Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Sport of the Gods serves a double purpose in its treatment of its subject matter. First, it provides a naturalistic treatment of the line from William Shakespeare’s King Lear (1605) that serves as a source for the paraphrased title: “As flies to wanton boys, are we to th’ gods,/ They kill us for their sport.” Second, the novel counters the popular romantic tradition of plantation fiction. Dunbar sets forth this purpose in the opening paragraph of the book, which places his text in an antagonistic relationship to the popular fiction of the day:Fiction has said so much in regret of the old days when there were plantations and overseers and master and slaves, that it was good to come upon such a household as Berry Hamilton’s, if for no other reason than that it afforded a relief from the monotony of tiresome iteration.

Thus Dunbar’s text opens a dialogue with the reader’s expectations and immediately sets itself in opposition to the treatment given to African American characters by white writers.

Dunbar applies the techniques of naturalism to his treatment of the subject matter, but he places his text thoroughly in the American tradition of naturalism rather than in the European tradition. Here he differs from later African American writers such as novelist Richard Wright. Dunbar’s style is both more sentimental and more melodramatic, and it bears resemblance to the texts popular in the late nineteenth century. In particular, Dunbar includes the appealing temperance theme, a motif common in American writing from the 1830’s onward. Joe Hamilton is a successful young man until he falls under the influence of alcohol, and he becomes so...

(The entire section is 693 words.)