Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Lawd Today is the story of one day in the life of Jake Jackson, detailing his daily routine from dawn into the early hours of the next morning. The story is cyclical, opening and closing in the Jackson apartment with conflict between husband and wife. Jake’s day is periodically interrupted by radio broadcasts celebrating the annual holiday for the birthday of Abraham Lincoln, February 12.
The story is divided into three sections of descending length. The first and longest section, “Commonplace,” describes Jake’s morning from his waking until he goes to work. Angry at being awakened by the radio from a dream involving the climbing of an endless stairway, Jake picks a fight with his wife Lil over her chatting with the milkman and her doctor bills. After he beats Lil into submission, Jake dresses himself and reads the paper, making bigoted comments on contemporary world events. Jake admires the power of Adolf Hitler and of gangsters, empathizes with the misfortunes of millionaires, and criticizes communists, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and Albert Einstein.
Leaving the house, Jake begins his busy morning by sorting through the mail, showing his interest in farfetched money-making schemes and patent medicines. He loses two dollars playing a popular lottery game at the Black Gold Policy Wheel when he bets three “sure win” symbols from his dream. Then, after admiring a picture of a blonde girl on an adventure film poster, he...
(The entire section is 564 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Lawd Today opens with Jake Jackson rising out of bed, apparently after a night on the town. The day in question is Lincoln’s birthday, and throughout the day, no matter where Jake goes, radios haunt him with words from that president’s speeches and statements about the Great Emancipator—as though to remind Jake that he is the victim of another kind of slavery. Jake is caught in a web that entangles his soul. It will take much more than a presidential proclamation to set his spirit free.
From the beginning, Richard Wright lets the reader know that Jake, although caught in circumstances beyond his control, is an unsavory individual, one neither to be admired nor empathized with. Jake begins his day by physically and verbally abusing his wife, Lil: In response to Lil’s brief conversation with the milkman, Jake falls into a jealous rage. The reader later learns that Jake married Lil only because the couple thought that she was pregnant. Jake’s resentment at being “tricked” into marriage has grown into a rage that he frequently and violently vents on his wife. Lil, though far from being an aggressive individual, forewarns Jake that his time for this kind of behavior is running out: “This is the last time you going to do this to me.” In the book’s final scene, Lil lives up to her promise and violently subdues Jake in his drunken assault on her by slashing him with a piece of broken glass—a symbolic emasculation.
After Jake’s morning encounter with his wife, the novel takes the reader on a journey with Jake as he goes through the drudgery of his life. He stops by a local numbers operation with the...
(The entire section is 674 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Baldwin, James. The Price of the Ticket: Collected Nonfiction, 1948-1985. New York: St. Martin’s Press/Marek, 1985. The essays “Everybody’s Protest Novel” and “Alas, Poor Richard” provide important and provocative insights into Wright and his art.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Richard Wright. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. Essays on various aspects of Wright’s work and career, with an introduction by Bloom.
Burrison, William. “Another Look at Lawd Today: Richard Wright’s Tricky Apprenticeship.” College Language Association Journal 29 (June, 1986): 424-441. Both positive and negative assessments of Lawd Today have failed to present a detailed, comprehensive analysis of the text itself. The novel is organized according to the comic pattern of the fool/trickster tale; Jake is a version of the tragic fool. The irony of Jake’s position is expressed through complex patterns of colors and numbers and through the use of Lincoln’s birthday as background for Jake’s unlucky day.
Fabre, Michel. The World of Richard Wright. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1985. A collection of Fabre’s essays on Wright. A valuable but not sustained full-length study.
Fabre, Michel. The Unfinished Quest of Richard Wright. 2d ed. Translated by Isabel Barzun. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993. The standard biography of Wright. Details his childhood in the South, his role in the literary scenes of Chicago and New York, his relationship with the Communist Party, and his final years among American...
(The entire section is 700 words.)