Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Like many sea adventures, Middle Passage operates on one level as an allegory, the ship being, as Falcon tells Calhoun, “a society . . . a commonwealth.” The name of the ship, the Republic, and the fact that its captain was born on July 4, 1776, are strong suggestions that the society allegorized is that of the United States. The novel touches on many themes from U.S. history, including slavery, equal opportunity, and race riots. Many of these references are anachronistic—that is, they are themes and issues that did not exist in 1830. While it is difficult to explain how a narrator writing in the nineteenth century could have knowledge of some of these things (such as the vocabulary of affirmative action), Johnson seems to be suggesting the interconnectedness of U.S. history. In other words, the slavery of the country’s early days and the civil strife that Falcon foresees in his apocalyptic death dream (“I saw riots in cities”) are connected in their origins. In this regard, the fact that the Republic is a ship constantly coming apart and constantly being remade metaphorically suggests that the United States is a society in process, undergoing constant upheaval and renewal. Following the beliefs of its captain, the shipboard society is governed by an essential dualism and characterized by a deep fissure, an “ontic wound” in Falcon’s words, that necessitates slavery and strife.
Contrasting with this society of...
(The entire section is 643 words.)
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Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Rutherford Calhoun’s first-person narrative voice in Middle Passage is the key to both the protagonist’s character and the novel’s integrity. The protagonist is many persons: learned African American former slave, practiced thief and liar, agrarian turned urbanite turned sailor. His voice blends many levels of language: philosophical discourse, nautical terminology, lyrical images of field and ocean, witty slang and worn cliché. In this voice, Rutherford Calhoun narrates his adventures in the underworld of New Orleans and the society aboard the slave ship.
Because Rutherford Calhoun is a freewheeling young man who unexpectedly finds himself on a dangerous sea adventure, and because his first words are the humorous announcement that he, like most men who go to sea, is escaping a woman, his character recalls the naïve and comic Ishmael, first-person narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). There are other elements in Middle Passage that suggest Melville’s narrative as source: a character named Peleg, the mad Captain Falcon, and a cabin boy who loses his mind. Though there are similarities, however, there are differences. Melville’s narrator Ishmael is at first a comic character with matching voice, but as the plot changes from youthful adventure to romantic quest, the narrator’s voice changes to that of a reflective philosopher. Charles Johnson’s narrator Calhoun, on the other hand, maintains consistently...
(The entire section is 1130 words.)