“Violets” – a short story by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Violets and Other Tales by Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1875 – 1935) was a poet, short story writer, essayist, and journalist often associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Violets and Other Tales (1895), her first collection, combined poetry and prose in the same volume. “Violets,” the story that opens the book, is presented here in full. 

Published when she was just twenty years old and going by her original name of Alice Ruth Moore, Violets and Other Tales includes short stories interspersed with the poems. This early work hints at feminism and social justice, predicting of the types of themes that would become her hallmark.

Her mixed heritage of Black, Creole, European, and Native American gave her a broad perspective on race. She explored racial issues in tandem with the varied and complex issues faced by women of color.

As her reputation grew she continued to explore sexism, racism, women’s work, and sexuality in the various genres in which she wrote. Alice Dunbar-Nelson would later become at least as well known for her short stories and searingly honest essays as for her poetry, if not more so. More of her short stories, which have come to be known as the Creole stories, have recently come to light.

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Alice Dunbar-Nelson

Early Poems from Violets and Other Tales

A Selection of Poems by Alice Dunbar-Nelson highlights some of her later poetry

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VIOLETS a short story by Alice Dunbar-Nelson (1895)


“And she tied a bunch of violets with a tress of her pretty brown hair.”

She sat in the yellow glow of the lamplight softly humming these words. It was Easter evening, and the newly risen spring world was slowly sinking to a gentle, rosy, opalescent slumber, sweetly tired of the joy which had pervaded it all day.

For in the dawn of the perfect morn, it had arisen, stretched out its arms in glorious happiness to greet the Saviour and said its hallelujahs, merrily trilling out carols of bird, and organ and flower-song. But the evening had come, and rest.

There was a letter lying on the table, it read:

“Dear, I send you this little bunch of flowers as my Easter token. Perhaps you may not be able to read their meaning, so I’ll tell you. Violets, you know, are my favorite flowers. Dear, little, human-faced things! They seem always as if about to whisper a love-word; and then they signify that thought which passes always between you and me.

The orange blossoms—you know their meaning; the little pinks are the flowers you love; the evergreen leaf is the symbol of the endurance of our affection; the tube-roses I put in, because once when you kissed and pressed me close in your arms, I had a bunch of tube-roses on my bosom, and the heavy fragrance of their crushed loveliness has always lived in my memory.

The violets and pinks are from a bunch I wore to-day, and when kneeling at the altar, during communion, did I sin, dear, when I thought of you? The tube-roses and orange-blossoms I wore Friday night; you always wished for a lock of my hair, so I’ll tie these flowers with them—but there, it is not stable enough; let me wrap them with a bit of ribbon, pale blue, from that little dress I wore last winter to the dance, when we had such a long, sweet talk in that forgotten nook.

You always loved that dress, it fell in such soft ruffles away from the throat and bosom,—you called me your little forget-me-not, that night. I laid the flowers away for awhile in our favorite book,—Byron—just at the poem we loved best, and now I send them to you.

Keep them always in remembrance of me, and if aught should occur to separate us, press these flowers to your lips, and I will be with you in spirit, permeating your heart with unutterable love and happiness.”


It is Easter again. As of old, the joyous bells clang out the glad news of the resurrection. The giddy, dancing sunbeams laugh riotously in field and street; birds carol their sweet twitterings everywhere, and the heavy perfume of flowers scents the golden atmosphere with inspiring fragrance. One long, golden sunbeam steals silently into the white-curtained window of a quiet room, and lay athwart a sleeping face.

Cold, pale, still, its fair, young face pressed against the satin-lined casket. Slender, white fingers, idle now, they that had never known rest; locked softly over a bunch of violets; violets and tube-roses in her soft, brown hair, violets in the bosom of her long, white gown; violets and tube-roses and orange-blossoms banked everywhere, until the air was filled with the ascending souls of the human flowers.

Some whispered that a broken heart had ceased to flutter in that still, young form, and that it was a mercy for the soul to ascend on the slender sunbeam. To-day she kneels at the throne of heaven, where one year ago she had communed at an earthly altar.


Far away in a distant city, a man, carelessly looking among some papers, turned over a faded bunch of flowers tied with a blue ribbon and a lock of hair. He paused meditatively awhile, then turning to the regal-looking woman lounging before the fire, he asked:

“Wife, did you ever send me these?”

She raised her great, black eyes to his with a gesture of ineffable disdain, and replied languidly:

“You know very well I can’t bear flowers. How could I ever send such sentimental trash to any one? Throw them into the fire.”

And the Easter bells chimed a solemn requiem as the flames slowly licked up the faded violets. Was it merely fancy on the wife’s part, or did the husband really sigh,—a long, quivering breath of remembrance?

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More about Alice Dunbar-Nelson

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