What is the theme, setting, and plot in "A Party Down at the Square" by Ralph Ellison?

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carol-davis eNotes educator| Certified Educator

”A Party Down at the Square” by Ralph Ellison is a well-written, interesting story.  The subject of the story creates an atmosphere of disgust and misery. The burning up of a black man in the middle of the town square, the reactions of the townspeople, and the use of the word “nigger” over and over haunt the reader of the story.

The setting of the story is an unknown small town in Alabama sometime in the mid twentieth century. The narration is first person point of view with a white boy from Cincinnati.  

There are really only three characters that the reader becomes involved with as the story progresses.

The uncle finds nothing wrong with the scene. In fact, he tells the boy that he will get used to the event.  Three nights after the initial killing of the black man, the townspeople burn another black man.  The uncle states that usually two of them have to burn to keep the other “n…” in their place.

The second character is the unnamed narrator.  He runs with his uncle to the square for the party.  What the boy discovers is an execution of a black man.  Everyone standing around is angry as they poke and prod the black man.  As the boy observes the burning of the black man, he wants to turn away, but he makes himself watch until the black man finally burns completely to ashes.  The death is brutal and repulsive.

The narrator is upset and troubled by what he sees.  When he vomits after the burning, he hopes to purge the smell and inner turmoil that he feels.  Despite his revulsion of the event, the boy condemns no one.  He gives no personal remarks and uses the word “n…” just as much as his uncle does. 

The last character is the black man.  The story never supplies the reason why the black man is in trouble.  He was treated as though he were not a human being.  He was extremely brave as reflected by the description of the narrator.  The townsmen built a fire around the black man, strip his clothes off, and pour gasoline on him. 

He asks for two things as he is burning.

“Will one of you gentlemen please cut my throat?” he said. “Will somebody cut my throat like a Christian?

And Jed hollered back, “Sorry, but ain’t no Christians around tonight.”

It takes  a long time for the black man to die.  He breaks free when the ropes were burned through; however, the white men throw more gasoline on him and he burns up completely.  The narrator comments that he could actually see the black man’s ribs showing through when he was trying to get away. The boy states that he recalls the scene every time he eats barbeque. 

The crowd’s response to the killing of the man brings a form of entertainment to them.  The racism was so ingrained that the people have no feelings for the man as he burns or asks for help from a Christian. 

The theme of the story lies in the prejudice of the people who kill the black man.  Typical of areas of the south before the civil rights movement, the black people were not considered as a part of the human race.  The lack of emotion during the killing of the man makes the reader wonder what would be the stopping point for a crowd capable of enjoying watching a man burn to death.

The irony of the story comes from the title of the story.  There was no party at the square on the night of the plane crash, storm, or burning of the man.  There was only prejudice and cruelty for the narrator to observe. 

jackiehill50 | Student

One theme is the easy coercion of individuals by a powerful group which causes major shifts in their beliefs and actions.