Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The major theme of this story is the power of self-centeredness, particularly as it is manifested and reinforced by prejudice in the forms of racism and sexism, to generate such hatred and cruelty that relationships based on tolerance, love, and self-sacrifice are destroyed. The word “different,” used crucially at three points in the text, implicitly asks the questions, what difference does it make that people are different in color, and should color make any difference at all, when love is what unites persons? The story then demonstrates the terrible difference that prejudice makes in society and in individual lives, by showing a case in which it brings about the triumph of evil and the suffering of the innocent.

The story shows the confusion that color-prejudice produces in a society: A white man who has become a hero in his society by defending racist slavery has fathered a light-complected daughter with one of his slaves; he now loves, but cannot free from racism, his even more light-complected, blue-eyed granddaughter, whose father is a respected, unprejudiced, white man. On a street in another section of the city, Jennie, with her light complexion and blue eyes, would be seen as a white girl from that neighborhood.

Values that are held by the society to be absolute and objective truths, in actual practice are subjective and relative to self-interest. As interests inevitably change, new situations emerge that produce conflicts of values within and between persons. Values that are truly universal and humane come into conflict with traditional but narrowly selfish patterns of behavior, and individuals caught in the old patterns either adopt new perspectives or react, often violently, in self-defense....

(The entire section is 708 words.)