Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

The Dark Child is, in one sense, a highly personal book. Laye wrote it when he was a very young man, living in Paris and homesick for his family and village, and he has said that in writing the book, he no longer felt alone or abandoned. Looking at the book in this light, one is not surprised to find that its vision of African life is largely Edenic.

Laye’s account, however, was not written solely for himself. It is clearly written with an audience in mind. He shapes his experiences into twelve brief chapters, each one a step forward in his journey to maturity. In crafting the book, he had European influences, including Gustave Flaubert and Marcel Proust, whose writings on memory flavor both style and content in The Dark Child. Laye’s experience and heritage are different from that of these Europeans, so he crafts his work not only to articulate his world but also to articulate it to an audience of non-Africans. Therefore, his realism can never be casual; it must be clear and credible to the uninitiated, the alien.

His realism in the early chapters involves a child’s-eye view of things. Quickly, the reader sees the customs and community structure that shaped the adult narrator’s life. Often, the narrator presents, side by side, the “real” and the magical, showing the essence of the African experience to the Westerner. Most sections end with a personal note, however, an exclamation of sadness for what has been lost. The narrator cannot return to the safe, blissful world of his childhood; no one can. Perhaps more significant, he implies that his very nature, which demands education and a broader life, prevents him from ever participating in the adult life of his village. He may go home, but he would have no place there, in a community where everyone must have a role. This implied loss is at the heart of The Dark Child’s nostalgia.