Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow, and Madness (Group 3)

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.

6 thoughts on “Chesnutt, Slavery, Jim Crow, and Madness (Group 3)

  1. Michael Frank

    Though the Colonel attributes the barber’s restraint to subjugation (or possibly madness), the reader understands there is an act of clemency at play. The mention of capitalism restricting the barber is noteworthy, though I think the device of the titular doll is even more devastating. The thought that ultimately restrains the barber is the reminder of his daughter counting on him to return with her doll, but, more importantly, counting on him returning in general. His refusal to get subsumed by the cycle of violence perpetrated by his white oppressors is powerful, yet heartbreaking.
    Through a sort of Nietzschean judgement, the barber’s Christian Charity is mistaken for weakness by his oppressors. The only explicit reference to anything biblical in that story is from the lens of judgment– “Vengeance was God’s; it must be left to Him to repay!” It is fitting that the colonel’s contemporary is a judge because the greatest weapon in the story ends up not being a blade, but a higher judgement. The ultimate assumption of this story being that the sins of Jim Crow were so self-evidently unforgivable that the cost could only be fully paid by way of this judgement.

  2. Joseph Levine

    I agree with Will and Alexandra that the barber’s murderous impulses are a product of a deep-seated yearning for vengeance rather than madness. To me, madness implies a loss of agency, and although the barber is nearly compelled by his emotions to murder the colonel, he is able to rationalize that his fatherhood and business ties are more important to him (412). In other stories we have read like in “Vandover and the Brute” and “Ligeia”, like the characters are unable to rationalize their compulsions and are driven by forces beyond their control. Of course, just because a possible act of violence is premeditated does not mean someone is without some kind of psychological damage; in this case, the barber is scarred by the loss of his father, and it is his trauma motivating him to act, not some kind of mania.

    After finishing the story, I was surprised that the barber did not end up murdering the colonel. The colonel is a direct source of intense trauma, both of losing his father and the subjugation of Jim Crow. Perhaps Chestnutt hoped to send a message advocating peace to his African American readers. One would expect that many if not all black Americans living at the time had been subjected to some kind of trauma in the form of prejudice, or they were at least told of the horrors of slavery by those who raised them. As a result, I would guess that the desire for vengeance must have been common.

    I also found it particularly interesting how capitalism played a role in the barber’s decision to resist his temptation. The barber knows that many of his black peers rely on the functioning of his business, that he sets an example for other black folks with his success, and that his family relies on him to support them with the shop. While his consideration for others is noble, I found it depressing how the capitalist machine created unavoidable barriers that forced him to stand down. For the need to run the shop is not just rooted in his care for others; he has to do it or his family and those he cares about will starve. I think about when the slaves were finally freed and granted the chance to be (albeit restricted) free citizens, there must have been an inexorable desire to strike back at the whites who oppressed them; but in many cases, the freed slaves were forced to work the same fields as they did before, although with small pay. It is astounding how what I would assume to be a ubiquitous desire for vengeance had to be repressed in order for the freed slaves to assimilate into the American economic system.

  3. Alexandra Lawson

    I would echo William in saying that the Barber’s stance is one of vengeance rather than “madness.” While at times, this vengeance seems to draw him in a sort of frenzy as he describes “while under his keen razor lay the neck of his enemy, the enemy, too of his race” (409), his ability to recognize these thoughts, his surroundings, and the effect of his actions, leads me to believe that the Barber is quite sane and meant to be represented as so. Maybe we are meant to see the beginnings of madness, that given rationality and a slightly more equal position in society, are suppressed. Unlike the story of “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss,” the barber sees the real effects that his actions will have on his community. Perhaps the different outcomes of these story’s illustrate how the characters from the Plantation Tales may have acted if given slightly more autonomy and a slightly less oppressive system.

    A passage that stood out to me as showing the power of the barber’s logical reasoning was: “such, however, was the strength of the impulse against which the barber was struggling that these considerations seemed likely not to prevail… while the dominant idea was present and compelling…. the great social problem involved the future of his race” (411). Similar to the plantation tales, this madness is driven by a racist system, but unique from them the barber has something at stake (the barber shop) and a slightly more respectable position in society. Like Haley suggested, his ability to overcome these urges reflects something of strength. In many senses, being able to recognize and ignore these urges is more compelling and more rational than not having them at all. If the barber had not had any response, I think that would have appeared almost madder. I think that the barber represents the most rational character in the room, and the roots of this inner conflict is meant to reveal the insanity of those and the system around him.

