfectly logical he fantasized about killing this man and wants to in the moment, and also perfectly logical he is not going to do it. I think Chesnutt could have very easily made the Barber appear more mad when he divulges his inner dialogue and discusses wanting to murder this man, but it is very telling that this is not the sentiment you come away with, and it makes it a very different story of ‘madness.’ I think it is entirely the Colonel who is mad: shooting a man in a fit of rage, sitting in the Barber’s chair and telling that story knowing full well who he was. I see it more as a sane person’s reaction to madness, as the Barber chooses reason in the face of his more primal or arguably human instincts. In fact, the long account of his thoughts that we get only serves to make him appear more sane, as he is able to logically conclude that by not seeking vegencence for his father, he is actually still putting the family he has now first. Perhaps, this story is showing how black freedom provides sanity (subverting the suggestion of the time that was mentioned in the slides, that black people would go insane because of their freedom). He makes the best decision he can, even if he is still, as Karriane put it, “driven to this point as the result of oppression.” I actually found myself wondering if I’m the mad one, as I felt bad for the Barber that he couldn’t get any revenge (not saying I wish he had killed him, just that he’d had more power in the situation).

  4. Karianne Laird

    In my opinion, the portrayal of madness was slightly different in the story of “The Doll” and in “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss.” By highlighting the barber’s internal struggle over whether to murder the colonel, Chestnut presents the black character with agency and rationality in this story. His momentary “madness” is not difficult for the reader to comprehend – and might not be madness at all. I think most people could easily see themselves plotting murderous revenge if they had experienced what the barber has endured. The reader has an insight into his mind and sees him make considerate and rational choices (he thinks of how this would effect his employees’ jobs and he thinks about his own daughter’s future). It is easy to empathize with and understand the barber. Especially, since the colonel’s arrogance and brutality are extremely disturbing. The colonel knowingly puts his life in the hands of the son of his murder victim but has no doubt that the barber will behave, because he knows the power structures that control society. I think this is a powerful representation of the helplessness of black people in the face of slavery. Additionally, this story differs from the other two because the barber has agency when he holds the knife to the colonel’s throat and is literally in control. This is in strong contrast to the two other stories, where the characters are completely powerless in the face of their oppressors. Both Dave’s madness (believing he is a ham and killing himself) and Sandy’s madness (choosing to become a tree) exist as the last resorts for them in their inhumane world. As Professor Newbury wrote in his PowerPoint, “Madness was surely the only sane response for the world that the enslaved encountered”. This message is very clear throughout all three stories – especially in “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss”, where the characters have no other choice. Although the barber does have a choice, they are two bad choices, and he as well is driven to this point as the result of oppression.

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