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The Harlem Dancer:blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)
On "The Harlem Dancer"
Eugenia W. Collier
Perhaps the poems which showed most effectively the tragic consequences of oppression, and which speak most eloquently in a universal language, are the poems which present quick portraits of black individuals. Here one sees a close-up of the laborer in Cullen's poem, who must toil incessantly only to have his golden fruit snatched by others. With great frequency the New Negro poets focused on the individual—often a black woman—and suggest the immense human potential behind the toil of the washer-woman, the strutting and wiggling of the prostitute, the swagger of the dandy, and so forth-human potential that has been destroyed by the social system. Among the best of these is McKay's "The Harlem Dancer."
. . .
In the slow, measured dignity of the sonnet form McKay has encased the wild and lascivious world of the Harlem night-club. As we study the poem in some depth, we see that this apparent paradox is actually quite appropriate.
Our first impression of the dancer is gained through a glimpse of her audience—young people, already caught up in the sordid life of the city. The men who applaud are mere youths; the prostitutes with them are also young. They applaud and laugh and watch the suggestive motions of the beautiful, half-revealed body. Yet the slow-moving rhythm of the poem implies a kind of sadness that contrasts with their gaiety. Focusing now upon the dancer herself, the poet compares her voice with the sound of a musical instrument—not with the wail of a saxaphone, nor the blatancy of brass, but with the softly delicate music of "blended flutes." In the next line the nightclub begins to fade out as the poet places the flutes on the lips of "black players on a picnic day." The outdoor wholesomeness of a picnic contrasts with the nightclub. The next two lines imbue the dancer with classic beauty and simplicity; her grace, her quiet loveliness, her garments draped loosely about her, could easily belong to Greek sculpture. But the poet compares her instead to a graceful palm tree, proudly swaying. In this comparison McKay suggests the pride in their African heritage which was widely expressed by the Harlem poets. The rest of the comparison, describing the palm as "lovelier for passing through a storm," suggests that the hardships of the dancer's experience have endowed her with a kind of beautythat she might not otherwise have attained.
Then abruptly the poet brings us back to the reality of the Harlem nightclub. The coins "tossed in praise" indicate thatthe world—and she herself—tragically underestimates her worth. She dances for mere coins, casually tossed by liquor-befogged youngsters. The poet reminds us that they, too, are victims, for although they are "wine-fused" and "bold-eyed," they are still only boys and girls. Perhaps their hunger and their eager passion may not be for sex alone, but actually for fulfillment of another sort. In the final couplet, the poet expresses the theme of the poem: that human values can be obscured by economic and social deprivation, but that they persist and are discernable to the compassionate observer.
Now the appropriateness of the sonnet form becomes apparent. Iambic pentameter is a slow, dignified meter, contemplative and often sad; and the theme of the poem is not lascivious dancing, but human dignity, not midnight gaiety but unobtrusive tragedy. The rhyme scheme of the sonnet is demanding and restrictive; so also are the social and economic forces that have shaped the life of the Harlem dancer. There is, then, no conflict between form and theme.
In spite of occasional awkward juxtapositions of words, the poem attains a high level of artistry. The language is dynamic but restrained, the imagery is effective, the emotion is sincere and well-expressed. And although the characters and settings are Negro, the poem has universal application. In vividness it matches the quick, sympathetic portraits of Edwin Arlington Robinson. In social commentary it approaches Edwin Markham's "The Man With the Hoe."
from "I Do Not Marvel, Countee Cullen." College Language Association Journal 11.1 (1967).
An objectifying look or verbal representation does not preclude a variety of other perspectives; indeed it is both a form of celebratory play and a form of concentration that can be empathic. That may be the case, for example, in Claude McKay's 1917 "The Harlem Dancer". . . Of course there is no guarantee that the speaker in the poem reads the dancer's feelings accurately, facial expressions being notoriously open to multiple interpretation. Gender here is caught up in other systems of value—as it necessarily always is—and here those other values include the moral system that frames the poem and prejudges the prostitutes and the night club or brothel setting. Nonetheless, McKay does insist that the dancer is both an admirable symbolic figure and an individual, dual recognitions crucial to the other context that energizes this text—race. The phrase "grown lovelier for passing through a storm" reaches beyond her skilled triumph over the dance hall setting to reverberate throughout black history, or so the poem urges us to believe, and the dancer's pride and beauty stand for everything black Americans have won from adversity. Yet her mastery of the dance--along with its suggestions of materially constrained and compromised transcendence--is also specified and limited in a crucial way, for she has triumphed at the historical intersection of gender and race. Indeed, gender and race here are inseparable from history; they are social values, not unchanging essences.
If McKay's poem is somewhat compromised by its unselfconsciously judgmental opening and closing lines (and by a formalism that does not altogether serve this subject well), one finds few compromising elements in Langston Hughes's poems about women.
from Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.
Consumption: Devouring "The Harlem Dancer"
Youth and sex characterize the Harlem Dancer's audience: the "[a]pplauding youths," the "young prostitutes," the "bold-eyed boys," and simply, "the girls [my italics]." The speaker of the poem doesn't seem to belong to or identify with any of these groups, separating himself from their juvenility, their undisguised lust for the dancer (which seems to frighten or dismay the poet), and even perhaps from their designation by gender; the speaker distinguishes himself from the rest of the audience by not gendering himself within the poem. Instead, he identifies himself and the dancer with blackness, and draws a charmed circle around the two of them by virtue of their shared race. She sings a gospel, spiritual or jazz song; McKay, alone among the white folks slumming in Harlem, sees in that the codes of a common history. The poem explicitly codes the dancer female, however, and its rhetoric emphasizes her sexuality and its effect on the audience. McKay and the dancer may be on the porch together, telling stories and signifying to one another about their passage through the storm, but the dancer's gender in combination with her race changed the course of her passage. The storm she passed through has invested her with a double consciousness, informed not only by her race but also by her gender.
McKay deliberately takes the position of the outsider in this Harlem scene. He is neither male nor female, nor young, like the boys, the prostitutes, or the girls. Something else besides the dancer's sensuality moves his fascination with her, or so he would prefer us to believe. Unresolved oppositions in the descriptive rhetoric of the poem call this subject position into question; the speaker distances himself madly - too insistently - from the "passionate," devouring boys and girls. This fringe position allows him to view the scene from on high (morally speaking), but in the context of the poem, the speaker has exclusive access to the dancer's psyche. He alone knows what she is thinking, and that she doesn't belong where she is right now. The notes McKay makes on her performance contribute to the idea that a sexualized interpretation (the reaction of the rest of her audience) is un-called for or inappropriate: "she seemed a proudly-swaying palm" (7), she danced "gracefully and calm" (5). McKay emphasizes her nobility and grace, not her sexuality.
The way he describes the dancer, in lines 5 and 6, is intended to de-sexualize her and/or to de-exoticize her. "She sang and danced on gracefully and calm/The light gauze hanging loose about her form" turns around the image of the half-clothed, semi-savage exotic in the second line. But lush, tropical imagery returns in the next line, comparing the dancer to a "proudly-swaying palm." In fact, it's hard to reconcile the juxtaposition of these two descriptions with one narrative speaker - unless the anxiety present is part of his character, a testament to the dancer's stirring sexuality. He can't help himself. Though the speaker wants to distance himself from the rest of the audience, he ends up identifying with them in that respect, both holding back from the objectification of the dancer and participating in it.
The boys and even the girls, however, "devour" the dancer with their gaze. The fact that even the girls are watching the dancer with hunger in their eyes suggests a number of things: 1) that girls, who would not "normally" be watching another woman with lust, are drawn to this one - perhaps because of something in her or about her that draws them, but possibly 2) because their sexual or gender (or both) identities, as a part of the Harlem dancer's audience, are placed in imperfect service of McKay's racially motivated poetics. Line 1 and line 11 are nearly parallel in content: a description of boys in the audience, then a description of girls in the audience. First, in line 1, the boys are a monolith and the girls are a separate mass. The boys take the action: they are the subjects of this sentence and they "watc[h] her perfect, half-clothed body sway." In line 11, the boys and the girls fuse into one watching body, the gaze of which is juxtaposed to the poet-speaker's genuine racial vision. The audience's gaze is clearly sexual and possessive; the speaker, on the other hand, is interested in the dancer's "self" rather than her body. Uncontrolled and uncontrollable sexuality gets conflated with race, another example of the exoticizing of the dancer. In order to emphasize this distinction - between white representations or imaginings of black sexuality and the distance that comes with the speaker's invocation of African-American history, the boys and the girls become genderless. They possess this passionate gaze regardless of their particular fulfillment of gender roles.
McKay finds these boys and girls invasive. This audience may be invading in a different way, however; they may be white folks slumming it in a Harlem nightclub, soaking in black culture as they might take in the totem poles uptown at the Museum of Natural History. In contrast to the audience's misinterpretation of the dancer, the speaker identifies his personal knowledge of the dancer with blackness: "Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes/Blown by black players upon a picnic day [my italics]"; "Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls/Luxuriant fell." Only he notices these things, he would say, just as only a black flautist could interpret the voice of a black singer. She is "lovelier for passing through a storm," presumably America's storm of racial oppression. Nobody knows the troubles she's seen, and still sees as she distances herself from that strange place; nobody knows, that is, but the black man watching from the seat in the back of the club. Her beauty, expressly linked in the mind of the speaker to the experience of blackness (the same history which fuels McKay's more racially polemical poems), moves him not to passion but to idealization.
The tension between these two visions of the dancer - as Madonna and as whore - splits the consciousness of the poem. The dancer is alternately exoticized by the young, hot-blooded, wine-flushed members of the audience, and idealized by McKay as a pure representation of his kind of beauty. A collection of phrases from Hughes' "Mulatto" elaborate on that history; the historical precedent and the danger underlying the "devouring" gaze of the white boys and girls comes into focus. A gaze implies power, and a certain level of coercion - an awareness of the rules overseeing bodies (especially black bodies) and self-government according to those rules. The dancer's self "was not in that strange place"; it is, in fact, equally in this one:
What's a body but a toy?
Of ****** wenches
Against black fences...
What's the body of your mother? (11-15, 19)
The dancer, the poem implies, cannot take responsibility for the expectations placed upon her by her white audience. Any reading of her sexuality as exotic, overpowering, and uncontrollable, and thus fascinating to boys and even girls automatically contains and ignores this version of history which McKay is party to. The poem addresses the hegemonic fear of and fascination with the "other" by way of a speaker who isn't exactly one of "us," but isn't exactly othered either. The poem sexualizes the co-opting of black experience and black art by white people looking for novelty, characterizing it as a kind of cultural rape.
McKay frequently reworks the sonnet form to express racial rage, most memorably in poems like "Mulatto" and "The White City." Where the boys and girls of "The Harlem Dancer" read their representations of Africa and black female sexuality on to the dancer's body, McKay takes the body of the sonnet - a privilege-soaked, white-identified form - and uses it to insert "Afric's son" into Shakespeare's mode of discourse. The sonnet, then, serves as "high talk," speaking with Old Massa's voice to lull him into believing in his slaves' perfect assimilation. It could be (and has historically been) dismissed as apery, but that would be done at peril when it comes to McKay:
Think you I am not fiend and savage too?
Think you I could not arm me with a gun
And shoot down ten of you for every one
Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?" ("To the White Fiends, 1-4)
"The Harlem Dancer," though, doesn't summon up this characteristic rage, though it does turn around the sonnet form in provocative ways. If it is a love sonnet to the dancer's eyebrows, it does also contain the cultural history of rape, and in that way subverts the sonnet form. It may parenthetically allude to the rage that appears in "The Lynching," since most lynchings were punishment for perceived sexual encroachment upon white women by black men. Here, in the Harlem club, these white children (stand-ins for the "little lads, lynchers that were to be" ("The Lynching," 13)?) devour the dancer with their eyes. The place is at once strange and familiar.
The boys and the girls are differentiated, however - not in their deployment of the gaze, but in their representation within the poem. The youths in the first line applaud; they act at first, before the girls, by watching the dancer. The girls are at first described as prostitutes; they do not act, are not granted any verbs, in the beginning of the poem. When the description becomes more vivid in line 11 - the boys are "wine-flushed, bold-eyed" - the girls are merely "girls," with no descriptors attached. There's a hierarchy of description of gender in the poem, and I would argue, an intentionally deconstructive one: the boys and girls appear to be as one in their objectification of the dancer, but there is also a second layer of objectification relating to the "young prostitutes." The girls and boys of the audience fuse into one at points in the poem; however, at other points the poem's rhetoric differentiates them. Even boys and girls, united in their gaze, visually re-enacting a rape, are still boys and girls. Surprise must still be expressed at the queering of the girls' reaction to the dancer; the girls are prostitutes, defined in the poem by their sexual servitude. In the end, then, McKay can't be comfortable with reading the dancer solely as fellow sufferer in America's storm. In addition to the dancer's blackness, she carries the additional burden of being a sexual object, blue-black against a black fence.
Copyright © 2001 by Beth Palatnik
Return to Claude McKay
If We Must Die:blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)
McKay on "If We Must Die"
Among my new poems there was a sonnet entitled "If We Must Die." It was the most recent of all. Great events had occurred between the time when I had first met Frank Harris and my meeting with Max Eastman. The World War had ended. But its end was a signal for the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white.
Our Negro newspapers were morbid, full of details of clashes between colored and white, murderous shootings and hangings. Traveling from city to city and unable to gauge the attitude and temper of each one, we Negro railroad men were nervous. We were less light-hearted. We did not separate from one another gaily to spend ourselves in speakeasies and gambling joints. We stuck together, some of us armed, going from the railroad station to our quarters. We stayed in our quarters all through the dreary ominous nights, for we never knew what was going to happen.
It was during those days that the sonnet, "If We Must Die," exploded out of me. And for it the Negro people unanimously hailed me as a poet. Indeed, that one grand outburst is their sole standard of appraising my poetry. It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew. They were all agitated. Even the fourth waiter - who was the giddiest and most irresponsible of the lot, with all his motives and gestures colored by a strangely acute form of satyriasis - even he actually cried. One, who was a believer in the Marcus Garvey Back-to-Africa Movement, suggested that I should go to Liberty Hall, the headquarters of the organization, and read the poem. As I was not uplifted with his enthusiasm for the Garvey Movement, yet did not like to say so, I told him truthfully that I had no ambition to harangue a crowd.
That afternoon with Max Eastman was spent in a critical estimation of my verse. He decided to publish a page of it. When I departed I left some of the verses but took with others the "If We Must Die" sonnet. I wanted Frank Harris, whom I had not seen for many months, to see it. I had always remembered his criticism and rejection of "The Lynching," and now I wanted to know if in "If We Must Die" I had "risen to the heights and stormed heaven," as he had said I should.
At that time Pearson's Magazine had its office in the same building as The Liberator. Frank Harris had me ushered in as soon as I was announced. "And where have you been and what doing all this time, my lad?" he roared, fixing me with a lowering look. All his high exhibitionism could not conceal the frank friendliness and deep kindliness that were the best of him. "Now what have you done to be called a real poet, to join the ranks of the elect? Have you written a GREAT poem yet?" I produced "If We Must Die." He read it at once. Then he slapped his thigh and shouted, "Grand! Grand! You have done it. That is a great poem, authentic fire and blood; blood pouring from a bleeding heart. I shall be proud to publish it in Pearson's."
I said that I was sorry, but the poem had already been accepted by The Liberator. "What? It belongs to me," Frank Harris thundered. "The Liberator be damned! I gave you the inspiration to write that sonnet and I want to have the credit of publishing it. In the next number of Pearson's. I'll play it up big."
