What are the themes of the short ficton story called "A Loaf of Bread" by James Alan McPherson?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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The overall theme of this short story is a bit ambiguous. Ambiguous means that something is unclear or inexact because alternatives are not clearly laid out or drawn forth and chosen between. On the one hand, based upon Reed's perspective, one would expect the theme to be the evils of exploiting people who have fewer advantages than others. On the other hand, from Green's perspective, there is a case made for honesty and integrity within variable social situations. Two things complicate theme even further.

The first is that Green's children are attacked by society at large at school, and Mrs. Green asserts she will take the children and leave Mr. Green if he does not rectify the persecuting situation he has unintentionally caused: he must capitulate and imply guilt by holding a free day at the grocery store.

"Of course you'll do it," Ruth Green said. She said it the way she would say "Have some toast." She said, "You'll do it because you want to see your children grow up."

"And for what other reason?" he asked.

She pulled the towel tighter around her neck. "Because you are at heart a moral man."

The second is the resolution of the story. Mr. Reed returns to the store at the end of the day, after Green's store is ransacked (he should have followed his wife's advice and kept quiet instead of posting "FREE" signs and shouting "Free!" which indicates another possible theme: woman's role and power), and insists on paying for the loaf of bread Mrs. Reed purchased in the morning. This illustrates the theme enunciated by Reed of "Justice with a capital J."

After looking at the collection of various details relevant to themes, I'll suggest that the main theme is "Justice" and human dignity: "'Man, why you want to do people that way?" [Reed] asked. "We human, same as you.'" In an ironic twist, the so-called shoppers, who were more akin to looters, divested Mr. Green of his dignity and opportunity for justice, as both were trampled underfoot on the "wine-stained flour, lettuce leaves, red, green, and blue labels, bits and pieces of broken glass." In a parallel twist, Reed asserts his human dignity and right to justice by insisting upon paying for the morning's bread in the midst of Green's divestment.

"Mr. Green," Nelson Reed said coldly. "My wife bought a loaf of bread in here this morning. She forgot to pay you. I, myself, have come here to pay you your money."

"Oh," the grocer said.

"I think it was brown bread. Don't that cost more than white?" ...

"In my store, yes," Harold Green said. ...

Nelson Reed held out a dollar.

"And two cents tax," the grocer said.

The man held out the dollar. ...

He rang the register again. It read fifty-seven cents.

Nelson Reed held out a dollar.


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