Study Guide

Esther

by Jean Toomer

Esther Summary

Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Esther” is divided into three parts. The first, titled “Nine,” describes the main character, a young black girl who lives in Georgia, at that age. She is first seen walking from her home to her father’s grocery store. Esther Crane is almost pretty; her hair does not have enough shine, and her face is too unemotional. Her skin is pale, so that she could be taken for a white girl. As she walks, a strange things happens. King Barlo, a huge, well-proportioned black man, drops to his knees in the street in an area where men spit tobacco juice. White men continue to spit at the spot, hitting Barlo, but he does not notice, as he is in a religious trance. After hours of kneeling in this place, Barlo begins to speak to the large crowd that has gathered to view this unusual scene. He speaks to them of a vision he has had from Jesus, who has told him to tell of an inspired black man of Africa, who, while rapt in a religious concentration similar to Barlo’s, was captured by white men and taken to America to be sold as a slave. The blacks in the audience are excited and urge him to continue. Barlo stands up and urges those present to turn to the Lord and greet a new awakening of spirit. That night Barlo leaves town. There are rumors of miraculous events, but all that is known for certain is that a black woman drew a picture of a black madonna on the courthouse wall. Esther is told of these rumors, and her young mind fixes on Barlo as an image of strength.

The second section of the story deals with Esther’s adolescence in two sections, titled “Sixteen” and “Twenty-two.” In “Sixteen,” Esther has two dreams. In the first, she sees the red sunlight on the windows of McGregor’s notion shop. She imagines that the shop is burning, and when the fire department puts out the fire, a baby is found, which Esther claims as her own. She cannot think of any way that she might have had the baby except by immaculate conception, but she knows that this thought is a sin, so she stops the dream and replaces it with another, in which...

(The entire section is 834 words.)