Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
When Jane Pittman recounts a sermon delivered by Ned Douglass, she constructs a powerful piece of rhetoric echoing Christ’s Sermon on the Mount. It is remarkable that she can recall in such detail the words of Ned from so long ago; she claims she does not remember all that he said, but what she remembers she attributes to Ned’s faith: “I can remember it because Ned believed in it so much.” She has a prodigious memory or a persuasive imagination. In either case, she is a compelling storyteller.
The theme of Ned’s sermon is what it is to be American, to take possession of America, to be possessed by it, and to nourish one’s identity with attachments to the earth. Freedom carries with it a responsibility to labor and to love the land and its people. One of Jane’s earliest lessons is that any place can be all places; at ten, frustrated that her days of traveling to Ohio have still not taken her out of Louisiana, she exclaims, “Luzana must be the whole wide world.” Her hope for finding a place of freedom is dashed by a hunter she and Ned meet during their early travels. Freedom, the hunter tells her, “ain’t coming to meet you. And it might not be there when you get there, either.” She must find freedom in herself before she can find it anywhere else, and that understanding does not come until the end of her long life. Indeed, it may not come until she tells her story to the editor.
In the novel, freedom is bounded by natural...
(The entire section is 595 words.)
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