Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Baldwin’s story operates on a political level. The setting in the American South during the early 1960’s, and the depiction of events that were probably taking place at the very time that Baldwin was writing (voter registration among the blacks began in earnest in 1964; the story was published in 1965) suggest composition in the heat of the moment, unlike Baldwin’s more youthful works, which tend to be reflective, balanced, and objective. It is even, perhaps, a political satire, the protagonist being its object—a warped white mentality in the South that contentedly and periodically sacrifices a black to the gods as a deterrent against the eruption of savagery. Still, the main interest in the story is not political, and Baldwin’s expose of the white mentality is hardly a simple projection of evil onto the enemy. Instead, what one gets is a psychological and spiritual study that argues against such projections: There is a cautionary identification of the white protagonist with the human race, a call for empathy and introspection that raises the experience above a moment in history.

The story traces the experience of a man in torment. At first he does not even know that he, like the society to which he belongs, is on the verge of a crisis. He is a man damned by his inheritance, by his past, and in need of salvation. As he lies in bed, he senses that something is wrong, but his sleeplessness and impotence are merely the tangible signs of his malaise. He would like to turn to his wife for relief, but he thinks that she cannot give it because she is too pure. He cannot ask her to perform sexual acts that would cure his impotence and hence his insomnia. At this stage, Jesse’s only solution is sexual release. That his wife’s name is “Grace and that he regards her as a sanctuary” suggest to the reader, but not to Jesse,...

(The entire section is 754 words.)