Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

On the revelation that he is a token, the protagonist demonstrates one of the most memorable narrative devices: parenthetical self-reflections particularly on words or phrases that come to mind. This is a habit fully in character with his having taught English for more than thirty years: “Nigger in the woodpile, he thought, and then, why that word, a word he despised and never used so why did it pop up like that.” As Woodruff wonders about other expressions, Petry effectively calls societal assumptions into question. For example, the passage about the hypothetical police bulletin contains a parenthetical aside expressing the racist indictment that any exceptional expenditure by a black man is presumptuous and pretentious.

This technique prepares the reader for the more intense stream-of-consciousness passages touching on preconceptions that language encompasses and the behaviors that accompany them. For example, during the violent rape scene, Woodruff thinks “there are seven of them, young, strong, satanic. He ought to go home where it was quiet and safe, mind his own business—black man’s business; leave this white man’s problem for a white man.” Immediately afterward, Petry illustrates the frustrations experienced by a respectable and educated black man who is compelled to edit himself and guardedly modulate his tone for white hoodlums. Petry’s shocking description and relentless detail, especially of the rape scene, interweave poignantly...

(The entire section is 444 words.)

The Witness Bibliography

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Clarke, Cheryl. “Ann Petry and the Isolation of Being Other.” Belles Letters 5 (Fall, 1989): 36.

Madden, David. “Commentary.” The World of Fiction. Chicago: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1990.

Petry, Ann. “A MELUS Interview: Ann Petry—The New England Connection.” Interview by Mark Wilson. MELUS 15, no. 2 (Summer, 1988): 71-84.