(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The Narrows combines the racial protest of The Street with the exposé of small-town America in Country Place. It depicts the steady march toward disaster of the Dartmouth-educated veteran Lincoln Williams (or Link), who has returned from four years at war with little faith in the opportunities for a satisfying life he has theoretically earned by his various accomplishments. Link grew up as the foster son of a black middle-class couple living on a street now overtaken by the rougher elements of African American urban life. Throughout the novel, he functions as a bridge figure, connecting radically alien worlds whose citizens abjure contact with one another.

Link’s attraction to antithetical worlds deprives him of a true home anywhere, while his boundary-jumping earns him an enmity on all sides that eventually assumes lethal proportions. Link is also full of a misogynistic rage; such suspicion of women fills Petry’s fiction and suggests the deadliness of the gender dialectic operating within a patriarchal power structure.

Link’s gender biases are complicated by race when chance introduces him to Camilo Treadway Sheffield, a beautiful Barnard graduate whose boredom prompts her to take a late-night walk on the African American side of town. Fleeing in dense fog from a grotesque street figure, she is rescued by Link, who does not realize that Camilo is white until he later takes her into a bar (when she discovers with a jolt that he is black). Not until much later does he learn that she is both married and the heir to the Treadway family fortune, a fortune derived from the munitions works that is the town’s major employer.

The animus aroused by their pairing erupts first within the black community....

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The Narrows Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Narrows takes place in Monmouth, Connecticut, and tells the story of an interracial love affair between Lincoln (Link) Williams, a twenty-six-year-old black man, and Camilla Treadway Sheffield, the beautiful wife of Captain Bunny Sheffield, heiress to the Treadway Munitions Company, and daughter of Monmouth’s most prominent white family. The complexity of the novel, however, makes it more than a novel of romance. Through an omniscient third-person narrator, flashbacks, introspective monologues, and memories, Petry discusses the impact of racism on the lives of her characters. Link Williams, the adopted son of Abbie Crunch and Theodore Crunch—known as the Major—was happy with his life until one Saturday afternoon when he was eight years old. The Major, looking seriously ill, had been sent home by Bill Hod. The Major, however, smelled of whiskey, and because Abbie had a strong aversion to drinking, she did not listen to Bill’s warning to get the Major a doctor soon. The Major had a stroke and died two days later. Abbie, overwhelmed with guilt, blames herself for her husband’s death. In her deep grief, she forgets Link’s existence. Link tries to get Abbie’s attention during and after the Major’s death, but he fails. Frances, who is there to comfort Abbie, keeps telling Link to run along and play for fear he will disturb his mother. Link is too young to survive this double tragedy: It seems that he has lost both father and mother at once. He feels...

(The entire section is 603 words.)

The Narrows Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Narrows, set in the small New England town of Monmouth, Connecticut, focuses upon an ill-fated love affair between a handsome, well-educated young black man, Link Williams, and Camilo Sheffield, a rich white heiress to the Treadway munitions fortune. After being graduated from Dartmouth, Link returns home intent upon writing a history of America from an African American perspective. However, when he meets and falls in love with Camilo, whom he believes to be Camilo Williams, a fashion photographer, Link abandons his writing project. Later, he learns of her deception and breaks off the affair. Camilo, hurt and humiliated, accuses Link of rape. After he is arrested, she drives away at a high speed, striking and seriously injuring a black child.

The treatment of both stories in the press leads Camilo’s mother, Mrs. Treadway, and Camilo’s husband, Captain Sheffield, to murder Link. In trying to dispose of Link’s body in the river off the Dumble Street docks, however, the two are arrested for speeding, and the murder is discovered.

Although the action of the novel covers only three months prior to the death of Link Williams, the story covers about twenty years, chronicling the transition of a middle-class, ethnically mixed section of Monmouth to a poverty-ridden ghetto inhabited primarily by African Americans. The story unfolds through a series of flashbacks and digressions, as certain incidents trigger the memories of the major characters.

As Abbie reflects upon the early days in Monmouth before the death of her husband, she recalls a quieter, cleaner,...

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The Narrows Bibliography

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bell, Bernard W. “Ann Petry’s Demythologizing of American Culture and Afro-American Character.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and the Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Discusses the ways in which Petry’s portrayal of characters in her fiction, especially The Narrows, “debunks” certain myths in American society. Innocence and virtue are not always indigenous to the small-town environment.

Bontemps, Arna. “The Line.” Saturday Review 36 (August 22, 1953): 11. Bontemps concedes that Petry’s The Narrows is “a novel about Negroes by a Negro novelist and concerned . . . with racial conflict.” This initial critical comment on the novel has served as a point of departure for later interpretations of this complex work.

Ervin, Hazel A. Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography. New York: G. K. Hall, 1993. A comprehensive compilation of reviews, analytical articles, and interviews with Petry. A brief introductory essay is followed by Ervin’s annotations of the chronological list of primary and secondary sources. A valuable reference for studying Petry’s work.

Gates, Henry Louis, ed. Ann Petry: Critical Perspectives Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, 1998. This collection of essays by...

(The entire section is 571 words.)