Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Ann Petry’s character Lutie Johnson is one of the most independent and self-reliant African American women in fiction. Petry’s naturalist and psychological portrait of Lutie Johnson is closely and intensely drawn, and it is this facet of the novel that to an important degree renders the novel so remarkable. Lutie’s psychological life is detailed and sustained to a point virtually unique in fiction. From Lutie’s perspective, the exigencies of race in America are compounded and intensified by those of gender. One is unable to forget that the issue of race is profoundly transformed when considered in tandem with the issue of gender. Moreover, one understands that the two must be considered together in order to understand fully the dynamics of African American presence in America. Similarly, Lutie Johnson’s determination and perseverance, her sense of pursuing and controlling her own destiny, provide a portrait of an African American woman that is relatively rare in the African American literary tradition up to the time of the novel’s publication.

In addition to the powerful consideration of gender and intense psychological realism that Petry brings to African American fiction, her manipulation of narrative structure and chronological sequencing bears noting. As much as she relies on the sequential action of traditional plot construction, Petry deviates from this traditional construction. That is, rather than moving forward in time, much of the...

(The entire section is 591 words.)

The Street Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Street is a novel about struggle and defeat. Lutie Johnson struggles against the limitations imposed upon her by circumstance, and she is destroyed in the struggle. Her defeat, when it comes, has about it an air of inevitability; readers respect her hopes but put no faith in them. Understanding the novel in which she appears may be a matter of understanding why a sense of hopelessness pervades a book that centers on a woman’s hopes.

The novel begins with a description of the street. The author writes of the street as though it has a personality, and a malevolent one at that. The street works, consciously it almost seems, to defeat and destroy those within its influence. Moreover, readers know the street before meeting any human characters; when the humans are introduced, they are seen, as it were, in the shadow of the street. The result is to weaken the readers’ sense of human moral agency.

When readers first meet Lutie Johnson, it is true, they are quickly made aware of the strength of her aspirations. At one point in the novel, Lutie half seriously compares herself to Benjamin Franklin, the great American model of the self-made man. He has served as a model for many ambitious young Americans, and Lutie dares to suppose he may serve as her model, too. She is determined to forge a better life for herself and her son.

Yet if readers know the strength of Lutie’s aspirations, they also know the weakness of her condition. That Lutie has come to 116th Street is not a matter of choice....

(The entire section is 628 words.)

The Street Social Concerns / Themes

The Street, Petry's best-known work, is often compared to Richard Wright's Native Son (1940). While there are similarities...

(The entire section is 155 words.)