But I said I couldn't do that; I would have to ask Max Eastman's permission. "No, you won't," roared Frank Harris. "Do you think I am the kind of man to accept a favor from Max Eastman? Why did you bring your poem here, after showing it to him?" Because I wanted him to see what I had done, I said, because I valued his opinion so highly, perhaps more than any other critic's, because his unforgettable words that memorable night of our first meeting were like a fire alive in me, because I so much desired to know if he considered what I had written as an achievement. I was excited and spoke quickly and earnestly. Frank Harris melted a little, for what I said had pleased him. But he was none the less angry.
From A Long Way Home. . New York: Arno-New York Times, 1969.
Many of McKay's published sonnets betray the terms of his search for an ideal racial self. He fixes his own dilemma in the context of the black man's insistent quest for racial authority. Feeling his own increasing burdens as a representative of the race in literature, he engenders himself as a black man who speaks for his race in general and to other black men in particular. His most famous sonnet, "If We Must Die," demonstrates the tension between racial and gendered utterances. The poem presents a traditional ideal of black masculinity:
Written in 1919, in the wake of the Red Scare and the Red Summer of race riots throughout the urban centers of the United States, "If We Must Die" is McKay's bold statement of a masculine, racial strategy. The nobility of his chosen form reaffirmed the conventions of dignity and the structures of address to which the poem's personae aspire. Etched into the consciousness of literate black Americans for generations to come as a model of Afro-American heroism, this poem has become a point of reference for the entire racial experience and a touchstone of the Afro-American entry into subjectivity. As Winston Churchill used it as a rallying cry to call the British into sustained battle against the Nazis, this single poem of renunciation earned McKay an international reputation even beyond his race.
While they speak for the entire race, the militant selves of the poem are in fact explicitly "male." The phrase "If we must die" utters the poem's call to participation, and it gathers meaning through its repetition in the first and second quatrains. The phrase "O kinsmen!" makes that call to participation explicit; the poem's would-be warriors are men. McKay fails to explicate the unique position of women within this embattled black community, choosing instead to talk about the race by imagining the aspirations of black men. The contest for black humanity in the poem is waged exclusively through the battle for black masculinity. Within the poem's rhetoric of pursuing honor and dignty, maleness is one of the spoils of the racial battle. In relation to white men, it is the ultimate mark of heroism. Whatever the position of women, for McKay this battle is between men.
Following Dunbar's footsteps by placing Afro-Americans in the heroic sonnet, McKay is the first to represent a collective Afro-American self within the slender technical boundaries of the sonnet form. In "If We Must Die," McKay gives public voice to other black men who might speak privately for all black people. The poem enacts McKay's powerful struggle for a masculine identity as a black writer in the midst of racial oppression. From the vantage point of his vocation as black writer, he turns to language to relieve the dissonance of his perception of what his life has become upon emigrating from Jamaica and his realization that his native culture of class distinction and apparent civility has ill prepared him for the viciousness of the racism that surrounded him daily. In the poem, McKay ultimately retreats to the social order of his youth with its values of personal honor. Death might come, be it not "inglorious."
"If We Must Die" builds its contrasts not between man and woman but rather man and beast, both terms variously construed. In an essay entitled "A Negro Poet Writes," the Jamaican-born McKay had written earlier of his initiation into American racism: "I ceased to think of people and things in the mass—why should I fight with mad dogs only to be bitten and probably transformed into a mad dog myself?" The resonant figures of bestiality here and in the poem underscore the extent to which McKay was haunted by the terms of his own dehumanization: the hostility and "ignoble cruelty" of what he witnessed in the United States. With his sense of nobility, McKay inherits a good deal of what Wayne Cooper, McKay's biographer, calls "the heroic sentimentalism of Victorian England." British imperialism left its mark on the British West Indies in many ways, and clearly McKay's experience of transplanted Victorian culture informed his writing. In part through his "special friendship" with his British patron, Walter Jekyll, he learned to internalize Victorian myths about male behavior in an aristocratic society. The sonnet form becomes an appropriate battlefield for the contest between McKay's sense of himself as a gentleman and the need to respond to racial violence. The gentlemanly form of the sonnet girds the language of warfare within the codes of nineteenth-century combat. Such codes allow McKay to fight racism on his own terms. With its heroic sentimentality, "If We Must Die" is for McKay the black male "deathblow" that will assure his possession of the rigid ideal of masculinity that comes as the poem's prize.
from "Caged Birds: Race and Gender in the Sonnet." In Engendering Men, ed. Joseph Boone and Michael Cadden. New York: Routledge, 1990. Copyright © 1990 by Routledge, Chapman & Hall, Inc.
Claude McKay's "If We Must Die," the poem most often judged to be the inaugural address of the Harlem Renaissance, was first printed above an article on Bolshevism and religion in the July 1919 Liberator. In the eyes of its author, however, the sonnet was unveiled before a group Andy Razaf might have styled as the renaissance's chefs: the black employees of the Pennsylvania Railroad dining car where McKay waited tables. "It was the only poem I ever read to the members of my crew," McKay claimed, and
"they were all agitated" (A Long Way 31). The excited response of McKay's coworkers was to be echoed by the dozens of African-American journals that reprinted the poem repeatedly into the 1920s. The Crusader hailed "If We Must Die" with speed: its September 1919 issue featured the sonnet a few pages ahead of a reprise of Razaf's martial ballad "Don't Tread on Me." The pressing historical stimulus for The Crusader's embrace was the Red Summer, whose color McKay ecumenically traced to "the outbreak of little wars between labor and capital and, like a plague breaking out in sore places, between colored folk and white" (A Long Way 31). The immediate goal of the republication was to spark further black boldness in all these battles. To the Crusader, McKay's sonnet was the ideal text for a militant sampler. With steely propriety, the poem put forth the creed of a New Negro whose modernity rested on self-defense as much as on Marxism and the metropolis:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accurséd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O, kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!
Though "If We Must Die" famously does not designate the racial identities of "kinsmen" and their enemies--nowhere is the "foe" of the speaker revealed to be an "ofay"--it must have struck the Crusader as a poem written to their specifications. Appearing in the wake of the armed African Americans who had made race rioting unprecedentedly dangerous to whites, the sonnet was hard to dissociate from the journal's plea that the weapons of interracial warfare stay double-edged swords. The "I" of the modern lyric, opposed to the collective, if not free from the social determination of individuality itself, here became a "we" promoting the visceral comradeship the Crusader likewise tied to a willingness to die for imagined "kinsmen." The correlation of suicidal retribution with martyrdom on behalf of a blood brotherhood; the rhetorical performance of an evolution from potential animal fear ("If we must die, let it not be like hogs"), to certain masculine fortitude ("Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack"), all seemed to render Crusader policy into iambic pentameter. From the moment "If We Must Die" was reprinted in the journal, McKay was stamped as a Crusader poet of choice, a fluent historian of the magazine's postwar code of radical remasculinization.
From New Negro, Old Left (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999).
Return to Claude McKay
Mulatto:blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)
James A. Emanuel
This dramatic dialogue offers a tensely individualized conflict between father and son that is hardened by the vigor and scorn of the words and broadened by carefully placed, suggestive details from nature. The son's adamant voice opens the poem, but is transformed into a passive Negro feminine presence exuberantly recalled by the white father, who feels half-pleasurably nagged in his fancied return to the conception and infancy of his son. The poet, employing the past awakened in the white man, leaves him musing and moves the growing child swiftly through years of hostile rejection by his white half-brothers--implying virtual estrangement from his father, whom he no longer reminds of sexual freedom in the Negro quarter. "******s ain't my brother" is the rebuff so ungrammatically worded as to show the displacement of reason and truth by blind social restrictions. In the last third of the poem, the father's reminiscences of woods, stars, and exploitable black women are slightly rephrased, indistinctly merging the author's voice with the father's. At the end, "I am your son, white man!" is repeated as a challenging accusation, weaker now, yet taking precedence over the phrases enclosing it, the author-father's echoes of earlier sensuous memories. Oddly, this is the father's poem. The delicious memories, the unweakened sense of arbitrary power to take and to withhold, the expansive portents of nature, even though ironically misconstrued--all are his. The son is the catalyst, but the father glows. The author expands his profoundly racial material and so convincingly explores a white father's subconscious that the poet's own hovering irony becomes inseparable from the ambivalent remembrances of his subject.
From Langston Hughes (Twayne, 1967)
A Comparison of Langston Hughes's "The Mulatto" and Claude McKay's "Mulatto"
Reading McKay's traditional poetics alongside his contemporary Langston Hughes's open-form, experimental poetics brings out the specificity of the sonnet's formalizing force. Consider Hughes's "Mulatto" (1927) and McKay's earlier 1925 sonnet, "The Mulatto." Since slavery, the problem of the mulatto child disavowed by his/her white father-master has been a site of intense emotion and trauma—a problem that these two poems address head-on from the perspective of the mulatto son. Hughes's "Mulatto" embraces a hybrid form structured by interpolations, multiple voices, and polyphony—in short, the poem is "mulatto" in form as well as content. McKay's raging sonnet could not be more different: in tapping the "white" tradition of the Shakespearean sonnet's iambic pentameter, a b a b c d c d e f e f g g rhyme scheme, the poem at first seems constrained and less formally inventive than Hughes's. Although McKay's black voice singing in a borrowed white key is in a sense "mulatto," its unambiguously raging tone and the sonnet's overall worldview of warring, "unreconciled" binaries—love and hate, black and white, kill or be killed—follow a logic of synthesis that significantly differs from Hughes's jazzier mix of poetic voice.
Initially, Hughes's poem seems to break down into three voices (father, son, and an elusive third voice) that cut in and mutually interrupt each other, causing abrupt shifts in style and tone that, in the end, disarticulate voice from identity. In the opening lines, the son asserts his mulatto identity and pleads for recognition from his white father. The unnamed son's address to a generic "white man" suggests that his voice oscillates between the particular and the general, between the son as individual and the son as representative of all mulattos:
I am your son, white man!
And the turpentine woods.
One of the pillars of the temple fell.
You are my son!
Like hell! (1-6)
Instead of immediately giving us the father's response to his son's accusatory plea, the poem then shifts to an "objective," racially unmarked voice that describes the natural setting of the "Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods" (2-3). While this three line interpolation give us terms—dusk and turpentine—that signify nature's own color-mixing of night and day, it also folds back in on the father-son dialogue and naturalizes the supposed unnaturalness of racial mixing. Some of these more descriptive lines show nature as constantly commingling: the night is full of mulattoed "Great big yellow stars" (10) and mixed smells: "The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air" (18). The fourth line's mysterious reference to a partially ruined temple—only "One of the pillars of the temple fell"—disrupts our expectations about the action's geographical location in Georgia: where are there temples in Georgia? Given Hughes's concern with ancient Africa/Egypt in "Negro" (1922) and "The Negro Speaks of Rivers" (1921), the temple obliquely evokes these ancient ruins, thus interjecting into the poem a subtle yet trans-historical, trans-geographical twist: a collapsing of distance in space and time. This third, descriptive voice, seemingly transcendent, then hovers over the father-son dialogue throughout the rest of the poem.
As the poem unfolds, it deconstructs itself. The father's voice becomes more ambiguous, making it difficult to discern his from the son's. His initial response to and denial of his son—"You are my son! / Like hell!"—inadvertently betrays some level of recognition that begins to destabilize the father's identity. When the father asks, "What's a body but a toy?" (11), the abrupt shift to a macabre jingle about bruised black bodies suggests that another unidentified voice answers the father's question, though presumably in a way that would be satisfactory to the father:
Of ****** wenches
Against black fences (12-15).
Perhaps as a surging up of the father's and son's mutual unconscious, a memory triggered by the "Sharp pine scent in the evening air" (22) mentioned later, these lines return the poem to the primal, traumatic rape scene of the son's conception. Yet even as the father repeats his question, implying an association of the female black body with mere toys, this voice of the unconscious interpolates another song:
A ****** night,
A ****** joy,
A little yellow
Bastard boy (23-26).
The "joy" both folds back on the night of conception—the rape of the mother-toy—and plunges forward into the mulatto "Bastard boy," thus forming a toy-joy-boy rhyming constellation. The playful tone of the songs and the toy-joy-boy rhyme suggest that the father's feelings towards his son vacillate, thus defusing any straightforward rejection, even if lines like "Git on back there in the night, / You ain't white" imply such a rejection (36-37). Unlike the speaker in McKay's poem, who sets out to murder his father, the problem for Hughes seems to involve mutual recognition, or rather a conscious recognition of an unconscious recognition—an overcoming of a repressed recognition that the white father must feel at some level. The poem's unrecognizable form, too, demands recognition from readers more familiar with conventional forms like the sonnet. Although the poem ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the son to continue his pleading, its mix of mutually haunting voices at least implies that some kind of reconciliation is possible.
In McKay's "Mulatto," the father-son forces cannot be reconciled or rescued by the identity-vertigo induced by the work of interpolation in Hughes's poem. Hughes's poem may sit more comfortably than McKay's with those who value becoming and ambiguity, fluidity, and the interconnectedness of all things which, in turn, supposedly corresponds to a socialist-democratic politics of pluralism and openness. McKay's poem, on the other hand, challenges us to rethink this melting pot ontology of becoming and its political efficacy, to think a world where reconciling might mean murdering. In its blunt acceptance of violence, the poem is Fanonian decades before Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the use of violence to overthrow colonial regimes:
Because I am the white man's son—his own,
Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face,
I will dispute his title to his throne,
Forever fight him for my rightful place.
There is a searing hate within my soul,
A hate that only kin can feel for kin,
A hate that makes me vigorous and whole,
And spurs me on increasingly to win.
Because I am my cruel father's child,
My love of justice stirs me up to hate,
A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled,
When falls the hour I shall not hesitate
Into my father's heart to plunge the knife
To gain the utmost freedom that is life.
While a number of words in Hughes's text are "marked" as mulatto (dusk, turpentine, yellow), for McKay, the mulatto mark is a birth-mark owned by the white father, suggesting an irremovable blemish or stain on racial purity, the manifestation of the white man's shame that the mulatto must "bear" for his entire life. At the same time, the physicality and undeniable there-ness of the "birth-mark" testifies against the white father's absurd denial of his son, allowing McKay to bypass the problem of recognition altogether (a bypass also implied in the recognizable sonnet form). Instead of mutual recognition, there is mutually violent rejection: the speaker-son first fantasizes about regicide—"I will dispute his title to his throne" (3)—before turning in the final lines to a more detailed scene of patricide. The "searing hate" (3) that burns in the son's soul also gives him a coherent identity and vitality that makes him "vigorous and whole" (5). The speaker again qualifies this hate that "spurs" by asserting its origin in a "love of justice" (8), suggesting that his acute awareness of the gap between justice and reality fuels his anger. "[L]ove of justice" also differentiates the son's hatred from his father's, an arbitrary hatred that makes him abandon and oppress his own son.
With the son's reference to himself as a "child" in the first line of the final sestet, McKay sets up an oblique revision of the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael drama that caps off the poem. "A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled" invokes not only the Biblical but also the Qu'ranic stories of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and his slave, Hagar. In the Biblical version of the story, God establishes his covenant with Abraham's younger legitimate son, Isaac, and ostracizes Ishmael: "He shall be a wild man; / His hand shall be against every man, / And every man's hand against him" (Genesis 16:12). Ishmael plays a more positive role in the Qu'ran, the holy book of Islam. Indeed, Abraham and Ishmael, father and son, are equally prophets (217), charged with the task of building the Ka'bah at Mecca: "We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves" (17). If we combine this positive appraisal of Ishmael with the biblical one, then my argument that McKay substitutes Ishmael for Isaac in the final lines becomes plausible. Unlike the passive Isaac, who unknowingly awaits his execution at the hands of his father, the rebellious Ishmaelite son "shall not hesitate / into [his] father's heart to plunge the knife" (12-13). It is important to note that the moment of reversed sacrifice is suspended indefinitely: "When falls the hour," the speaker says. The sonnet does not occur within the moment of violence, but rather in the anticipatory resolve or readiness for some future violence.
