Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Philadelphia Fire begins its meditation on the origins and meanings of the holocaust on Osage Avenue with William Penn’s instructions for the placement of houses in the middle of grass plats to ensure that the city would always be green and wholesome and “never be burnt.” It ends with the memorial service for those who died in the fire. The memorial program offers hope, but the poor attendance leads the narrator to comment, “Yes, there’s a party. Problem is, looks like Philadelphia ain’t coming.” The collective failure of the largely white city to mourn the deaths of eleven of its citizens or to acknowledge its responsibility for their tragic fate is merely the last in a series of betrayals and abandonments, both public and private. Between Cudjoe’s guilt over his children and Wideman’s anguish over the fate of his son and over the mayor’s handling of MOVE as an urban renewal problem, the novel offers various images of a society that has become the antithesis of the one William Penn envisioned three centuries earlier.

The local university dismantles its school of social work on the grounds that its city-centered approach runs counter to the university’s newly defined “international” mission. As the narrator explains, “The forces at work in the University mirrored those in the larger society.” There are more private visions of the horror, including Cudjoe’s dream in which, cut off at the knees, he becomes the...

(The entire section is 548 words.)

Philadelphia Fire Themes

Given the basis of the novel, it is not surprising that its major themes revolve around despair. The overriding theme is that we are...

(The entire section is 283 words.)