Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Underlying the intrigue of The Rivers of Eros is the premise that even the most sincere effort and hard work do not often enable individuals to achieve their desired goals in life. A person’s life is a series of reactions to what happens, and what happens is for the most part beyond the control of the individual. The sexual encounter between Clotilda and Chester is not planned. It happens as a reaction to their being alone together at a time when Clotilda is restless and unhappy with her mundane life and Chester, as he puts it, has “not been busy” because of Pearl’s pregnancy. Similarly, circumstances mesh together to bring about Ruby’s death.

Hammer’s goal has been to publish his book, but at the end of the story, Hammer’s life has changed. He is no longer free to devote himself to his book. He has new responsibilities as a result of his marriage to Letitia and their commitment to raise Lester. As the novel ends with Letitia driving the car, chattering away, and suggesting they not work that evening on the book they are paying to have published, a reader may sense that Hammer too has lost control of his life and probably will not publish his book.

The character of the radical James Potts, who calls himself Alexis, briefly introduces the theme of racial conflict into the novel. Alexis believes that whites despise African Americans because they look different and that African Americans will never be accepted. Hammer believes that African Americans can earn acceptance through accomplishments and patience. The novel does not take any particular stance on the issue but simply demonstrates that the problems of discrimination further complicate the relationships of African Americans, both with the white community and with one another.