Obviously, if the solution to injustice that "The Mulatto" proposes (i.e. patricide) were carried out, such a gesture would be, in the grand scheme of white-dominated capitalism, useless. Given McKay's involvement with Communism, both in his stint as assistant editor for the leftist journal The Liberator and in his grand tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, there must be some other way, some alternative to father-son quarreling or to-the-death knife-fights. One such answer is hinted at in the suspended act and implicit attitude towards futurity of the line "When falls the hour." While the violence of "The Mulatto" is direct and uncompromising, such violence is also deferred and thus remains open to the coming future.
Copyright © 2007 John Claborn
Return to Langston Hughes
Long Day's Journey into Night:The play begins in August, 1912, at the summer home of the Tyrone family. The setting for all four acts is the family's living room, which is adjacent to the kitchen and dining room. There is also a staircase just off stage, which leads to the upper-level bedrooms. It is 8:30 am, and the family has just finished breakfast in the dining room. While Jamie and Edmund linger offstage, Tyrone and Mary enter and embrace, and Mary comments on being pleased with her recent weight gain even though she is eating less food. Tyrone and Mary make conversation, which leads to a brief argument about Tyrone's tendency to spend money on real estate investing. They are interrupted by the sound of Edmund, who is having a coughing fit in the next room. Although Mary remarks that he merely has a bad cold, Tyrone's body language indicates that he may know more about Edmund's sickness than Mary. Nevertheless, Tyrone tells Mary that she must take care of herself and focus on getting better rather than getting upset about Edmund. Mary immediately becomes defensive, saying, "There's nothing to be upset about. What makes you think I'm upset?" Tyrone drops the subject and tells Mary that he is glad to have her "dear old self" back again.
Edmund and Jamie are heard laughing in the next room, and Tyrone immediately grows bitter, assuming they are making jokes about him. Edmund and Jamie enter, and we see that, even though he is just 23 years old, Edmund is "plainly in bad health" and nervous. Upon entering, Jamie begins to stare at his mother, thinking that she is looking much better. The conversation turns spiteful, however, when the sons begin to make fun of Tyrone's loud snoring, a subject about which he is sensitive, driving him to anger. Edmund tells him to calm down, leading to an argument between the two. Tyrone then turns on Jamie, attacking him for his lack of ambition and laziness. To calm things down, Edmund tells a funny story about a tenant named Shaughnessy on the Tyrone family land in Ireland, where the family's origins lie. Tyrone is not amused by the anecdote, however, because he could be the subject of a lawsuit related to ownership of the land. He attacks Edmund again, calling his comments socialist. Edmund gets upsets and exits in a fit of coughing. Jamie points out that Edmund is really sick, a comment which Tyrone responds to with a "shut up" look, as though trying to prevent Mary from finding out something. Mary tells them that, despite what any doctor may say, she believes that Edmund has nothing more than a bad cold. Mary has a deep distrust for doctors. Tyrone and Jamie begin to stare at her again, making her self-conscious. Mary reflects on her faded beauty, recognizing that she is in the stages of decline.
As Mary exits, Tyrone chastises Jamie for suggesting that Edmund really may be ill in front of Mary, who is not supposed to worry during her recovery from her addiction to morphine. Jamie and Tyrone both suspect that Edmund has consumption (better known today as tuberculosis), and Jamie thinks it unwise to allow Mary to keep fooling herself. Jamie and Tyrone argue over Edmund's doctor, Doc Hardy, who charges very little for his services. Jamie accuses Tyrone of getting the cheapest doctor, without regard to quality, simply because he is a penny-pincher. Tyrone retorts that Jamie always thinks the worst of everyone, and that Jamie does not understand the value of a dollar because he has always been able to take comfortable living for granted. Tyrone, by contrast, had to work his own way up from the streets. Jamie only squanders loads of money on whores and liquor in town. Jamie argues back that Tyrone squanders money on real estate speculation, although Tyrone points out that most of his holdings are mortgaged. Tyrone accuses Jamie of laziness and criticizes his failure to succeed at anything. Jamie was expelled from several colleges in his younger years, and he never shows any gratitude towards his father; Tyrone thinks that he is a bad influence on Edmund. Jamie counters that he has always tried to teach Edmund to lead a life different from that which Jamie leads.
O'Neill's opening stage directions immediately give the audience some clues as to what the Tyrone family is like. The bookshelves, for instance, show that the family is both educated and worldly; there are books by a wide range of famous European authors. The Irish literature on the bookshelf clues us in to the family's pride in its Irish heritage. The character descriptions also foreshadow some of the play's conflicts. Mary is described as decaying, yet she stills retains a "youthfulness she has never lost." We see that she is in a transition period in her life, on the verge of becoming an old woman. The description of Tyrone and his shabby, utilitarian clothes suggests his financial prudence. He has obviously taken care of himself, because he looks ten years younger than his age. In fact, Tyrone does not seem to be affected physically by the passage of time; he maintains the digestion of a 25-year-old, for instance. His impervious body may support the idea that Tyrone has not changed very much throughout his life despite Mary's continual efforts to make him reform some of his attitudes and habits. Notice that O'Neill uses stage directions more than many other playwrights to provide insight into what the characters ought to look like and what their central interests are.
It is also important when beginning the play to notice that O'Neill does not condemn any one of these characters more than any other. Instead, he feels a great sympathy for all four Tyrones, as he wrote to his wife in 1940 when he completed the play. All the characters have severe faults, and all are capable of great cruelty. At the same time, they are all part of one family that has stayed together throughout many years of hardship, and they can all be very loving and compassionate. One cannot single out any particular character as the protagonist or antagonist; one can instead see the themes that create strife in the family and the ways the family mends itself when it falls into disorder.
There are two major health problems in the play, which will slowly be uncovered over the course of the four acts, but they are both hinted early on. The first is Edmund's consumption. We see that he is having coughing fits in the morning, and, even though Mary insists that he has merely a bad cold, we will learn later on that he is undoubtedly inflicted with tuberculosis and will have to live in a sanatorium in order to be cured. The second problem in the play is Mary's addiction to morphine, which began when a doctor prescribed the drug to her after she gave birth to Edmund as a means of stopping her intense pain. As this play opens, Mary has just returned from a long treatment program designed to break her addiction. She shows signs of recovering--she is gaining weight again--but we will learn later on in the play that she has quickly become a full-blown morphine addict once again.
These two problems and how each character reacts to them provide a medium for bringing out the family's most cruel and painful conflicts. It is obvious from the first, for instance, that one of Mary's central flaws is her refusal to admit that there is a problem with herself or Edmund. She lies to her family countless times about being cured, and she chastises them for suspecting her. She also will not accept that Edmund is really sick. Her husband and sons, not wishing her to get worried while she is supposedly recovering, help her delude herself by keeping Edmund's sickness from her as best they can. Mary, we see, likes to live in a fantasy world, and the morphine helps her accomplish that. We also see that bad side of Tyrone through these conflicts when we learn that he may be partly responsible for Mary's initial addiction, having refused to pay the high costs for a good doctor, hiring instead a cheap quack who solved Mary's pain without regard to the long-term consequences. Tyrone, we will see later, is also overly hesitant about spending money on a good doctor to treat Edmund's illness. The two boys have their own problems as well, most of which will be fleshed out more in upcoming scenes.Tyrone and Jamie continue their discussion about Edmund, who works for a local newspaper. Tyrone and Jamie have heard that some editors dislike Edmund, but they both acknowledge that he has a strong creative impulse that drives much of his plans. Tyrone and Jamie agree also that they are glad to have Mary back. They resolve to help her in any way possible, and they decide to keep the truth about Edmund's sickness from her, although they realize that they will not be able to do so if Edmund has to be committed to a sanatorium, a place where tuberculosis patients are treated. Tyrone and Jamie discuss Mary's health, and Tyrone seems to be fooling himself into thinking that Mary is healthier than she really is. Jamie mentions that he heard her walking around the spare bedroom the night before, which may be a sign that she is taking morphine again. Tyrone says that it was simply his snoring that induced her to leave; he accuses Jamie once again of always trying to find the worst in any given situation.
Between the lines, we begin to learn that Mary first became addicted to morphine 23 years earlier, just after giving birth to Edmund. The birth was particularly painful for her, and Tyrone hired a very cheap doctor to help ease her pain. The economical but incompetent doctor prescribed morphine to Mary, recognizing that it would solve her immediate pain but ignoring potential future side effects, such as addiction. Thus we see that Tyrone's stinginess (or prudence, as he would call it), has come up in the past, and it will be referred to many more times during the course of the play.
Mary enters just as Tyrone and Jamie are about to begin a new argument. Not wishing to upset her, they immediately cease and decide to go outside to trim the hedges. Mary asks what they were arguing about, and Jamie tells her that they were discussing Edmund's doctor, Doc Hardy. Mary says she knows that they are lying to her. The two stare at her again briefly before exiting, with Jamie telling her not to worry. Edmund then enters in the midst of a coughing fit and tells Mary that he feels ill. Mary begins to fuss over him, although Edmund tells her to worry about herself and not him. Mary tells Edmund that she hates the house in which they live because, "I've never felt it was my home." She puts up with it only because she usually goes along with whatever Tyrone wants. She criticizes Edmund and Jamie for "disgracing" themselves with loose women, so that at present no respectable girls will be seen with them. Mary announces her belief that Jamie and Edmund are always cruelly suspicious, and she thinks that they spy on her. She asks Edmund to "stop suspecting me," although she acknowledges that Edmund cannot trust her because she has broken many promises in the past. She thinks that the past is hard to forget because it is full of broken promises. The act ends with Edmund's exit. Mary sits alone, twitching nervously.
The latter part of Act I introduces us to the central conflict between Tyrone and Jamie. Tyrone believes that Jamie does not appreciate the value of money or the importance of hard work; Jamie has taken too much for granted. Jamie, on the other hand, thinks that his father is a penny-pincher, and he never shows his father any gratitude. Nevertheless, we see in this conflict an optimistic side of Tyrone, who maintains that his son still has the chance to become a great success. Their relationship and Tyrone's bitter disappointment suggests a thematic link between the two. Jamie is an example of the prodigal son who could have been like his father but instead chose to rebel. One of the strengths of the play is the presence of both Tyrone and Mary in their two children. In Act II, for instance, Edmund will criticize Jamie for thinking suspiciously by asking, "Can't you think anything but. . ." and cutting himself off before finishing. This is the same wording Tyrone uses in Act I to criticize Jamie's negative attitude. Similarly, we see towards the end of the act that Edmund and Mary share a common romantic vision. They dream of life in high society and comfortable living. Edmund concerns himself with Romantic authors and drunkenness while Mary entertains sublime fantasies about the role of the home and the success of her children. The character links come up several times throughout the play and affect the play's internal cohesion.
Jamie's comment that he "can't forget the past" introduces another central concern of the play: the role of the past in the events of the present. Each character in this play is at least partially controlled by his or her memories of the family's history. None of the men, for instance, are willing to believe Mary, because she has broken so many promises in the past. Both sons and Mary hold deep-seated grudges towards Tyrone for refusing to pay for a quality doctor for her, and the problems that created are still very much alive. Perhaps most importantly, Mary can never let go of the dreams she had as a young girl of being a professional pianist or a nun, both of which were destroyed when she got married. We see throughout the play her tendency to question whether she made the right decision, and this tendency fosters a resentment towards Tyrone, who she thinks was complicit in the destruction of her dreams. All these characters are haunted by all sorts of events from the past, none of which they can forget, as Jamie says. Thus, much like Mary's body as described at the beginning of the play, the family is slowly decaying because it is trapped by suspicions and problems resulting from mistakes made long ago which can neither be forgiven nor ignored.
We also see in this act Mary's specific idea of what a "home" is. More importantly, we learn that she does not feel like her house is any kind of a home, that she believes that she has never actually had a home with Tyrone, because they have lived their lives touring on the road. This is one of the manifestations of Mary's romantic vision of life that has been destroyed by the reality of her present situation. Unfortunately for her, Mary was never able to voice her concerns until too late in life; she always went along with Tyrone with little comment. Thus, we see that communication within the family is deeply flawed. This is also evident in Mary's continual refusal to admit the truth, and in the men's refusal to tell her the truth. We are left with a family who can easily argue and fight, but can never really communicate what they feel and want until it is too late. The play will move towards a resolution of this conflict towards the end of Act IV, when Jamie tells Edmund of his desire to see him fail, and when Mary and Tyrone discuss their old hopes.
Mary's concern over having a "home" introduces the concern over language into the play. Notice that the characters each command their own particular vocabulary that is highly politicized. Tyrone, for instance, is constantly calling his attitude towards money "prudent," while the other three call him "stingy." Likewise, Mary has a different definition of the word "home" than the three men. There is also a hesitancy on the part of all characters to say the word "consumption" in reference to Edmund. O'Neill's world is one in which language is politicized, where characters can claim language for themselves, and where other characters place a great stake in which particular words are used to describe which experiences.
The curtain rises again on the living room, where Edmund sits reading. It is 12:45 pm on the same August day. Cathleen, the maid, enters with whiskey and water for pre-lunch drinking. Edmund asks Cathleen to call Tyrone and Jamie for lunch. Cathleen is chatty and flirty, and tells Edmund that he is handsome. Jamie soon enters and pours himself a drink, adding water to the bottle afterwards so that Tyrone will not know they had a drink before he came in. Tyrone is still outside, talking to one of the neighbors and putting on "an act" with the intent of showing off. Jamie tells Edmund that Edmund may have a sickness more severe than a simple case of malaria. He then chastises Edmund for leaving Mary alone all morning. He tells him that Mary's promises mean nothing anymore. Jamie reveals that he and Tyrone knew of Mary's morphine addiction as much as ten years before they told Edmund.
Edmund begins a coughing fit as Mary enters, and she tells him not to cough. When Jamie makes a snide comment about his father, Mary tells him to respect Tyrone more. She tells him to stop always seeking out the weaknesses in others. She expresses her fatalistic view of life, that most events are somehow predetermined, that humans have little control over their own lives. She then complains that Tyrone never hires any good servants; she is displeased with Cathleen, and she blames her unhappiness on Tyrone's refusal to hire a top-rate maid. At this point, Cathleen enters and tells them that Tyrone is still outside talking. Edmund exits to fetch him, and while he is gone, Jamie stares at Mary with a concerned look. Mary asks why he is looking at her, and he tells her that she knows why. Although he will not say it directly, Jamie knows that Mary is back on morphine; he can tell by her glazed eyes. Edmund reenters and curses Jamie when Mary, playing ignorant, tells him that Jamie has been insinuating nasty things about her. Mary prevents an argument by telling Edmund to blame no one. She again expresses her fatalist view: "[Jamie] can't help what the past has made him. Any more than your father can. Or you. Or I." Jamie shrugs off all accusations, and Edmund looks suspiciously at Mary.
