Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In contrast to the grim and violent themes of Gayl Jones’s previous novels, The Healing is surprisingly upbeat. The only explicit violence is Joan’s attack on Harlan. Instead, the book is full of subtle humor, with story threads reflecting the American motifs of remaking oneself and of the saving grace of love. African American lore, cultural assumptions, and even speech cadences are integral parts of the novel, and all the significant characters are African American.

Clearly, the “healing” of the title is meant metaphorically as well as literally. The story is about Harlan Jane’s journey into self-knowledge and wholeness. Her statement that she had to heal herself before she could heal others stands as the novel’s major theme. No healing is possible unless the person seeking to heal either physical wounds or spiritual deficiencies starts with his or her own ills.

Harlan’s story is also about the nature and redeeming power of love. Grandmother Jaboti claims that she used to be a turtle. Not until a young man loved her enough to see her as herself rather than as Turtle Woman did she begin to turn human. Harlan cannot see herself following a man in that way, and in the end it is Norvelle who seeks her out, but the theme is not gender specific. Love is a part of being fully human, and people ignore it at their peril.

Finally, the very type of story Jones has written conveys a message. After writing two prior novels focusing on violence and degradation as legacies of slavery, Jones created a novel of multifaceted human relationships. The idiom and context is African American, but the larger themes are universal. This work represents a recognition that African American characters and settings have become mainstream rather than remaining set apart in a specialized literary ghetto.