The Longest Memory

by

Fred D’Aguiar

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The Longest Memory: Chapter 10: Lydia Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
As time passes, Lydia’s family tells her that she is becoming a woman and that she should adjust her posture and manners accordingly. Her mother tells her to walk with a book on her head, and Lydia amuses her brothers and Mr. Whitechapel by piling more books, until the Spenser, Milton, and Shakespeare fall from her head. Outside, at night, she and Chapel touch each other’s bodies while reciting lines from memorized books, and Lydia notices that she never feels uncomfortable with him.
Lydia’s secret relationship with Chapel allows her to realize she does not want an ordinary relationship like the kind that society sanctions. Her intellectual curiosity and her disregard for racial boundaries set her apart from more mundane concerns, such as adopting an appropriate posture, which Lydia considers absurd. Instead, she seeks intellectual and physical connection, beyond external factors such as wealth or social status.
Themes
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
Meanwhile, Lydia receives the visit of young men whom she is supposed to consider for marriage. However, she always compares them to Chapel and, as a result, finds their attitudes ridiculous and their intelligence despicable. When she discusses slavery with them, she is shocked to hear some men tell her not to worry about men’s affairs or argue that Africans are actually saved from barbarism when they are brought to America.
Even though she belongs to the white upper class and is never affected by racial prejudice, Lydia is confronted with discrimination in her own way, as her womanhood constricts her to a narrow role, far from the social and intellectual pursuits that mean so much to her. The inequality she must fight, she realizes, is based on gender as well as race.
Themes
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
When Mr. Whitechapel sees Lydia’s lack of interest in her suitors, he calls her into his study and tries to encourage her, in an indirect but forceful way, to begin thinking of her life outside the household. Lydia gives him a vague answer about promising to think of what is best for her, which irritates her father. Her mother begins to pressure her more explicitly, highlighting the social skills and financial means of the various men she has met. Under such pressure, Lydia goes to her room and cries, wishing desperately that Chapel could be white, or that she could be black.
In a similar way that Whitechapel tries to convince his son of behaving according to his social class, Mr. Whitechapel attempts to force Lydia to follow the conventions related to her gender and social status. Despite her economic well-being, Lydia lacks the family love and care that might make her feel valued and understood for who she is. Her frustration at society’s constraints leads her to feel hopeless about ever achieving the freedom she desires.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
When her brother, Thomas, returns from the North, Lydia feels enthusiastic about his descriptions of interracial relationships, though he finds them disgusting. She is impressed to hear that many educated people are fighting against slavery and arguing that slaves should be paid for their labor. She imagines herself walking freely with Chapel in public in the North and later tells him about this dream. However, Chapel seems annoyed by the fact that Lydia has forgotten to memorize a Shakespeare sonnet, and makes sarcastic comments about all the suitors at her house taking up her time. Lydia defends herself by listing all the works she has memorized for him. Chapel then suddenly spins her around and kisses her, telling her he can no longer live like this.
Lydia’s surprise at hearing about politics in the North reveals how isolated her plantation—and, perhaps, the South in general—is from progressive ideas. The atmosphere in the North suggests that an end to slavery is possible, since even contemporary activists are fighting for it. Chapel’s jealousy about Lydia’s suitors reveals his frustration at being unable to change his life. Even though he knows Lydia loves him and is committed to him, he cannot help but feel hopeless at the impossibility of making their relationship official and secure.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
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Lydia proceeds to give Chapel more details about the North, encouraging him to try escaping there with her, but Chapel asks her many logistical questions to which she has to admit that she doesn’t know the answer. The two of them are excited, and Chapel reveals that he had always hoped he might one day escape like this, and that his love for her is stronger than anything, capable of moving him to brave any danger. That night, Lydia stays awake thinking of all the obstacles that such a journey would involve, but still tries to feel hopeful.
It remains uncertain whether the young people’s desire for freedom will ever come true, or whether the danger of rebelling against society will force them to abandon their dreams. However, the two of them conclude that no danger can dampen their love or their deep yearning for freedom—goals for which Chapel will prove willing to risk his very life.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
The next day, Lydia asks Thomas if she might accompany him on his trip to the North, which he refuses. Thomas mentions her request to their father and Mr. Whitechapel interrogates Lydia about it, who answers by saying that she is hoping she might find a suitable husband in the North, now that she has been presented to everyone in the South. This seems to convince her father, who nevertheless believes that the greatest obstacle will be her mother. Lydia’s mother does indeed object forcefully to the idea of a trip North, and Lydia realizes that the only way to convince her to agree to this trip is to have her come with her.
In a system characterized by pervasive racism and social rigidity, even one’s own family constitutes an obstacle to freedom, mirroring the very dynamics and constraints that public life imposes on people. The family’s reputation is of crucial importance, as Lydia’s family proves deeply opposed to the idea of letting her take part in such an unconventional trip, which challenges norms about what a young, unmarried woman should do.
Themes
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The logistics of the trip thus leaves Chapel and Lydia incapable of escaping together. Chapel initially feels resigned to his fate but then accepts to remain hopeful, as Lydia reminds him of all the obstacles they have overcome so far in their relationship. In the meantime, Lydia tries to interrogate Thomas discreetly about how slaves travel across the country. However, she soon annoys him with her questions about seemingly insignificant details and has to stop.
The possibility of freedom seems unreachable again, despite the young people’s hopes and efforts to design a creative solution to their plight. The seeming hopelessness of this situation sets the foundation for Chapel’s later decision to run away—a desperate action with little hope of success.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
When Lydia tells Chapel about what she has learned from Thomas, the two of them dream of the various aspects of their future life together, even imagining the children they would have. Chapel concludes that he will write verses for a living, adding that he could never contain within a single poem the depth of what he feels for her.
Lydia and Chapel’s dreams about a shared future emphasize the tragedy of their relationship’s outcome. Chapel’s death highlights the injustice of keeping hopeful young people from realizing their dreams.
Themes
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