  4. William Koch

    I don’t know if it would be fair to construe the Barber’s disposition as one of madness. If anything, it is one of vengeance, and perhaps a justifiable case at that. I echo Haley’s comment that the third person presentation of the Barber’s thought process is thorough, logical, and one that, also mentioned by Haley, has been enacted by several white men throughout history. I’d argue this point even further to note that several literary and cultural heroes and protagonists in the Western canon are those who act on vengeance (e.g. Hamlet, Luke Skywalker, Batman, SEVERAL Game of Thrones character arcs, etc.). In these cases, we rarely consider heroes as “mad” (Hamlet perhaps being the exception). Instead, we revere them for their bravery and loyalty. My reaction is to regard the Barber in the same manner, although I can understand how white characters and white 19th century audiences may have been averse to seeing a black man logically challenge racial stereotypes and a racial social hierarchy; the Barber is, after all, the moral hero of this story. The conclusion he arrives to at the end to put aside his personal ambition and instead consider his daughter and the necessity of his presence as her father once again demonstrates a sound logic, a selfless disposition, and virtue that elevates him above the white characters in the story. Ultimately, we might say that his desire to kill the colonel, like Sandy’s desire to turn into a tree and Dave’s descent, is a product of a racist system, but to categorize his thought process as madness would be a mischaracterization.

  5. Haley Glover

    Unlike Chesnutt’s Plantation Tales, “The Doll” offers a Black protagonist that instead of being pushed to insanity, makes calculated rational decisions, even when in the position to kill his father’s murderer. Throughout the barber’s internal monologue, reader’s are exposed to the rationality and self control that hides behind an outwardly perceived “madness.” Because no one knows the true story of his father’s death, the barber is aware of how his actions would be perceived as mad by those around him. For example, the judge upon perceiving the barber’s shift in mood ponders, “[he] had found colored people prone to sudden rages, when under the influence of strong emotion, handy with edged tools…” (410). Further, the barber recognizes the consequences of his actions on the whole community. Chesnutt writes, “Their fates were all, in a measure, dependent upon the proprietor of the shop. Should he yield to the impulse which was swaying him, their livelihood would be placed in jeopardy” (411). There are no sign of madness in the thoughts of the barber. To begin with, he seeks to avenge the death of his father, an action taken by too many white men to count throughout history. Yet, instead of acting upon this rational impulse, the barber calculates the results of such an action, and instead of relenting to the instinct, he chooses his family and community over revenge. This rational choice is paralleled to the colonel’s violence and murder of the barber’s father for simply speaking back to white faces. Contrary to his plantation tales in which Black character succumb to madness, Chesnutt endues the barber with a strength founded in his humanity, a strength lacking in the story’s white characters.

  6. Dan Cielak

    Chesnutt’s portrayal of the Barber’s thoughts in “The Doll” demonstrates his ardent desire to retaliate against the colonel for killing his father, but also maintain his dream of advancing in society. By emphasizing the powerful impulse to murder the colonel, Chestnutt presents an image of madness that is unlike the ones presented in “Po’ Sandy” and “Dave’s Neckliss.” In “The Doll,” madness is seen through the Barber’s internal dialogue. He seems heavily inclined towards obtaining retribution, but also of achieving some long-term goal of providing a better life for himself, his daughter, and his fellow black employees. This story also presents madness a bit differently as, by the nature of his literal position in the narrative, the Barber is in control of his own fate. By being in the position to kill the colonel with one quick slip of the blade, the Barber is given complete autonomy; figuratively speaking, he is the master. In the two other Plantation Tales, madness seems inflicted upon the characters as a product of the racist system they inhabit. Specifically, in “Dave’s Neckliss,” Dave’s descent into delusion is a byproduct of his inability to prove himself innocent of not stealing the ham. Similarly, in “Po’ Sandy,” Sandy chooses to become a tree because he believes that his life as a slave is no better than that of a tree. In both instances, these characters are bound to their misfortunes through the inevitable forces of slavery.
    One passage from “The Doll” that readily portrays the message of the Barber’s sovereignty is towards the end of the story. Chesnutt notes, “A few strokes more and the colonel could be released with a close shave—how close he would never know!—or, one stroke, properly directed, and he would never stand erect again!” (Chesnutt 411). Here, Chesnutt affirms the power that the Barber has as he could quite simply end the colonel’s life, and as a result, his own, or free the colonel, and continue to prosper as a reputable barber.

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