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

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The setting of this story is actually a small town's main square, "right in front of the court house," in the middle of the night, just as the "old clock in the tower was striking twelve." The fact that a black man is lynched in plain sight, in the very...

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The setting of this story is actually a small town's main square, "right in front of the court house," in the middle of the night, just as the "old clock in the tower was striking twelve." The fact that a black man is lynched in plain sight, in the very center of the town, shows just how accepted and unremarkable an event it is for a white mob to murder a black man. The narrator of the story remarks that people must have driven in their cars to come see the lynching from "Phenix City," a town in Alabama.

In terms of the story's plot, the narrator is a young boy from Cincinnati, evidently unused to seeing things like one sees in Alabama, and he was at his uncle's house when some men came and said there was a party in the square. When they arrive at the "party," the boy sees a black man being held captive by a mob of whites. It is cold and rainy, and it becomes clear that the mob is going to burn the man to death. As he burns and the mob watches, an airplane appears overhead in the storm. It keeps flying over the square, and it occurs to the narrator that the pilot might be confused by a huge fire. The mob thinks the plane is going to land, and many run for their cars. The plane hits some power lines, some of which fall and electrocute a white woman in the crowd; she dies immediately. The narrator returns to look at the black man, all on fire now, and the burning man asks for someone to cut his throat, to show him that small mercy, but Jed Wilson, the apparent ringleader of the mob, explains that there are no Christians there tonight, only Americans. Once the fire burns through the ropes that bind the black man, he rolls out of the flames to the narrator's feet. The mob shoves him back into the flames, and the narrator eventually runs off to vomit from the smell and sickening revulsion he feels at what he has just witnessed. The next day, his uncle makes fun of him, calling him the "'gutless wonder from Cincinnati,'" and he tells the boy that he will "get used to it in time," evidently referring to the brutal lynching of black people.

I think the main theme conveyed by this story centers around the incredible and horrifying brutality that mobs will perpetrate if given the opportunity. It is as though, in a crowd, people lose their humanity. More specifically, the story conveys how the racism and prejudice of white people can override even a religious obligation to treat other people with mercy and love.

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”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. 

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