Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Thematically, Erskine Caldwell’s “Kneel to the Rising Sun” operates on several levels. It is a graphic depiction of the worst aspects of the sharecropping system that followed (and in many ways continued) the slavery system of the American South. Throughout, emphasis is placed on Arch Gunnard’s hatred of African Americans and his fanatical desire to debase or, failing that, destroy them. After cutting off the dog’s tail, Arch comments that he wished that African Americans had tails because there would be more to cut and, therefore, more satisfaction. He also repeatedly refers to Clem Henry as needing to be taught a lesson or at least chased out of the area, and when the opportunity arises, he and his vigilante neighbors murder Clem for even minimally opposing the existing system. Thus, the most prominent theme of the story is the racism pervading the American South even seventy years after the demise of slavery.

On a more subtle level, “Kneel to the Rising Sun” is a profound study of the psychological dilemma of the poor white southerner, both before and after the Civil War. Lonnie has to deal with the racism he has been taught and his pride in being white, which links him to the plantation owner, as well as his economic equality with and therefore natural emotional bond with the African American sharecroppers. Thus, Lonnie is in psychological agony throughout the story. He admires Clem’s bravery in defying Arch Gunnard but also resents it, even though the bravery is expressed in the...

(The entire section is 617 words.)