Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The major themes in If Beale Street Could Talk involve various kinds of love. There is the love of Tish and Fonny, that of man and woman. Baldwin uses Tish’s parents to emphasize parental love: It is in relation to Tish that their devotion as parents can be observed. Sharon Rivers, when she learns that her daughter is pregnant, immediately shows concern not only for Tish but also for the unborn child. Her husband, too, is supportive of the unwed daughter, and each parent is determined that life for this child will be better than it has been for them. Human love, according to Baldwin, is the central force in the universe. It is love that brings the family together, and it is love that enables the family to function and survive. It is also love that will build a better world for the children. Lest anyone mistake this basic premise, Baldwin also shows the effects of the absence of love.

Other major themes are evident in the portrayal of life in prison and the system of justice. Fonny is punished for refusing to be raped; jails obviously are not safe places. Fonny’s being falsely accused is one thing, but the slowness with which the case moves forward with no guarantee of a fair resolution is further evidence of injustice. That he is at the mercy of the justice system becomes clear as Sis tells Tish, “We have to disprove the state’s case. There’s no point in saying that we have to make them prove it, because, as far as they’re concerned, the accusation is the proof. . . .”