Tyrone enters, and he argues briefly with his two sons about the whiskey. They all have a large drink. Suddenly, Mary has an outburst about Tyrone's failure to understand what a home is. Mary has a distinct vision of a home, one that Tyrone has never been able to provide for her. She tells him that he should have remained a bachelor, but then she drops the subject so that they can begin lunch. However, she first criticizes Tyrone for letting Edmund drink, saying that it will kill him. Suddenly feeling guilty, she retracts her comments. Jamie and Edmund exit to the dining room. Tyrone sits staring at Mary, then says that he has "been a God-damned fool to believe in you." She becomes defensive and begins to deny Tyrone's unspoken accusations, but he now knows that she is back on morphine. She complains again of his drinking before the scene ends.
Act II introduces us to alcohol, one of the great motifs in the play. In the drinking of alcohol, we see an attempt by the male characters to escape the problems that haunt them. However, notice that this makes them no different from Mary, who uses a different drug to escape the pains of the world. In fact, by the end of Act IV, all three men are drunk, Cathleen is drunk, and Mary is mentally drifting after consuming a huge dose of morphine. The play begins in sobriety but ends in complete inebriation. All the characters are to some degree addicted--to alcohol, or, in Mary's case, to morphine. Thus we see that life for the Tyrone family is very conducive to the desire to escape from the world. Life in the Tyrone family is also conducive to addiction, which we see particularly in Mary, who was on her way to recovery until she came home to her family and could no longer resist the urge to escape mentally. The use of alcohol, furthermore, suggests also that the day on which this play is set is just one of many similar days filled with fighting and excessive drinking until everyone goes to sleep. There is a cycle of alcoholism present in each day for the Tyrones, which leads to the pessimistic conclusion that the family's problems in this play do not resolve themselves, that their conflicts do not lessen. Each family member spends the day working towards inebriation, arguing along the way, and then goes to bed only to wake up the next day and begin the cycle over again.
In this scene, we see clearly Mary's tendency to blame the problems of the family on fate. She initially criticizes Jamie for his tendency to look for weaknesses in other people, but then she attributes the flaw to the way Jamie was raised, which he cannot help. Mary's fatalistic view is one of her character flaws, because it always provides her with an easy way out. Rather than really confronting Jamie about his malice, she simply excuses him. Likewise, she blames much of her own problems on her crushed dreams and disappointment, which in her mind leaves her with very little choice in her actions. The fatalistic outlook, in its removal of responsibility, is a barrier to solving problems, which Mary does not seem to have the ability to do.
One of the ways she hides from these problems is by failing to communicate effectively with her family, which also comes up in this scene. Jamie begins to confront her about her appearance, which we are to believe is somewhat haggard because she is on morphine. Mary, however, immediately decr
Winter Dreams:Structure and Narrative Voice
Fitzgerald structures and narrates "Winter Dreams" in a way that reflects his critical view of the world he depicts in the story. Like the sectional dividers in the story, Fitzgerald's characters lead fractured, incomplete existences as they search for pleasure and wealth. The story is composed of six sections of varying lengths, which suggest the many affections and betrayals that characterize Dexter and Judy's relationship. In addition, this particular structure suggests that when it comes to issues of identity and self-awareness, there is no coherent core to ground these characters in their search for stability and meaning. Indeed, a clearly defined sense of self is what Dexter lacks. Like this story, which relates aspects of his coming-of-age, he is the product of fragmentary experiences. He attempts to find in Judy the clarity and direction that his life lacks.
Fitzgerald's view of Dexter's and Judy's whirlwind lives and the ways they conduct them is apparent in the way he narrates the story. His technique of addressing the reader directly at several points in the story lends "Winter Dreams" an immediacy and underscores the fact that Fitzgerald is not only telling his story but also selecting specific details from his characters' lives for a reason. When Dexter returns to the Sherry Island Golf Club, for example, Fitzgerald writes, "But the part of his story that concerns us . . ." an address that suggests that we and Fitzgerald are complicit, looking in on Dexter's life. Direct address also takes the form of rhetorical questions, which Fitzgerald poses to us to reveal Judy's propensity for "acting" in the presence of her admirers. Ultimately, Fitzgerald's structure and narrative voice suggest a purpose to his writing of the story. In a way, he is holding up the travails of Dexter and Judy as a warning to readers who may also be caught up in decadent lives or the romantic whims of another person.
Fitzgerald's tale moves about in time, spanning just less than two decades in the lives of Dexter Green and Judy Jones, a structural and narrative choice that lends complexity and richness to his portrayal of the gradual wearing away of Dexter's illusions. By juxtaposing various disembodied episodes in Dexter's personal and professional lives, Fitzgerald suggests the intricate role the events play in shaping Dexter's response to Judy and setting up the high cost of his winter dreams. The past is always alive for Dexter. For example, the sting of young Judy's condescension on the golf course is a looming presence that Fitzgerald conjures to make Dexter's disillusionment at the end of the story more profound. In an aside to the reader, Fitzgerald writes, "This story is not his biography, remember . . . ." Rather, the tale serves as an emotional history of hopes that are built up and then razed.
Temporal shifts and the passage of the seasons serve as a backdrop to the romantic possession from which Dexter tries to escape over the years. The story begins when Dexter is fourteen and eventually offers a rapid summary of his rise in life—from his college years at a prestigious Eastern university to his owning and eventually selling the largest string of laundries in the upper Midwest. Although the story actually concludes when Dexter is thirty-two, the action immediately flashes back to when Dexter is twenty-three and joining the elite for a round of golf. In just a few paragraphs, Fitzgerald presents an ironic juxtaposition. Dexter goes from a being a caddy to having young caddies carry his clubs for him at the same elite country club where he had once worked. Even then, at this telling moment in his young adult life, Dexter is attempting to "lessen the gap that lay between the present and the past." Fitzgerald's fluid sense of time in the story serves to draw more attention to Dexter's lost youth and the gap that for Dexter will only widen and never close. "Winter Dreams" analyzes the motivations and frustrations of two young people coming of age, but it also examines the historical period that is the backdrop to the on-again, off-again relationship between Dexter and Judy. The action in "Winter Dreams" spans the early decades of the twentieth century, from the middle of the first decade to the early 1920s. The so-called Roaring Twenties, the Jazz Age was for some people a time of unchecked hedonism. Self-gratification ruled the day, and for the affluent, it was an era of opulent parties, fashionable trends, and grand social gestures. One critic intimated of the period that it was a time in which people had little concern for the past and even less regard for the future. The time period saw many young people endorse a reckless embrace of the moment, as America emerged from World War I and entered a new and unprecedented economic boom. Fitzgerald emerged as the laureate of the Jazz Age, capturing the spirit of the decade in his fiction while embodying its hedonistic, freewheeling zeal in his personal life as well.
In "Winter Dreams," as in his fiction in general, Fitzgerald avoided many of the clichéd images of the period, such as flappers, speakeasies, and gangsters. However, in his hands, a certain type of character emerged. Judy embodies all that is stereotypical of the fickle, selfish, and histrionic rich girl. She is in full possession of her beauty and thrall over men, navigating her way through her social world by the force of her charm. She is all appetite, too embroiled in the moment, with little regard for the larger implications of her changes of heart. Dexter is the convert, the middle-class imposter standing outside the dance in the gymnasium and seduced by the wealth and self-indulgence the dancing couples represent. In Fitzgerald's world, the pursuit of pleasure alienates those who are unable to indulge in escapist acts, which distract from the essential hollowness and isolation that many of his characters try to avoid. Pleasure for pleasure's sake was the unofficial motto of the flapper, the jazz babies, and the idle rich who helped the twenties achieve its mystique of hedonism and decadence in the major cities of Europe and the United States. In Dexter and Judy, Fitzgerald subtly indicts Jazz Age decadence. Dexter is desperate to validate his existence through success and status, but he is also critical of his attempts to transcend his humble origins by blindly pursuing wealth and sophistication. Dexter both celebrates and denies his middle-class background, and he himself ultimately becomes the obstacle that stands in the way of the personal happiness he seeks. Dexter is unable to resolve this essential conflict of identity. Having finally achieved guest entrance to the country club, he feels like a trespasser, while at the same time feeling superior to the captains of industry whom he finds boring and lacking in golf skills. This inherent duality in Dexter is evident in his complex history with Judy. Although he is able to convince himself that he does not want her as a partner or wife, he cannot control the ardor her presence in his life triggers.
Dexter deliberately creates obstacles to his own happiness. Afraid of commitment, he prefers a solitary existence, hovering on the edges of a world of carousing and bachelorhood. He once coveted a life of financial ease, but when he finally reaches his goal, he feels like an outsider because he had to work hard for his money. He feels that his newly acquired status has been purchased rather than deserved. The satisfaction he feels at becoming the richest young man in the upper Midwest leads him to pursue unattainable goals, such as the possession of Judy Jones. He is blind to his emotional failings and personal shortcomings, seeing little distinction between the personal and professional. For him, love and money are inextricably linked. Dexter's fixation on the ideal proves to be the most significant obstacle to his happiness. He persists in believing that Judy is an ideal woman, when in reality she is flawed and human. Her transformation into a homely housewife ultimately shatters Dexter's illusions and ideals.
In a way, Judy Jones is shaped by men who view her as the ideal woman, as they must contort her to fit their fantasy of this vision of feminine beauty and grace. Judy depends on these suitors' attentions to give her life meaning. Just as Dexter seems out of his element when he becomes part of Judy's world, Judy too suffers from a kind of displacement. As a child, she adopts the stilted, precocious tone of a daughter of prosperity, and her self-confidence and comportment suggest a maturity beyond her years. Although she is older than Dexter, she addresses him as "Boy," which reflects not their age difference but different stations in life. When Judy enters adulthood, however, the shallow, immature, and cruel side of her nature becomes clear. Judy's selfishness, willfulness, and impulse-driven behavior are leftovers from the realm of childhood and belie the polish and sophistication that her adult beauty suggests.
Judy's lack of humility and inner reserves suggest the negative effects of an overly indulged existence in which she was sheltered from the sting of the real world. Just as Dexter equates professional success with personal validation, Judy sees her radiant beauty as a sign that she deserves great happiness. "I'm more beautiful than anybody else," she brazenly asserts, "why can't I be happy?" Judy fails to attain the happiness she seeks because she is unaware of what happiness requires and what path will lead her there. Mired in surface impressions and the flattery that her serial dating provides, she is unable to properly articulate her dissatisfaction. She uses her physical attributes as her sole means of engaging with and interpreting the world. Like Dexter's, the life she inhabits at the end of the story falls far short of the life she had expected. She is the victim of her malformed impressions of the world and inability to independently discover who she truly is.
The Dark Side of the American Dream
The "winter dreams" of the story refer to the American Dream that Dexter comes to embody, but success brings a high cost, and social mobility restricts Dexter's capacity for happiness. Dexter is from humble origins: his mother was an immigrant who constantly struggled with the language of her adopted homeland. The central irony of the story is that realizing the American Dream yields bleak rewards. For example, when Dexter was a young caddy, he dreamed about success and wealth and the happiness they would bring. When he finally beats T. A. Hedrick in a golf tournament, however, the triumph brings him little joy. Dexter is able to transcend middle-class inertia but, despite his tireless efforts to advance his fortunes, forced to accept that money cannot buy happiness.
Dexter has an ambiguous relationship with the bluebloods and idle rich who populate his social world. On one hand, he is proud of his self-made status and has no respect for the men for whom luxury and wealth were a given. Still, the men are emblems of a world to which Dexter wants to belong. In pursuing Judy, he is attempting to validate his claim as a bonafide member of the upper class. Dexter feels that he is a newer, stronger, and more praiseworthy version of the Mortimer Joneses of the world, but he still mimics the rich in gesture and appearance. He pays meticulous attention to his appearance, concerned with small details that only an outsider who was trying to disguise himself as a man of wealth would really notice. Dexter's position in this world is precarious, and there is no room for error in appearance or etiquette. Through Dexter and the world of earned distinctions that he comes to represent, Fitzgerald exposes the hollowness that comes from the aggressive pursuit of the American Dream. Wealth and social status substitute for strong connections to people, eclipsing the possibility of happiness of emotional fulfillment.
Reality versus Idealism
Reality and fantasy prove to be constantly at odds with each other as Dexter and Judy search for stability and meaning in "Winter Dreams." Dexter is the victim of his so-called winter dreams, adolescent fantasies that he is never able to fulfill. As he searches for happiness and love, he unwisely focuses his quest exclusively on Judy Jones, making her the sole object of his romantic projections. However, rather than provide fulfillment for Dexter, Judy and her displays of affection simply trigger more yearning. Dexter never sees Judy for who she really is; rather, he sees her as an ideal of womanhood and the embodiment of perfect love. Later, Judy reveals her self-serving nature when she confesses that she is breaking off relations with a man who has pursued her simply because he is not of adequate financial means. Dexter, still blinded by his idealistic view of Judy, cannot digest this information, because it suggests the reality of who Judy is.
Although Dexter recognizes the real threat of harm beneath Judy's charm and beauty and tries to convince himself that he is no longer in love with her, he cannot fully divorce himself from the romantic, uncontrollable attachment he has to her. Ultimately, Dexter becomes the victim not of Judy's fickle behavior but of his own stubborn ideals. Time and again, Dexter and Judy struggle with contradictions between reality and fantasy. On their first date, Dexter is disappointed that Judy appears in an average dress and, instead of the pomp and ritual he expected, blandly tells the maid that they are ready to eat. In their ambiguous and protracted courtship, Judy treats him with "interest . . . encouragement . . . malice . . . indifference . . . [and] contempt." The reality of this relationship is bleak, but the idealistic vision of what it could be enables it to limp along.
Fitzgerald uses similes throughout "Winter Dreams," most notably at the beginning of the story, to make abstract notions, such as the frustrations of love and drive to succeed, more concrete. The similes also suggest the gulf that separates reality from the illusions the characters are subject to. In the first sentence of the story, we learn that, unlike Dexter, some of the caddies at the country club are "poor as sin." As winter settles on Minnesota, snow covers the golf course "like the white lid of a box," and the wind blows "cold as misery." These similes, grimly preoccupied with gloomy notions of misery and poverty, set the tone for the unhappy tale that Fitzgerald is about to convey.
Similes help clarify the abstract idea of Dexter's winter dreams. His visions of grandeur involve vague, half-formed hopes for success and wealth and the satisfaction he assumes will accompany them. Dexter is able to translate his dreams into reality. He becomes the self-professed richest young man in his part of the country and gets to face off in a round of golf with Mr. Hedrick, whom he easily beats. However, he is still dogged by the abstract—his struggle to find love and accept the responsibility of belonging to someone else. During his first fateful meeting with the adult Judy, his heart "turned over like the fly-wheel on the boat." Fitzgerald's use of simile helps provide a link between abstract and actual realms, reality and illusion, and love and its inevitable disappointments.
The title, "Winter Dreams," refers to the powerful desire for status and affluence and, with its suggestion of snowy barrenness, sets the tone for the story that unfolds. Dexter forms his greatest aspirations for his life during a season of death and dormancy, an irony that suggests that those aspirations will not be as life-affirming as Dexter imagines. Seasons in general highlight the unstoppable passage of time in the story. As Dexter gets older but no wiser, each year finds him further from the happiness he seeks. He is in many ways a misfit, his surroundings and ambitions out of synch with his humble origins. Fitzgerald highlights Dexter's unresolved, outsider status early in the story, when Dexter skis across the frozen, snowed-in golf course, using the space for something other than what it was intended. These solitary, wintry outings signal the loneliness that he will never vanquish. The fact that his dreams are born in a lifeless, stagnant season foreshadows the unhappiness and thwarted desires that await him in adulthood.
