Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Richard Wright, in his famous essay “The Ethics of Living Jim Crow,” described the psychological as well as the physical restrictions of growing up in the segregated South. The Long Dream is a fictionalized version of that essay. Wright uses the combined techniques of naturalism and psychoanalytic theory to develop the insights sketched in the essay. Although placed in a classic naturalistic environment in which the pressure of society threatens to destroy him, Fishbelly Tucker manages to escape, as a result of his traits of psychological resilience, developed during his Jim Crow upbringing.

Fishbelly’s psychological development is illustrated through a series of dreams that fit Sigmund Freud’s theories introduced in The Interpretation of Dreams (1900). Freud explains that dreams are composed of two elements, “infantile experience” and “the day’s residues.” Fishbelly’s dreams, particularly those that occur in the early chapters, are syntheses of traumatic experiences and foreshadow concerns that will be important in the plot. Fishbelly’s “locomotive” dream at the end of chapter 3 is a combination of his statement to his father, whose sexual encounter he interrupted, that he sounded like a locomotive, and of Fishbelly’s own awakening sexuality. It is also a foreshadowing of Fishbelly’s mode of escape from Mississippi: The train takes him to Memphis, from which he leaves the United States for Paris. Likewise, the locomotive again appears in his dream after his older friend Chris Sims...

(The entire section is 630 words.)

The Long Dream Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In The Long Dream, Wright repeats the themes and employs the metaphors of several of his earlier works. He uses the castration metaphor continually to emphasize the emasculation of an entire race of American citizens held in subjugation by the people in whose hands power resides. He is concerned with the questions of manhood and the loss of manhood both by individuals and by a race of people. In his development of Fishbelly, Wright builds on the castration metaphor to the point that it becomes the controlling image of the novel.

Akin to the theme of emasculation is the theme of self-hatred. Wright demonstrates this theme in many ways: Early in the book, for example, when the young Fishbelly and his friends attend a fair on “Colored Folks’ Day,” they throw balls at a “nigger head,” a grotesque face that in essence is their own.

The Long Dream was the first volume of a projected trilogy, but only it and five episodes from the second volume were ever written, so it is impossible to know precisely what Wright would have done with the themes that figured so prominently in this work. The long dream to which the title refers alludes to Fishbelly’s childhood sexual dream early in the book, but it alludes more broadly to the nightmare faced by black people in the United States.