The Longest Memory

by

Fred D’Aguiar

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The Longest Memory: Chapter 5: Chapel Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
Whitechapel and Cook’s son, nicknamed Chapel, reflects on his family and his life on the plantation. He notes that his mother is pure and admirable, despite her black skin, but that she could be Whitechapel’s granddaughter because of her age. This age gap is so large that Whitechapel washes Chapel with his great grandchildren.
Unlike the other characters in the novel, Chapel’s chapter is written entirely in verse. This demonstrates his literary creativity and his desire to cultivate his intellect. His opposition between the concept of purity and his mother’s black skin, though, can be seen as an unconscious embrace of racial prejudice, according to which blackness is something shameful or degrading.
Themes
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
On the plantation, Chapel explains that he has always tried to behave well to avoid the whip—a punishment that he can see has taken away all joy and life from so many children around him, forcing them to conform to life as slaves. He notes that his father, Whitechapel, has chosen reason and pliancy over moral imperatives such as freedom. Chapel explains that his father has even threatened to whip him to make him behave more like a slave. Whitechapel wants his son to learn from him and not from the overseer’s inevitably harsher punishment.
While Whitechapel disagrees with the degree of violence that authority figures use, he agrees with the principle that violence can redress rebellious young men and keep them from trouble. This attitude only supports the system of oppression that the slaves must abide by.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Punishment and Cruelty Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
Chapel describes life in the master’s house, recalling in particular his time with Mr. Whitechapel’s daughter, Lydia, who has taught him to read from the bible, after making him swear to God to keep it a secret. Over the course of two years, she ultimately teaches him to write but insists that it is forbidden for slaves to read and write—a rule that Chapel feels is a waste of his intelligence. However, Lydia does not want the young boy to feel shame. She is diligent in her teaching and always keeps his place in the book so that they can start reading from where he stopped the last time.
While Lydia is aware of the strict rules concerning slaves’ education, she does not assume that they actually reflect slaves’ capacity (or incapacity) to learn. Rather, her belief that Chapel can and should become literate reflects her defiance of a racist ideology that considers black people as intellectually inferior to white people. Her refusal to obey the rules does, however, place greater peril on Chapel than on her, since she is unlikely to be punished in a violent way for her actions.
Themes
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
One day, while Chapel is reading and watching Lydia listen to him with closed eyes, he is suddenly startled to see Mr. Whitechapel enter the room. Lydia’s father orders her out of the room and whips Chapel with his belt, forbidding him from reading again and threatening to send him to another plantation where he will die of hunger and mistreatment. After the punishment, the master warns Chapel to tell no one about what has happened.
Mr. Whitechapel’s anger at seeing Chapel read reveals that, for all his claims of equality, he does not consider slaves worthy of becoming literate. At the same time, his desire to keep what has happened secret remains ambiguous. Perhaps he is afraid that people might learn that his daughter has been socializing with a slave, or maybe he is ashamed of his own anger, which goes against his supposedly non-violent principles.
Themes
Racism and Inequality Theme Icon
Punishment and Cruelty Theme Icon
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Reacting to Mr. Whitechapel’s beating, Chapel says he deserves to be a slave and claims obedience to his master. Chapel describes composing poems in his mind and meeting Lydia secretly at night. In the darkness, they talk, and she recites poems she has memorized for him.
When Chapel accepts his status as a slave, the poem’s lines break down temporarily, becoming shorter and more condensed. This shows both the artificiality of Chapel’s obedient attitude, which does not reflect his perspective on slavery, but also the extent to which the master can control the young boy’s actions through fear.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon
Chapel then recalls animated discussions about freedom he’s had with Whitechapel. Chapel regrets some of his words, as he believes that some of his criticism regarding his father’s obedient behavior was too harsh. He explains his father’s categorization of slaves in two types: the rebellious ones who are bound to suffer brutal punishment and the savvy, observant ones, who will lead a more peaceful life. Whitechapel is worried about his son, whom he knows is in the first category. Chapel, though, considers his father a kind of “jailer” himself. Therefore, after Cook falls sick and dies, Chapel trusts that he no longer has a reason to stay on the plantation. He decides to run away, suddenly feeling free and happy instead of fearful.
Despite disagreeing strongly with his father’s principles, Chapel still loves him. The boy believes that he should treat his father with respect, since he knows that Whitechapel is not behaving out of malice, but out of a sincere concern for his son’s life. However, Whitechapel’s inability to understand the value that his son places on happiness and freedom over physical survival ultimately proves more dangerous than Chapel’s own rebellion, as this mode of thinking leads to the young boy’s death, even if Whitechapel’s intentions were not violent.
Themes
Freedom vs. Obedience Theme Icon
Punishment and Cruelty Theme Icon
Love, Sex, and Family Theme Icon