In the elite world of the Sherry Island Golf Club, the boat emerges not only as a symbol of luxury but also as a powerful reminder of the emptiness a life of indulgence can lead to. The boat makes a memorable entrance, with Judy at the helm, as Dexter enjoys a solitary moment on the raft anchored in the middle of the lake next to the country club. Lost in a reverie, Dexter is filled with the bliss of arrival, having finally reached the success he had long anticipated. Entertaining only the most auspicious of prospects when he looks to the future, Dexter feels at that moment a satisfaction that he may never again experience as intensely. Abruptly interrupting Dexter's musings, the whirr of the motor overpowers Dexter's thoughts about the rosy life ahead. Judy speeds across the lake in the boat, foreshadowing the profound ways that Dexter's ensuing passion for Judy will impact his future happiness.
For Judy, flying behind the boat on a surfboard, the boat is an escape from reality. Her admirers learn quickly that she is too fast to catch and lives solely for her own pleasure. Dexter obeys when she tells him to drive the boat for her, the first of an ensuing string of commands he will obey. As an object of affluence, it shows how truly divorced from reality Judy is. She tells Dexter that she is running from a man she had been dating who has begun to idealize her. The boat is her way of escaping the ways in which men try to make her fit their own dreams and reflect their idealized visions of the perfect woman. Judy hides in the boat again later, when she grows tired of the man from New York who is rumored to be her fiancé. The boat becomes Judy's haven from the oppressive affections of men who are captivated by her, an expensive toy that whisks her away from commitment or the need to accept responsibility for her actions.
Golf balls, part of the pristine world of the country club, suggest the harm that an idle life can lead to as well as the stringent requirements one must meet to belong to the upper class. Dexter, with his self-made wealth, tries desperately to blend in with this affluent world. The imagery of the golf balls emerges twice, both times reflecting the upper-class ease that the game itself embodies. First, before the spring thaw in the north country, golfers use black and red balls, which stand out better in the patches of snow that linger on the course. This reference comes early in the story, when Dexter is a young caddy, excluded from Judy Jones and her set because he is a middle-class boy of limited means. When Dexter finally gets a toehold in her world, he sacrifices his individuality for the identical white balls he uses at the club where he once caddied.
During Dexter's once anticipated but ultimately disappointing golf outing with T. A. Hedrick, golf balls, in the hands of Judy Jones, become an emblem of aggression. Judy's ball hits Mr. Hedrick in the stomach, and her obliviousness, whether feigned or genuine, serves only to further characterize her as a self-centered brat. Although there is little threat of real physical violence in this genteel, upper-class world, the incident suggests that aggression lurks just beneath the surface. Although Judy embodies the light, almost hedonist spirit that would eventually characterize the age, Fitzgerald reminds us in this episode that beneath the fun and leisure, real harm can be done. Judy's errant ball foreshadows the more potent emotional damage she imparts in trifling with Dexter's and her other admirers' affections.
Babylon Revisited:Despite his many flaws, Charlie is a man whom almost everyone can't help but like. It's surprising that Charlie's so likeable considering his wild past of uncontrollable alcoholism, his possible complicity in his wife's death, and the fact that he essentially abandoned his child. Charlie is hard to dislike in part because he seems so earnest in his efforts to turn over a new leaf. If we're wary of him in the beginning of the story, we increasingly trust him as he rebuffs his former friends and sticks to just one drink a day. Fitzgerald also conveys Charlie's great personal charm. Charlie is a physically attractive man, a quality that clearly affects Lorraine and possibly even Marion. He is also a winning, persuasive speaker, able to manipulate listeners without seeming to try.
If we can't help but like Charlie, however, neither can we help feeling slightly suspicious of him. His justification for taking one drink per day makes sense when he explains it—he implies that he doesn't want to give alcohol undue power over him by avoiding it altogether—but seems nonsensical later. We wonder if he has hoodwinked us and worry that he'll slip back into drinking heavily. When Charlie disavows his former friends, we think back to the beginning of the story when he gives Lincoln and Marion's address to Alix, knowing that it'll land in Duncan Schaeffer's hands. As a result, we wonder whether some part of him actually wants to return to the old days. Although we're naturally inclined to take Charlie's side because of his good intentions, Fitzgerald doesn't allow us to root for him unrestrainedly.
Marion acts both as a stand-in and a foil for the reader. On the one hand, we likely share all her reservations about Charlie. On the other hand, her off-putting personal qualities set us against her. We want to dismiss her reservations, even if we know we shouldn't, which puts us even more firmly in Charlie's camp. Marion is the mirror image of Charlie: although logic demands that we approve of her actions, her prickly personality masks her essential goodness and makes her difficult to like. Marion is unhappy with her own life and focuses her frustrations on Charlie, but there's no doubt that she is a good woman. She has taken Honoria in, treated her as her own child, and brought her up to be a happy, self-sufficient girl. She also loves her husband. Her marriage to him is the most successful romantic adult relationship in the story, a stark contrast to Charlie's disastrous marriage, which ended in senseless destruction. Still, Marion's judgmental tone and slight air of irrationality make her an unsympathetic character. Because we see Marion from Charlie's perspective, we focus only on her frustrations rather than her good motivations.
The Inescapability of the Past
Even though Charlie's wilder days have long since passed, he'll never be able to truly escape them. Although he actively tries to avoid reminders of the Paris he used to know, they nevertheless follow him everywhere. When he goes to lunch with Honoria, for example, he can find only one restaurant that doesn't remind him of drunken meals that lasted for hours. When he walks through Montmartre, old haunts surround him. Even the things that have changed remind him of his past, simply because the newness of them strikes him as odd. The scared tourists heading into cafés are pale imitations of the partiers he and his friends once were, and the once-bustling places that these tourists frequent are now nearly empty. Charlie would like to put his failed marriage behind him, but he cannot. Marion constantly reminds him of his mistakes, which she clings to almost obsessively. The past informs the present: because of what Charlie did to Helen, he is prevented from living with Honoria. Perhaps the most ominous figures from the past are Duncan and Lorraine, living reminders of the bad old days, who still try to follow him wherever he goes.
If Charlie wants to shake off the past, however, some part of him simultaneously can't let it go. He asks his cabbie to drive to the Avenue de l'Opera, he goes to Montmartre and visits the places he used to frequent, and he begins and ends the story in the familiar Ritz bar. While these incidents suggest that the past still haunts Charlie, we can't help thinking that Charlie is actually looking to be haunted. He must know, consciously or subconsciously, that visiting the scenes of his former life will fill him with regret and possibly even longing. Perhaps most damning of all is the fact that Charlie gives Lincoln and Marion's address to Alix, asking him to pass it along to Duncan. He later ignores Lorraine and refuses to give his hotel address to them, but his protestations mean nothing because he's already told them where they can find him. We know that some part of him must want the debauchery of the old days back in his life, thereby planting the seeds of his own failure.
The Purity of Paternal Love
Fitzgerald characterizes the love that fathers and daughters feel for each other as the only pure, unadulterated kind of love in the world. Other types of love, however passionate or intense they may be, are always complicated by dislike or mistrust. Charlie and Helen loved each other, for example, but they tormented and abused each other: Helen kissed other men, they fought, and Charlie locked her out in a snowstorm. Lincoln and Marion demonstrate another type of marital love, one that's genuine but strained by financial and familial difficulties. To some degree, Charlie loves Lincoln and Marion, whom he still considers family. At the same time, however, he thinks of them as adversaries, and their mutual distrust of each other makes their love less than pure. Only Honoria and Charlie love each other in an unadulterated way. They often speak of their love for each other, and she asks him whether he loves her more than anyone in the world. Marital and familial love may fall apart with regularity, but the love between children and parents is the most pure.
Many scenes in "Babylon Revisited" take place on the streets of Paris, where people go when they're lonely or angry. Charlie forces Lorraine and Duncan out onto the street, for example, when they surprise him at Marion and Lincoln's house, and they leave in a fit of anger. When Charlie wanders through Montmartre, the nervous tourists and overeager nightclub employees only make him feel more solitary. Most obviously abandoned to the dangerous streets is Helen, whom Charlie had locked out after fighting with her. The fact that Charlie locked her outside during a snowstorm is a particularly cruel gesture in this story, which characterizes the outdoors as a place of sadness and danger. Fitzgerald emphasizes the melancholy quality of the outdoors by contrasting it with the indoors, which he portrays as warm, cozy, and safe. All the scenes that take place in Marion and Lincoln's house, for example, connote a happy family atmosphere created by responsible adults. When Charlie finally leaves their house toward the end of the story, he is appropriately cast back into the lonely streets.
The Ritz Bar
The bar at the Ritz Hotel symbolizes Charlie's spiritual home. Charlie is a wanderer: he no longer lives in America, his birthplace, and we never see him in Prague, his new home. He visits Marion and Lincoln's house as an interloper, more of a resented outsider than a member of the family. The place that closest resembles his home, however, is the bar at the Ritz, and the story begins and ends there, emphasizing its importance to Charlie. Like a real home, the walls of the Ritz bar have witnessed the changes that have happened to him. Whereas he once spent many late, drunken nights at the bar in his wilder days, he now sits there to consume his one customary drink every day. Charlie and Alix, the bartender, gossip about the people they both once knew, drinkers and ex-drinkers who have fallen on hard times, just as two family members might gossip about wayward relatives. One the other hand, the bar could never be a fulfilling substitute for a real home. As Charlie sits with Alix at the end of the story, he thinks about how terribly alone he is. The bar may be the closest thing Charlie has to a home, but its comforts are inferior in every way to those of an actual household. Babylon Revisited" conveys strong and painful feelings, principally through the use of dialogue. Some of the most fraught exchanges in the story occur between Charlie and Marion. Charlie's words make it clear that he is desperate to get Honoria back, enough to plan almost every phrase he utters and pause he takes. He stresses his healthy income to prove that he can provide for his daughter, but he drops the topic the moment he senses that Lincoln is growing annoyed with it. He coaches himself through the emotional conversation about Honoria's future, silently reminding himself that he has to control his temper in front of Marion if he wants Honoria. The care with which he chooses his words and his self-control demonstrate how desperately he wants to be with his daughter. These conversations are not one-sided, however. Through Marion's curt and cutting responses, we know that she loved her sister, Helen, very much, strongly dislikes Charlie, but only wants the best for Honoria.
Charlie's conversations with Honoria are equally emotional, albeit much happier. Honoria repeats the word dad when saying hello or goodbye to Charlie, a kind of incantation that conveys how much she loves him. Their conversations can be serious at times, such as when Honoria says that she doesn't want to go to the toy store because she's worried about the family's finances. Their conversations can also be comical, and a few moments later, Charlie asks her whether she's married or single, to which she playfully replies that she's single. Their dialogue is realistic and entertaining, but it also reveals the characteristics of their relationship. They don't know each other well, but they like and respect each other and enjoy spending time together. Fitzgerald's portrayal of this father-daughter relationship is extremely memorable, vivid, and true to life, and it is accomplished largely through the use of dialogue. Fitzgerald structures "Babylon Revisited" in a way that allows him to emphasize different events by altering the pace of the story. The story is divided into five sections, each consisting of a different set of events and period of time. Section I is wide-ranging and introduces us to Paris, Charlie, and the basic details of Charlie's life. In one line, Alix, the bartender, asks him about his daughter, but a few lines later, Charlie is abruptly back on the street, having left the bar. By leaping from place to place without mentioning the passage of time, Fitzgerald gives us the background information we need and suggests that we're getting to know Charlie just as Charlie is getting to know Paris once again. Section II slows down considerably, focusing entirely on Charlie's lunch with Honoria to highlight their relationship. Fitzgerald's placement of the scene just after the opening section emphasizes how dearly Charlie loves Honoria.
Section III also focuses solely on just one scene, namely Charlie's conversation with Marion and Lincoln about Honoria's future. Even though less time passes in this section than in the first, Fitzgerald devotes roughly the same number of pages to each to emphasize how important this conversation is to Charlie. The placement of the conversation is important too; section III ends happily, with Charlie securing a promise from Lincoln that Honoria will return to him. But because we know the story isn't over, we begin to worry about a reversal, an effect that Fitzgerald uses intentionally to heighten the tension. Section IV puts that reversal in motion. Its sped-up pace, which rushes us from interviews with nannies to Lorraine's pneumatique to the disastrous evening at Marion and Lincoln's house, mirrors the increasing desperation Charlie feels as events spiral out of control. Section V is an embittered conclusion, and its brevity suggests that Charlie can hardly bear to dwell on the loss of his daughter once again. The melancholy mood of "Babylon Revisited" comes partly from the historical period in which it is set. Fitzgerald is often identified as the voice of the Jazz Age, but in this story he portrays the post-Jazz Age world, which is sober and full of regret. Charlie returns to a Paris that has changed dramatically. In the old days, before the story's action takes place, Americans like Charlie and Helen "were a sort of royalty, almost infallible" because they had money to burn. Like drunken children, rich Americans ran wild all over the city in the 1920s. Then the American stock market crashed in 1929, an event mentioned only briefly in the story but one that casts a pall over its characters. Charlie's personal history runs parallel to the course of history itself. During the Jazz Age, he lived lavishly, giving hundreds of francs to doormen and thousands of francs to orchestras. He was blindingly drunk most of the time and pulled childish pranks. He lived a dissipated, crazed life that epitomized the hedonism of wealthy Americans living in the mid-1920s. Then, just as the stock market crashed, Charlie's alcoholism landed him in a sanitarium. By drawing parallels between history and Charlie's life, Fitzgerald makes Charlie representative of an entire age.
The Man Who Was Almost a Man:Plot Overview
After a hard day at work, seventeen-year-old Dave heads across the fields for home, still thinking about a conflict he'd had with some other field hands that day. He vows to someday own a gun and get the respect he deserves, and he wants to prove to the others that he is no longer a child. He decides to head to the local store to examine the guns offered in a mail-order catalog, hoping that his mother will let him buy a pistol with the money he earns working in Mr. Hawkins's fields.
Entering the store, Dave feels his confidence drain from him when he sees Joe, the shopkeeper, but he manages to convince Joe to lend him the catalog overnight. Joe is surprised that Dave is thinking of buying a gun, especially because he knows that Dave's mother saves all his summer earnings. He nevertheless offers to sell Dave an old pistol he has on hand for $2. His interest piqued, Dave says he will come back for it later.
At home, Mrs. Saunders chides Dave for being late, and Dave tells her he was visiting his friends. On his way out to wash his hands, Mrs. Saunders notices the catalog and seizes it, giving it back when Dave explains he has to return it the next day. During supper, Dave is too engrossed in the catalog to eat or notice the arrival of his father and younger brother. Admiring the revolvers, he chokes down his dinner, knowing that he should ask his mother for the money instead of his father.
Dave finally works up enough courage after dinner to broach the subject, first asking his mother whether Mr. Hawkins has paid her for his time working in the fields. Mrs. Saunders responds that the money is solely for his school clothes and immediately dismisses the idea of buying a gun. Dave pleads his case, arguing that the family needs a gun and that he'll give it to Mr. Saunders. Still not fully convinced, Mrs. Saunders finally gives Dave the $2 on the condition that he bring the gun directly to her after buying it.
After buying the pistol, Dave walks around the fields with it, admiring the gun but too scared and unsure of how to fire it. He waits until it's dark and he's sure everyone has already fallen asleep before going home, and he puts the gun underneath his pillow instead of giving it to his mother as he'd promised. Mrs. Saunders approaches him in the middle of the night and quietly asks for the gun, but Dave tells her that he stashed it outside and will give it to her in the morning.
