Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Racism and misogyny are intense themes in this story. The delinquents’ willful oppression, exploitation, and abuse of both Nellie and Woodruff is institutionally sanctioned: They know, as he does, that no court will accept a black man’s word over the lies of seven white males; circumstantial evidence is enough for a white jury to indict a black male, for whom white women are taboo. Nellie is reduced to a mere pawn, an object who embodies the vehicle for enactment of aggressive dominance and coercive submission. Likewise, Woodruff’s humanity, professional accomplishments, and hard-won integrity are erased by inequitable power dynamics that objectify and demoralize him. Early in the story, he senses the danger that lurks around these boys when he winces at the gunshot sound their junky car makes as it approaches the Congregational church. He scurries into the building in the hope of avoiding the wrath and resentment he guesses they will express toward his expensive new cashmere coat, which even Addie would have deemed too indulgent.

Ann Petry suggests that these seven delinquents are not entirely evil or solely at fault in their extreme antagonism. They are products of superficial parents and a materialistic culture, and consumers such as Woodruff are its victims, as well. His coat, for example, Petry describes as a straitjacket: It restricts him and his movement and limits his freedom, but it takes a reversal of the authoritative power structure to...

(The entire section is 502 words.)