The Stories of James Alan McPherson

by James Alan McPherson
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What are the themes of the short ficton story called "A Loaf of Bread" by James Alan McPherson?

Harold Green is a grocer who overcharges his black customers. He and Nelson Reed are both stubborn about their views. But by the end of the story, both men show that they have become more accepting of each other's point of view.

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In the short story, "A Loaf of Bread" by James Alan McPherson , one of the main themes is pride and selfishness vs. selflessness. In this story we meet Harold Green, a white grocer who has been overcharging his black customers, and Nelson Reed, a black man leading the pickets...

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In the short story, "A Loaf of Bread" by James Alan McPherson, one of the main themes is pride and selfishness vs. selflessness. In this story we meet Harold Green, a white grocer who has been overcharging his black customers, and Nelson Reed, a black man leading the pickets against the grocer. Even though both men appear to have opposing views, in actuality they are much alike, and are moral men at heart.

At the onset of the story, both men are prideful and unwilling to back down from their individual viewpoints. Green feels he is justified in over-charging his black customers as he tells his wife, "Green is the only color I am interested in." Ironically, green, or the dollar, is all he appears to care about when his wife tries to persuade him to give away his groceries. Reed also feels he is justified in his position. Even though he thinks of himself as a religious man he says, "The onliest thing that matters in this world is money." Both men lose sight of their basic moral character in their pride and selfishness.

However, by the end of the story, Green does give away all his groceries on his own accord, not because of his wife's threat. As well, Reed enters the store to pay Green for his wife's loaf of free bread. Both men have learned a lesson about walking in another person's shoes, if just for a day.

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The overall theme of this short story is a bit ambiguous. Ambiguous means that something is unclear or inexact because alternatives are not clearly laid out or drawn forth and chosen between. On the one hand, based upon Reed's perspective, one would expect the theme to be the evils of exploiting people who have fewer advantages than others. On the other hand, from Green's perspective, there is a case made for honesty and integrity within variable social situations. Two things complicate theme even further.

The first is that Green's children are attacked by society at large at school, and Mrs. Green asserts she will take the children and leave Mr. Green if he does not rectify the persecuting situation he has unintentionally caused: he must capitulate and imply guilt by holding a free day at the grocery store.

"Of course you'll do it," Ruth Green said. She said it the way she would say "Have some toast." She said, "You'll do it because you want to see your children grow up."

"And for what other reason?" he asked.

She pulled the towel tighter around her neck. "Because you are at heart a moral man."

The second is the resolution of the story. Mr. Reed returns to the store at the end of the day, after Green's store is ransacked (he should have followed his wife's advice and kept quiet instead of posting "FREE" signs and shouting "Free!" which indicates another possible theme: woman's role and power), and insists on paying for the loaf of bread Mrs. Reed purchased in the morning. This illustrates the theme enunciated by Reed of "Justice with a capital J."

After looking at the collection of various details relevant to themes, I'll suggest that the main theme is "Justice" and human dignity: "'Man, why you want to do people that way?" [Reed] asked. "We human, same as you.'" In an ironic twist, the so-called shoppers, who were more akin to looters, divested Mr. Green of his dignity and opportunity for justice, as both were trampled underfoot on the "wine-stained flour, lettuce leaves, red, green, and blue labels, bits and pieces of broken glass." In a parallel twist, Reed asserts his human dignity and right to justice by insisting upon paying for the morning's bread in the midst of Green's divestment.

"Mr. Green," Nelson Reed said coldly. "My wife bought a loaf of bread in here this morning. She forgot to pay you. I, myself, have come here to pay you your money."

"Oh," the grocer said.

"I think it was brown bread. Don't that cost more than white?" ...

"In my store, yes," Harold Green said. ...

Nelson Reed held out a dollar.

"And two cents tax," the grocer said.

The man held out the dollar. ...

He rang the register again. It read fifty-seven cents.

Nelson Reed held out a dollar.

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