When he wakes up, Dave removes the gun and holds it in his hands, realizing that he now has the power to kill someone. He quietly gets out of bed and ties the pistol to his leg with an old strip of flannel. He then heads out to the fields where he works, and he accidentally runs into his boss, Mr. Hawkins. Surprised but not wanting to give away his secret, Dave tells Mr. Hawkins that he just wanted to get a head start on the day's work. He hitches the plow to a mule named Jenny and heads to the field farthest away so that he can fire the pistol without anyone noticing.
After holding and admiring the gun, Dave finally works up the courage to actually pull the trigger. He doesn't take proper aim, however, and accidentally shoots Jenny. Dave panics and desperately tries to stop the bleeding by plugging the wound with dirt, but Jenny soon dies. Sickened and frightened, he buries the gun at the base of tree and heads across the field, trying to concoct a believable story to explain Jenny's death to Mr. Hawkins.
Someone eventually finds Jenny, and a small group gathers around her body. When pressed, Dave lies and says that Jenny had been startled and fell on the point of the plow. Unconvinced, Mrs. Saunders urges him to tell the truth and then quietly asks about the gun when no one else is listening. Meanwhile, someone comments that Jenny's wound looks like a bullet hole. Crying and realizing that he has to tell the truth, Dave confesses. Mr. Saunders is shocked to hear about the pistol and Mrs. Saunders's complicity.
Mr. Hawkins tells Dave that he'll have to pay $50 for the mule even though her death had been an accident. He then tells Mr. Saunders that he'll take $2 out of Dave's pay each month until the debt has been paid. When Mr. Saunders asks Dave where he put the gun, however, Dave lies again and says that he threw it into the creek. His father tells him to retrieve it, get his $2 back from Joe, and give them to Mr. Hawkins as his first payment.
Unable to sleep that night, Dave skulks out to retrieve the gun. Cleaning it off, he forces himself to shoot it without closing his eyes and turning his head away as he'd done before. He fires the gun four times until there are no more bullets left. Putting the gun in his pocket, he heads across the field until he comes to Mr. Hawkins's large white house. If he had one more bullet, he muses, he would fire at the house to let Mr. Hawkins know that he is really a man. Dave then hears the sound of a train in the distance. Gun in hand, he heads for the tracks and hops into a moving boxcar as the train continues on into the night.
Dave Saunders - The adolescent protagonist of the story. Dave works on a plantation plowing fields during his summer break from school. Not quite a child but not yet a man, seventeen-year-old Dave struggles to win respect from the other fieldworkers even though he lacks the requisite maturity. Experiencing the turmoil and restlessness of adolescence, he grows resentful of his powerlessness and thinks that owning a gun will instantly make him a man.
Read an in-depth analysis of Dave Saunders.
Mrs. Saunders - Dave's mother. Beneath Mrs. Saunders's steely exterior lies a practical, upstanding woman caught between making her son Dave happy and doing what she knows is right. She suspects that buying a gun will bring trouble but can't refuse Dave. She is the first to realize that Jenny died from a gunshot wound and forces Dave to tell the truth, even though she tries to downplay her own complicity.
Mr. Hawkins - Dave's boss and the owner of a local plantation. Even though Mr. Hawkins seems to be a reasonable and fair employer, Dave still resents his authority on the plantation and in the community.
Mr. Saunders - Dave's father. A strict disciplinarian, Mr. Saunders seems more interested in Dave's earning potential and keeping good relations with Mr. Hawkins than in his son's happiness. He doesn't mind using violence to maintain discipline at home.
Joe - The local store's owner and shopkeeper. Amiable and plump, Joe lends the mail-order catalog to Dave, even though he thinks Dave is too young to own a gun. Still, he brushes aside his doubts and offers to sell Dave an old pistol that he has in stock for only $2.Analysis of Major Characters
Dave is both an average adolescent struggling with growing up and the embodiment of all frustrated and impoverished African Americans without opportunities. On one level, Dave's experiences are not unique: he's a stereotypical teenager seeking a level of maturity and independence that he's not yet ready for. He can imagine the benefits of adulthood but doesn't understand the obligations that come with more freedom of choice. Searching for a quick way to become a man, he focuses on the guns for sale in Joe's mail-order catalogue, falsely believing that raw power will automatically win him the respect he desires. His murderous fantasies highlight his fixation with physical strength and misperception that the power to kill brings the power to control. Impatient, Dave tries to initiate his own rite of passage into manhood without making any of the sacrifices that come with adulthood.
Dave is a figure of the times, a field hand's son who has no choice but to become a field hand himself. Chained to a life of barely making ends meet, he lacks the education and opportunities to make his life better because white society forbids it. He feels that his life is so harsh and overwhelming that escape is the only solution. He expresses this urge in several ways, initially in the lies he tells, with his willful bending of the truth to make the world around him more in line with his hopes and desires. Dave's quest for adulthood and ultimate escape thus marks a shifting tide in society, as more black Americans broke with their past and ties to the South in search of new opportunities elsewhere.
Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Search for Power
Dave Saunders is trapped in a world that strips him of his personal and economic power. Dave sees his life as a series of abuses and humiliations: he's forced to obey his parents, work as a field hand for pay he never receives, and endure ribbing from the other field workers. His growing sense of degradation derives from the social and economic forces that keep him from achieving his potential and pursuing his dreams. The idea of owning a gun thus becomes Dave's outlet, a way to quickly become powerful and manly. He believes that a pistol in his hand will give him more control over others; however, Jenny's death only limits his future by forcing him to repay Mr. Hawkins the price of the mule. Although accidental, Jenny's death could be interpreted as Dave's unconscious desire to strike out against Mr. Hawkins. By destroying a symbol of Hawkins's prosperity and power as a landowner, Dave may be lashing out at an economic system and social order that he will always be excluded from merely because of his skin color.
On many levels, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" is a coming-of-age story in which the adolescent Dave Saunders must overcome numerous hurdles to become a mature adult. Restless, impatient, and taunted by the older men he works with, Dave believes that acquiring a gun will end his adolescence and transform him into a real man. Not surprisingly, however, Dave discovers that owning a gun only brings more problems and a much greater burden of responsibility. Ironically, possessing a pistol actually would have ushered Dave into adulthood if only he'd been able to handle the extra responsibility like an adult. Because he has to work for two years to repay Mr. Hawkins for Jenny's death, the gun brings Dave greater commitment and obligation—the true hallmarks of manhood. But Dave discovers at the end of the story that he's really seeking escape, not more commitment. When owning a gun becomes a heavier burden than he'd realized, he chooses to leave, demonstrating even further that he's really not yet ready to become an adult. Still convinced that the gun is a more of a boon than a burden, he takes it with him, possibly inviting more trouble in the future.
Lies and Lying
Dave's lies indicate his disconnectedness from the world around him and prove that he is unprepared for the responsibilities of adulthood. Lying emerges as a behavior at odds with the moral qualities associated with adulthood and stereotypes of male behavior. Throughout the story, Dave tries to twist the truth in his favor so that he can buy a gun and avoid punishment. He convinces his mother to give him the $2 to buy the gun, for example, only after telling her that he plans to give it to Mr. Saunders. He reneges on his promise to give her the gun after buying it and later claims that he threw the gun in the river after shooting Jenny. Like a child, he fails to realize that lying won't protect him and will only bring more problems in the future.
The darkness that pervades the story highlights the constraints, humiliation, and wounded pride that Dave associates with his work and family life. In the story's opening line, Dave makes his way across the fields "through parting light," fresh from another humiliating run-in with the older workers on the plantation. Thinking of the gun comforts him as the sun sets, caught between day and night just as he's caught between childhood and adulthood. After purchasing the gun, he stays out late, taking aim in the dark fields at "imaginary foes." Daytime only brings trouble and humiliation to Dave, whereas all his fantasies and imagined adventures take place at night. Wright describes Dave's relationship with the gun as a clandestine affair involving lies, deceit, and secret locales. Only in the darkened fields can Dave find the independence and masculinity he seeks.
The gun represents power, masculinity, respect, and independence—in short, everything that Dave desperately wants. He sees the gun as the solution to all his problems and compensation for all his weaknesses. Dave resents the fact that the other field hands treat him like a child and therefore mistakenly believes that owning a gun would instantly make a man out of him, even though he doesn't know how to fire one. He mistakenly reasons that owning a gun would also somehow provide him with independence, as if knowing how to fire it would keep him out of the fields and provide him with greater opportunities. Dave fantasizes about shooting at Mr. Hawkins's house, which suggests that Jenny's death has taught him nothing and has only made him crave power, independence, and masculinity even more.
Jenny, Mr. Hawkins's mule, represents Dave himself, who fears working as a subservient field hand on another man's land for the rest of his life. Dave consciously recognizes the similarities between himself and Jenny, even saying to himself before running away that everyone "treat[s] me like a mule, n they beat me," alluding to the thrashing his father had promised him. Dave believes that all he does is toil like Jenny, yoked to a plow with little hope of reward, escape, or becoming something better. The mule also represents commitment and responsibility, hallmarks of adulthood that Dave is still unwilling to accept. He wants only the freedom that he imagines adults have without any of their obligations. Jenny's death is consequently the symbolic death of Dave's childhood, which he wishes to erase to escape the community and a life of drudgery. Ironically, the power that Dave associates with owning a gun brings change but forces him to embark on a journey to manhood for which he's not yet ready.
Although much a typical coming-of-age story, "The Man Who Was Almost a Man" also depicts Dave's greater struggles with racism and poverty, and it is an exemplary piece of naturalist writing. Naturalists such as Wright incorporated stinging social criticism into their stories and novels by pitting their characters against social, economic, or environmental forces that they can't control. In making Dave a victim of racial oppression, for example, Wright attacks whites' lingering power over the lives of blacks. Like his parents, Dave is stuck in a life of subservience to men such as Mr. Hawkins, Joe the shopkeeper, and other financially secure whites and will never have the education or money necessary to achieve his full potential. He consequently believes that only brute power—the ability to shoot a gun—will win him the respect he wants. Dave's desire to own a gun thus reflects a greater desperation and psychological need to establish himself in the community as an empowered human being rather than a mere field hand.
Dave's struggle to overcome the uncontrollable forces pressing down on him speaks for all young people whom society has overlooked and dismissed. He therefore becomes Wright's unlikely hero, a young man who refuses to cave under overwhelming social forces while simultaneously shirking his debts and commitments like an irresponsible child. Even though readers know that Dave will probably never find the success, independence, or power he craves, the mere fact that he's willing to risk striking out on his own redeems him and makes him more than "almost a man."
Dave's struggle with racial oppression reflects the broader African American struggle to win more rights, freedoms, and opportunities since the end of the Civil War. Although many black Americans had pushed for equality and economic leverage in the latter half of the nineteenth century, the quest for civil rights didn't become a coordinated movement until the early twentieth century. Tired of second-class citizenship, African American activists such as W. E. B. DuBois, Marcus Garvey, and Thurgood Marshall began promoting strategies that would chip away at white dominance, just as the frustrated adolescent Dave Saunders finally decides to empower himself when he can no longer stand be ridiculed. Rather than indiscriminately striking out at those in power as Dave fantasizes, however, early civil rights leaders worked to change the oppressive social and legal systems. Only in the 1950s and 1960s—when this story was published—did civil rights activists actually rebel by quietly refusing to comply with white Americans' humiliating expectations.
Many factors conspired to extend the oppressive exploitation of blacks that slavery had established. For African Americans stuck farming small parcels of land owned by white overseers, sharecropping proved only slightly better than forced labor. Gang violence, lynchings, and Jim Crow laws that segregated blacks from whites also worked to keep blacks "in their place." Slowly, however, prevailing social patterns changed, especially between World War I and World War II, when hundreds of thousands of blacks fled their destitute lives in the South for better opportunities in the North. Dave's sudden flight at the end of the story mimics this so-called Great Migration. Seen in this light, his nighttime escape thus becomes a symbolic renunciation, a turning from the agrarian servitude that marked the past and a staunch refusal to accept the unfair conditions that kept families mired in poverty and robbed individual lives of hope and promise.
Wright's use of local dialect provides unique voices for the story's black characters. Dave and his parents speak with an almost slurring drawl, dropping letters and syllables from their words, in contrast to the white-skinned Joe and Mr. Hawkins, who use more standard English. Although Wright's use of dialect often makes reading the story difficult, dialect gives the characters vitality and dimension. Readers can actually visualize Mrs. Saunders chastising Dave, for example, when she exclaims, "Lawd, chil, whut's wrong wid yuh?" Incorporating different dialects into the story also lends a ring of authenticity to Wright's portrayal of a rural southern community in the early twentieth century, a community in which whites and blacks coexist on unequal terms. Dialect helps separate these two groups, not only reflecting varying degrees of education but also highlighting inequalities in lifestyle and standards of living. As a result, readers are better able to understand Dave's frustration working on a plantation that affords no opportunities. If he doesn't escape, he'll undoubtedly work in the fields for the rest of his life, trapped, just like his father.
As I Lay Dying:A ddie Bundren, the wife of Anse Bundren and the matriarch of a poor southern family, is very ill, and is expected to die soon. Her oldest son, Cash, puts all of his carpentry skills into preparing her coffin, which he builds right in front of Addie's bedroom window. Although Addie's health is failing rapidly, two of her other sons, Darl and Jewel, leave town to make a delivery for the Bundrens' neighbor, Vernon Tull, whose wife and two daughters have been tending to Addie. Shortly after Darl and Jewel leave, Addie dies. The youngest Bundren child, Vardaman, associates his mother's death with that of a fish he caught and cleaned earlier that day. With some help, Cash completes the coffin just before dawn. Vardaman is troubled by the fact that his mother is nailed shut inside a box, and while the others sleep, he bores holes in the lid, two of which go through his mother's face. Addie and Anse's daughter, Dewey Dell, whose recent sexual liaisons with a local farmhand named Lafe have left her pregnant, is so overwhelmed by anxiety over her condition that she barely mourns her mother's death. A funeral service is held on the following day, where the women sing songs inside the Bundren house while the men stand outside on the porch talking to each other.
Darl, who narrates much of this first section, returns with Jewel a few days later, and the presence of buzzards over their house lets them know their mother is dead. On seeing this sign, Darl sardonically reassures Jewel, who is widely perceived as ungrateful and uncaring, that he can be sure his beloved horse is not dead. Addie has made Anse promise that she will be buried in the town of Jefferson, and though this request is a far more complicated proposition than burying her at home, Anse's sense of obligation, combined with his desire to buy a set of false teeth, compels him to fulfill Addie's dying wish. Cash, who has broken his leg on a job site, helps the family lift the unbalanced coffin, but it is Jewel who ends up manhandling it, almost single-handedly, into the wagon. Jewel refuses, however, to actually come in the wagon, and follows the rest of the family riding on his horse, which he bought when he was young by secretly working nights on a neighbor's land.
On the first night of their journey, the Bundrens stay at the home of a generous local family, who regards the Bundrens' mission with skepticism. Due to severe flooding, the main bridges leading over the local river have been flooded or washed away, and the Bundrens are forced to turn around and attempt a river-crossing over a makeshift ford. When a stray log upsets the wagon, the coffin is knocked out, Cash's broken leg is reinjured, and the team of mules drowns. Vernon Tull sees the wreck, and helps Jewel rescue the coffin and the wagon from the river. Together, the family members and Tull search the riverbed for Cash's tools.
