Themes and Meanings
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 pluralism and division are the mysterious Allmuseri, the African tribe from which the slaves aboard the...
(The entire section is 643 words.)