Cora, Tull's wife, remembers Addie's unchristian inclination to respect her son Jewel more than God. Addie herself, speaking either from her coffin or in a leap back in time to her deathbed, recalls events from her life: her loveless marriage to Anse; her affair with the local minister, Whitfield, which led to Jewel's conception; and the birth of her various children. Whitfield recalls traveling to the Bundrens' house to confess the affair to Anse, and his eventual decision not to say anything after all.
A horse doctor sets Cash's broken leg, while Cash faints from the pain without ever complaining. Anse is able to purchase a new team of mules by mortgaging his farm equipment, using money that he was saving for his false teeth and money that Cash was saving for a new gramophone, and trading in Jewel's horse. The family continues on its way. In the town of Mottson, residents react with horror to the stench coming from the Bundren wagon. While the family is in town, Dewey Dell tries to buy a drug that will abort her unwanted pregnancy, but the pharmacist refuses to sell it to her, and advises marriage instead. With cement the family has purchased in town, Darl creates a makeshift cast for Cash's broken leg, which fits poorly and only increases Cash's pain. The Bundrens then spend the night at a local farm owned by a man named Gillespie. Darl, who has been skeptical of their mission for some time, burns down the Gillespie barn with the intention of incinerating the coffin and Addie's rotting corpse. Jewel rescues the animals in the barn, then risks his life to drag out Addie's coffin. Darl lies on his mother's coffin and cries.
The next day, the Bundrens arrive in Jefferson and bury Addie. Rather than face a lawsuit for Darl's criminal barn burning, the Bundrens claim that Darl is insane, and give him to a pair of men who commit him to a Jackson mental institution. Dewey Dell tries again to buy an abortion drug at the local pharmacy, where a boy working behind the counter claims to be a doctor and tricks her into exchanging sexual services for what she soon realizes is not an actual abortion drug. The following morning, the children are greeted by their father, who sports a new set of false teeth and, with a mixture of shame and pride, introduces them to his new bride, a local woman he meets while borrowing shovels with which to bury Addie.Character List
Addie Bundren - The wife of Anse Bundren and mother to Cash, Darl, Jewel, Dewey Dell, and Vardaman. Addie is a mostly absent protagonist, and her death triggers the novel's action. She is a former schoolteacher whose bitter, loveless life causes her to despise her husband and to invest all of her love in her favorite child, Jewel, rather than in the rest of her family or God.
Read an in-depth analysis of Addie Bundren.
Anse Bundren - The head of the Bundren family. Anse is a poor farmer afflicted with a hunchback, whose instincts are overwhelmingly selfish. His poor childrearing skills seem to be largely responsible for his children's various predicaments. Alternately hated and disrespected by his children, Anse nonetheless succeeds in achieving his two greatest goals in one fell swoop: burying his dead wife in her hometown of Jefferson, and acquiring a new set of false teeth.
Darl Bundren - The second Bundren child. Darl is the most sensitive and articulate of the surviving Bundrens and delivers the greatest number of interior monologues in the novel. As the family encounters disaster upon disaster during the trip, Darl's frustration with the whole process leads him to try to end things decisively by incinerating his dead mother's coffin.
Read an in-depth analysis of Darl Bundren.
Jewel - The bastard child of Addie and Whitfield, the minister. Though Darl seems to understand him, Jewel remains the novel's greatest mystery, and is the least represented in its many sections. Jewel has a proud, fiercely independent nature that most of his family and neighbors confuse for selfishness. His passionate, brooding nature, however, reveals a real love and dedication to his mother, and he becomes a fierce protector of her coffin.
Read an in-depth analysis of Jewel.
Cash Bundren - The eldest Bundren child and a skilled carpenter. Cash is the paragon of patience and selflessness, almost to the point of absurdity. He refuses ever to complain about his broken, festering leg, allowing the injury to degenerate to the point that he may never walk again. Cash emerges as one of the novel's few consistently stable characters.
Dewey Dell Bundren - The only Bundren daughter. Dewey Dell is seventeen, and a recent sexual experience has left her pregnant. Increasingly desperate, she finds her mind occupied exclusively with her pregnancy, and views all men with varying degrees of suspicion.
Vardaman Bundren - The youngest of the Bundren children. Vardaman has a lively imagination, and he views his mother's death through the same lens with which he views a fish he has recently caught and cleaned. Although his ramblings at the beginning of the novel border on the maniacal, Vardaman proves to be a thoughtful and innocent child.
Vernon Tull - The Bundrens' wealthier neighbor. Tull is both a critic of and an unappreciated help to the Bundrens. He hires Darl, Jewel, and Cash for odd jobs, and helps the family cross the river in spite of its overt hostility toward him. Tull and his wife Cora, however, are critical of the Bundrens' decision to bury Addie's body in Jefferson.
Cora Tull - Vernon Tull's wife. Cora stays with Addie during Addie's final hours. A deeply religious woman and pious to a fault, Cora frequently and vocally disapproves of Addie's impiety and behavior.
Lafe - The father of Dewey Dell's child. While he never appears in person in the novel, Lafe is certainly a driving force behind many of Dewey Dell's thoughts and much of her behavior. In a supreme effort to disassociate himself from her problems, Lafe gives Dewey Dell ten dollars with which to pay for an abortion.
Whitfield - The local minister. Held up by Cora Tull as the pinnacle of piety, Whitfield is in fact a hypocrite. His affair with Addie results in Jewel's conception, and, though Whitfield resolves to confess the affair to Anse, he ends up deciding that the mere intention to confess will do just as well.
Peabody - The severely overweight rural doctor who attends to Addie and later to Cash. Peabody is extremely critical of the way Anse treats his children.
Samson - The local farmer who puts up the Bundrens on the first evening of their disastrous funeral journey. Samson sees the Bundrens' problems as a judgment on the family's uncouth manners and on Addie and Anse's disregard for God and their own children.
Armstid - A local farmer who puts up the Bundrens on the second evening of their funeral journey. Anse repeatedly and rigidly refuses Armstid's offer to lend Anse a team of mules.
Gillespie - A farmer who puts up the Bundrens later in their journey.
Moseley - The Mottson druggist who indignantly refuses Dewey Dell's request for an abortion. Moseley's stern lecture to Dewey Dell is both the embodiment of sanctimoniousness and, some might say, of fatherly caring.
MacGowan - A rather despicable young employee at a Jefferson drugstore. MacGowan extorts a sexual favor from Dewey Dell in return for a fake abortion treatment.
The Gillespie boy - Gillespie's son, who
Analysis of Major Characters
Though she is dead for most of the novel, Addie is one of its most important characters, as her unorthodox wish to be buried near her blood relatives rather than with her own family is at the core of the story. Addie, whose voice is expressed through Cora Tull's memories and through her own brief section in the narrative, appears to be a strong-willed and intelligent woman haunted by a sense of disillusionment. Unable to bring herself to love the coarse, helpless Anse or the children she bears him, Addie sees marital love and motherhood as empty concepts, words that exist solely to fill voids in people's lives. After she bears a second child to Anse, Addie first expresses her wish to be buried far away, stating her belief that "the reason for living [is] to get ready to stay dead a long time." The little value she does find in life, from her brief affair with Whitfield and her love for her son Jewel, ends on a morbid note. Jewel treats Addie harshly while she is alive, and only once she is dead does he "save [her] from the water and from the fire," as she always believed he would. Addie invests her life and energy in a love that finds repayment and comes to fruition only after she is dead.
As a corpse, Addie is equally important to the novel, hindering and dividing her family as much as when she is alive. Many of the incidents after Addie's death reflect this feeling that some part of Addie is still living. Vardaman drills holes in the coffin so that the dead Addie might have air to breathe, and when Darl and Vardaman listen to the noises of the decomposing body, Darl claims that these sounds are Addie speaking. Even the stench of Addie's corpse captivates a large audience of strangers. The notion that there is continuity between the articulate human voice of the living Addie and the putrid biological mass that is the dead Addie is among the most emotionally powerful ideas presented in the novel.
Darl, who speaks in nineteen of the novel's fifty-nine sections, is in many ways its most cerebral character. Darl's knack for probing analysis and poetic descriptions mean that his voice becomes the closest thing the story offers to a guiding, subjective narrator. Yet it is this same intellectual nature that prevents him from achieving either the flashy heroism of his brother Jewel or the self-sacrificing loyalty of his brother Cash. In fact, it prevents Darl from believing wholeheartedly in the family's mission. Darl registers his objection to the entire burial outing by apparently abandoning his mother's coffin during the botched river-crossing, and by setting fire to Gillespie's barn with the eight-day-old corpse inside.
Another consequence of Darl's philosophical nature is his alienation from the community around him. According to Cora Tull, people find Darl strange and unsettling. He is also able to understand private things about the lives of the people around him, as he does when he guesses at Dewey Dell's fling with Lafe or perceives that Anse is not Jewel's real father. At times, Darl is almost clairvoyant, as evidenced by the scene in which he is able to describe vividly the scene at his mother's death, even though he and Jewel are far away from the scene when she dies. Other characters alienate Darl for fear that he will get too close to them and their secrets. It is perhaps this fear, more than Darl's act of arson, that leads his family to have him committed to an insane asylum at the end of the novel—after all, Dewey Dell, who realizes that Darl knows her sordid secret, is the first to restrain him when the officers from the asylum arrive.
Because Jewel speaks very few words of his own throughout the novel, he is defined by his actions, as filtered through the eyes of other characters. Jewel's uncommunicative nature creates a great distance between him and us, and a great deal of room exists for debating the meaning of Jewel's actions. Darl's frequent descriptions of Jewel as "wooden" reinforce the image of Jewel as impenetrable to others, and also establish a relationship between Jewel and the wooden coffin that comes to symbolize his mother. Whether or not Jewel returns his mother's devotion is also debatable—his behavior toward her while she is alive seems callous. Even as Addie lies on her deathbed, Jewel refuses to say good-bye to her, and harshly asserts his independence from her earlier on with his purchase of a horse. Jewel's actions after Addie's death show, however, that Jewel does care deeply about her, as he makes great sacrifices to assure the safe passage of her body to her chosen resting place, agreeing even to the sale of his beloved horse. Similarly, Jewel's cold, rough-spoken behavior toward the rest of his family contrasts sharply with the heroic devotion he demonstrates in his deeds, such as when he searches valiantly for Cash's tools after the river-crossing and nearly comes to blows with a stranger whom he believes has insulted the family. In general, Jewel is an independent, solitary man of action, and these traits put him in an antagonistic relationship with the introspective Darl.
Themes, Motifs & Symbols
Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.
The Impermanence of Existence and Identity
The death of Addie Bundren inspires several characters to wrestle with the rather sizable questions of existence and identity. Vardaman is bewildered and horrified by the transformation of a fish he caught and cleaned into "pieces of not-fish," and associates that image with the transformation of Addie from a person into an indefinable nonperson. Jewel never really speaks for himself, but his grief is summed up for him by Darl, who says that Jewel's mother is a horse. For his own part, Darl believes that since the dead Addie is now best described as "was" rather than "is," it must be the case that she no longer exists. If his mother does not exist, Darl reasons, then Darl has no mother and, by implication, does not exist. These speculations are not mere games of language and logic. Rather, they have tangible, even terrible, consequences for the novel's characters. Vardaman and Darl, the characters for whom these questions are the most urgent, both find their hold on reality loosened as they pose such inquiries. Vardaman babbles senselessly early in the novel, while Darl is eventually declared insane. The fragility and uncertainty of human existence is further illustrated at the end of the novel, when Anse introduces his new wife as "Mrs. Bundren," a name that, until recently, has belonged to Addie. If the identity of Mrs. Bundren can be usurped so quickly, the inevitable conclusion is that any individual's identity is equally unstable.
The Tension Between Words and Thoughts
Addie's assertion that words are "just words," perpetually falling short of the ideas and emotions they seek to convey, reflects the distrust with which the novel as a whole treats verbal communication. While the inner monologues that make up the novel demonstrate that the characters have rich inner lives, very little of the content of these inner lives is ever communicated between individuals. Indeed, conversations tend to be terse, halting, and irrelevant to what the characters are thinking at the time. When, for example, Tull and several other local men are talking with Cash about his broken leg during Addie's funeral, we are presented with two entirely separate conversations. One, printed in normal type, is vague and simple and is presumably the conversation that is actually occurring. The second, in italics, is far richer in content and is presumably the one that the characters would have if they actually spoke their minds. All of the characters are so fiercely protective of their inner thoughts that the rich content of their minds is translated to only the barest, most begrudging scraps of dialogue, which in turn leads to any number of misunderstandings and miscommunications.
The Relationship Between Childbearing and Death
As I Lay Dying is, in its own way, a relentlessly cynical novel, and it robs even childbirth of its usual rehabilitative powers. Instead of functioning as an antidote to death, childbirth seems an introduction to it—for both Addie and Dewey Dell, giving birth is a phenomenon that kills the people closest to it, even if they are still physically alive. For Addie, the birth of her first child seems like a cruel trick, an infringement on her precious solitude, and it is Cash's birth that first causes Addie to refer to Anse as dead. Birth becomes for Addie a final obligation, and she sees both Dewey Dell and Vardaman as reparations for the affair that led to Jewel's conception, the last debts she must pay before preparing herself for death. Dewey Dell's feelings about pregnancy are no more positive: her condition becomes a constant concern, causes her to view all men as potential sexual predators, and transforms her entire world, as she says in an early section, into a "tub full of guts." Birth seems to spell out a prescribed death for women and, by proxy, the metaphorical deaths of their entire households.
Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text's major themes.
Pointless Acts of Heroism
As I Lay Dying is filled with moments of great heroism and with struggles that are almost epic, but the novel's take on such battles is ironic at best, and at times it even makes them seem downright absurd or mundane. The Bundrens' effort to get their wagon across the flooded river is a struggle that could have been pulled from a more conventional adventure novel, but is undermined by the fact that it occurs for a questionable purpose. One can argue that the mission of burying Addie in Jefferson is as much about Anse's false teeth as about Addie's dying wishes. Cash's martyrdom seems noble, but his uncomplaining tolerance of the pain from his injuries eventually becomes more ridiculous than heroic. Jewel's rescuing of the livestock is daring, but it also nullifies Darl's burning of the barn, which, while criminal, could be seen as the most daring and noble act of all. Every act of heroism, if not ridiculous on its own, counteracts an equally epic act, a vicious cycle that lends an absurdity that is both comic and tragic to the novel.
As Faulkner was embarking on his literary career in the early twentieth century, a number of Modernist writerswere experimenting with narr
Invisible Man:Plot Overview
T he narrator begins telling his story with the claim that he is an "invisible man." His invisibility, he says, is not a physical condition—he is not literally invisible—but is rather the result of the refusal of others to see him. He says that because of his invisibility, he has been hiding from the world, living underground and stealing electricity from the Monopolated Light & Power Company. He burns 1,369 light bulbs simultaneously and listens to Louis Armstrong's "(What Did I Do to Be So) Black and Blue" on a phonograph. He says that he has gone underground in order to write the story of his life and invisibility.
As a young man, in the late 1920s or early 1930s, the narrator lived in the South. Because he is a gifted public speaker, he is invited to give a speech to a group of important white men in his town. The men reward him with a briefcase containing a scholarship to a prestigious black college, but only after humiliating him by forcing him to fight in a "battle royal" in which he is pitted against other young black men, all blindfolded, in a boxing ring. After the battle royal, the white men force the youths to scramble over an electrified rug in order to snatch at fake gold coins. The narrator has a dream that night in which he imagines that his scholarship is actually a piece of paper reading "To Whom It May Concern . . . Keep This ******-Boy Running."
Three years later, the narrator is a student at the college. He is asked to drive a wealthy white trustee of the college, Mr. Norton, around the campus. Norton talks incessantly about his daughter, then shows an undue interest in the narrative of Jim Trueblood, a poor, uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter. After hearing this story, Norton needs a drink, and the narrator takes him to the Golden Day, a saloon and brothel that normally serves black men. A fight breaks out among a group of mentally imbalanced black veterans at the bar, and Norton passes out during the chaos. He is tended by one of the veterans, who claims to be a doctor and who taunts both Norton and the narrator for their blindness regarding race relations.
Back at the college, the narrator listens to a long, impassioned sermon by the Reverend Homer A. Barbee on the subject of the college's Founder, whom the blind Barbee glorifies with poetic language. After the sermon, the narrator is chastised by the college president, Dr. Bledsoe, who has learned of the narrator's misadventures with Norton at the old slave quarters and the Golden Day. Bledsoe rebukes the narrator, saying that he should have shown the white man an idealized version of black life. He expels the narrator, giving him seven letters of recommendation addressed to the college's white trustees in New York City, and sends him there in search of a job.
The narrator travels to the bright lights and bustle of 1930s Harlem, where he looks unsuccessfully for work. The letters of recommendation are of no help. At last, the narrator goes to the office of one of his letters' addressees, a trustee named Mr. Emerson. There he meets Emerson's son, who opens the letter and tells the narrator that he has been betrayed: the letters from Bledsoe actually portray the narrator as dishonorable and unreliable. The young Emerson helps the narrator to get a low-paying job at the Liberty Paints plant, whose trademark color is "Optic White." The narrator briefly serves as an assistant to Lucius Brockway, the black man who makes this white paint, but Brockway suspects him of joining in union activities and turns on him. The two men fight, neglecting the paint-making; consequently, one of the unattended tanks explodes, and the narrator is knocked unconscious.
The narrator wakes in the paint factory's hospital, having temporarily lost his memory and ability to speak. The white doctors seize the arrival of their unidentified black patient as an opportunity to conduct electric shock experiments. After the narrator recovers his memory and leaves the hospital, he collapses on the street. Some black community members take him to the home of Mary, a kind woman who lets him live with her for free in Harlem and nurtures his sense of black heritage. One day, the narrator witnesses the eviction of an elderly black couple from their Harlem apartment. Standing before the crowd of people gathered before the apartment, he gives an impassioned speech against the eviction. Brother Jack overhears his speech and offers him a position as a spokesman for the Brotherhood, a political organization that allegedly works to help the socially oppressed. After initially rejecting the offer, the narrator takes the job in order to pay Mary back for her hospitality. But the Brotherhood demands that the narrator take a new name, break with his past, and move to a new apartment. The narrator is inducted into the Brotherhood at a party at the Chthonian Hotel and is placed in charge of advancing the group's goals in Harlem.
After being trained in rhetoric by a white member of the group named Brother Hambro, the narrator goes to his assigned branch in Harlem, where he meets the handsome, intelligent black youth leader Tod Clifton. He also becomes familiar with the black nationalist leader Ras the Exhorter, who opposes the interracial Brotherhood and believes that black Americans should fight for their rights over and against all whites. The narrator delivers speeches and becomes a high-profile figure in the Brotherhood, and he enjoys his work. One day, however, he receives an anonymous note warning him to remember his place as a black man in the Brotherhood. Not long after, the black Brotherhood member Brother Wrestrum accuses the narrator of trying to use the Brotherhood to advance a selfish desire for personal distinction. While a committee of the Brotherhood investigates the charges, the organization moves the narrator to another post, as an advocate of women's rights. After giving a speech one evening, he is seduced by one of the white women at the gathering, who attempts to use him to play out her sexual fantasies about black men.
After a short time, the Brotherhood sends the narrator back to Harlem, where he discovers that Clifton has disappeared. Many other black members have left the group, as much of the Harlem community feels that the Brotherhood has betrayed their interests. The narrator finds Clifton on the street selling dancing "Sambo" dolls—dolls that invoke the stereotype of the lazy and obsequious slave. Clifton apparently does not have a permit to sell his wares on the street. White policemen accost him and, after a scuffle, shoot him dead as the narrator and others look on. On his own initiative, the narrator holds a funeral for Clifton and gives a speech in which he portrays his dead friend as a hero, galvanizing public sentiment in Clifton's favor. The Brotherhood is furious with him for staging the funeral without permission, and Jack harshly castigates him. As Jack rants about the Brotherhood's ideological stance, a glass eye falls from one of his eye sockets. The Brotherhood sends the narrator back to Brother Hambro to learn about the organization's new strategies in Harlem.
The narrator leaves feeling furious and anxious to gain revenge on Jack and the Brotherhood. He arrives in Harlem to find the neighborhood in ever-increased agitation over race relations. Ras confronts him, deploring the Brotherhood's failure to draw on the momentum generated by Clifton's funeral. Ras sends his men to beat up the narrator, and the narrator is forced to disguise himself in dark glasses and a hat. In his dark glasses, many people on the streets mistake him for someone named Rinehart, who seems to be a pimp, bookie, lover, and reverend all at once. At last, the narrator goes to Brother Hambro's apartment, where Hambro tells him that the Brotherhood has chosen not to emphasize Harlem and the black movement. He cynically declares that people are merely tools and that the larger interests of the Brotherhood are more important than any individual. Recalling advice given to him by his grandfather, the narrator determines to undermine the Brotherhood by seeming to go along with them completely. He decides to flatter and seduce a woman close to one of the party leaders in order to obtain secret information about the group.
But the woman he chooses, Sybil, knows nothing about the Brotherhood and attempts to use the narrator to fulfill her fantasy of being raped by a black man. While still with Sybil in his apartment, the narrator receives a call asking him to come to Harlem quickly. The narrator hears the sound of breaking glass, and the line goes dead. He arrives in Harlem to find the neighborhood in the midst of a full-fledged riot, which he learns was incited by Ras. The narrator becomes involved in setting fire to a tenement building. Running from the scene of the crime, he encounters Ras, dressed as an African chieftain. Ras calls for the narrator to be lynched. The narrator flees, only to encounter two policemen, who suspect that his briefcase contains loot from the riots. In his attempt to evade them, the narrator falls down a manhole. The police mock him and draw the cover over the manhole.
The narrator says that he has stayed underground ever since; the end of his story is also the beginning. He states that he finally has realized that he must honor his individual complexity and remain true to his own identity without sacrificing his responsibility to the community. He says that he finally feels ready to emerge from underground.
The narrator - The nameless protagonist of the novel. The narrator is the "invisible man" of the title. A black man in 1930s America, the narrator considers himself invisible because people never see his true self beneath the roles that stereotype and racial prejudice compel him to play. Though the narrator is intelligent, deeply introspective, and highly gifted with language, the experiences that he relates demonstrate that he was naïve in his youth. As the novel progresses, the narrator's illusions are gradually destroyed through his experiences as a student at college, as a worker at the Liberty Paints plant, and as a member of a political organization known as the Brotherhood. Shedding his blindness, he struggles to arrive at a conception of his identity that honors his complexity as an individual without sacrificing social responsibility.
Brother Jack - The white and blindly loyal leader of the Brotherhood, a political organization that professes to defend the rights of the socially oppressed. Although he initially seems compassionate, intelligent, and kind, and he claims to uphold the rights of the socially oppressed, Brother Jack actually possesses racist viewpoints and is unable to see people as anything other than tools. His glass eye and his red hair symbolize his blindness and his communism, respectively.
Read an in-depth analysis of Brother Jack.
Tod Clifton - A black member of the Brotherhood and a resident of Harlem. Tod Clifton is passionate, handsome, articulate, and intelligent. He eventually parts ways with the Brotherhood, though it remains unclear whether a falling-out has taken place, or whether he has simply become disillusioned with the group. He begins selling Sambo dolls on the street, seemingly both perpetrating and mocking the offensive stereotype of the lazy and servile slave that the dolls represent.
Ras the Exhorter - A stout, flamboyant, charismatic, angry man with a flair for public agitation. Ras represents the black nationalist movement, which advocates the violent overthrow of white supremacy. Ellison seems to use him to comment on the black nationalist leader Marcus Garvey, who believed that blacks would never achieve freedom in white society. A maverick, Ras frequently opposes the Brotherhood and the narrator, often violently, and incites riots in Harlem.
Read an in-depth analysis of Ras the Exhorter.
Rinehart - A surreal figure who never appears in the book except by reputation. Rinehart possesses a seemingly infinite number of identities, among them pimp, bookie, and preacher who speaks on the subject of "invisibility." When the narrator wears dark glasses in Harlem one day, many people mistake him for Rinehart. The narrator realizes that Rinehart's shape-shifting capacity represents a life of extreme freedom, complexity, and possibility. He also recognizes that this capacity fosters a cynical and manipulative inauthenticity. Rinehart thus figures crucially in the book's larger examination of the problem of identity and self-conception.
Dr. Bledsoe - The president at the narrator's college. Dr. Bledsoe proves selfish, ambitious, and treacherous. He is a black man who puts on a mask of servility to the white community. Driven by his desire to maintain his status and power, he declares that he would see every black man in the country lynched before he would give up his position of authority.
Mr. Norton - One of the wealthy white trustees at the narrator's college. Mr. Norton is a narcissistic man who treats the narrator as a tally on his scorecard—that is, as proof that he is liberal-minded and philanthropic. Norton's wistful remarks about his daughter add an eerie quality of longing to his fascination with the story of Jim Trueblood's incest.
Reverend Homer A. Barbee - A preacher from Chicago who visits the narrator's college. Reverend Barbee's fervent praise of the Founder's "vision" strikes an inadvertently ironic note, because he himself is blind. With Barbee's first name, Ellison makes reference to the Greek poet Homer, another blind orator who praised great heroes in his epic poems. Ellison uses Barbee to satirize the college's desire to transform the Founder into a similarly mythic hero.
Jim Trueblood - An uneducated black man who impregnated his own daughter and who lives on the outskirts of the narrator's college campus. The students and faculty of the college view Jim Trueblood as a disgrace to the black community. To Trueblood's surprise, however, whites have shown an increased interest in him since the story of his incest spread.
The veteran - An institutionalized black man who makes bitterly insightful remarks about race relations. Claiming to be a graduate of the narrator's college, the veteran tries to expose the pitfalls of the school's ideology. His bold candor angers both the narrator and Mr. Norton—the veteran exposes their blindness and hypocrisy and points out the sinister nature of their relationship. Although society has deemed him "shell-shocked" and insane, the veteran proves to be the only character who speaks the truth in the first part of the novel.
Emerson - The son of one of the wealthy white trustees (whom the text also calls Emerson) of the narrator's college. The younger Emerson reads the supposed recommendation from Dr. Bledsoe and reveals Bledsoe's treachery to the narrator. He expresses sympathy for the narrator and helps him get a job, but he remains too preoccupied with his own problems to help the narrator in any meaningful way.
Mary - A serene and motherly black woman with whom the narrator stays after learning that the Men's House has banned him. Mary treats him kindly and even lets him stay for free. She nurtures his black identity and urges him to become active in the fight for racial equality.
Sybil - A white woman whom the narrator attempts to use to find out information about the Brotherhood. Sybil instead uses the narrator to act out her fantasy of being raped by a "savage" black man.
Analysis of Major Characters
The narrator not only tells the story of Invisible Man, he is also its principal character. Because Invisible Man is a bildungsroman (a type of novel that chronicles a character's moral and psychological growth), the narrative and thematic concerns of the story revolve around the development of the narrator as an individual. Additionally, because the narrator relates the story in the first person, the text doesn't truly probe the consciousness of any other figure in the story. Ironically, though he dominates the novel, the narrator remains somewhat obscure to the reader; most notably, he never reveals his name. The names that he is given in the hospital and in the Brotherhood, the name of his college, even the state in which the college is located—these all go unidentified. The narrator remains a voice and never emerges as an external and quantifiable presence. This obscurity emphasizes his status as an "invisible man."
For much of the story, and especially in the chapters before he joins the Brotherhood, the narrator remains extremely innocent and inexperienced. He is prone to think the best of people even when he has reason not to, and he remains consistently respectful of authority. The narrator's innocence sometimes causes him to misunderstand important events in the story, often making it necessary for the reader to look past the narrator's own interpretation of events in order to see Ellison's real intentions. Ellison uses heavy irony to allow the reader to see things that the narrator misses. After the "battle royal" in Chapter 1, for instance, the narrator accepts his scholarship from the brutish white men with gladness and gratitude. Although he passes no judgment on the white men's behavior, the men's actions provide enough evidence for the reader to denounce the men as appalling racists. While the narrator can be somewhat unreliable in this regard, Ellison makes sure that the reader perceives the narrator's blindness.
Further, because the narrator supposedly writes his story as a memoir and not while it is taking place, he also comes to recognize his former blindness. As a result, just as a division exists between Ellison and the narrator, a division arises between the narrator as a narrator and the narrator as a character. Ellison renders the narrator's voice as that of a man looking back on his experiences with greater perspective, but he ensures that the reader sees into the mind of the still-innocent character. He does so by having the narrator recall how he perceived of events when they happened rather than offer commentary on these events with the benefit of hindsight.
The narrator's innocence prevents him from recognizing the truth behind others' errant behavior and leads him to try to fulfill their misguided expectations. He remains extremely vulnerable to the identity that society thrusts upon him as an African American. He plays the role of the servile black man to the white men in Chapter 1; he plays the industrious, uncomplaining disciple of Booker T. Washington during his college years; he agrees to act as the Brotherhood's black spokesperson, which allows the Brotherhood to use him. But the narrator also proves very intelligent and deeply introspective, and as a result, he is able to realize the extent to which his social roles limit him from discovering his individual identity. He gradually assumes a mask of invisibility in order to rebel against this limitation.
The narrator first dons the mask after his falling-out with the Brotherhood, in Chapter 22. He becomes even more invisible in Chapter 23, when, escaping Ras's henchmen, he disguises himself behind dark glasses and a hat, unintentionally inducing others to mistake him for the nebulous Rinehart. Finally, in Chapter 25, he retreats underground. Yet, in the act of telling his story, the narrator comes to realize the danger of invisibility: while it preempts others' attempts to define him, it also preempts his own attempts to define and express himself. He concludes his story determined to honor his own complexity rather than subdue it in the interest of a group or ideology. Though most of the narrator's difficulties arise from the fact that he is black, Ellison repeatedly emphasized his intent to render the narrator as a universal character, a representation of the struggle to define oneself against societal expectations.
Ellison uses Brother Jack, the leader of the Brotherhood, to point out the failure of abstract ideologies to address the real plight of African Americans and other victims of oppression. At first, Jack seems kind, compassionate, intelligent, and helpful, a real boon to the struggling narrator, to whom he gives money, a job, and—seemingly—a way to help his people fight against prejudice. But as the story progresses, it becomes clear that the narrator is just as invisible to Jack as he is to everyone else. Jack sees him not as a person but as a tool for the advancement of the Brotherhood's goals. It eventually becomes clear to the narrator that Jack shares the same racial prejudices as the rest of white American society, and, when the Brotherhood's focus changes, Jack abandons the black community without regret.
The narrator's discovery that Jack has a glass eye occurs as Jack enters into a fierce tirade on the aims of the Brotherhood. His literal blindness thus symbolizes how his unwavering commitment to the Brotherhood's ideology has blinded him, metaphorically, to the plight of blacks. He tells the narrator, "We do not shape our policies to the mistaken and infantile notions of the man in the street. Our job is not to ask them what they think but to tell them!" Throughout the book, Jack explains the Brotherhood's goals in terms of an abstract id
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