Bessie Head

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What would be a good argumentative thesis statement (with a focus on gender) comparing and contrasting tone, characterization, and mood in "John Henry" (the ballad) and "Property" by Bessie Head?

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Your thesis statement should summarize your key ideas into one or two clear sentences that let the reader know the topic and your conclusion about it. Do you agree or disagree with the topic? Specifically, your thesis statement should highlight how you plan to refute or support the thesis of your paper. According to the Center for Writing Studies at the University of Illinois:

Every paper you write should have a main point, a main idea, or central message. The argument(s) you make in your paper should reflect this main idea. The sentence that captures your position on this main idea is what we call a thesis statement.

In this assignment, you have been asked to formulate an argumentative thesis statement comparing and contrasting tone, characterization and mood in the ballad based on the legend of John Henry and the short story “Property” by Bessie Head. Some of the similarities and contrasts between the two works are:

  1. The ballad is thought to be based on a true event and real man who pits his strength wielding a hammer against that of the steam powered (and presumably more powerful) drill. In over-exerting himself, he dies. By contrast, “Property” is a work of fiction.
  2. John Henry was an African-American man living in America. The son in the short story lives in Africa.
  3. John Henry interacts only with other men, including his captain. The only mention of women is when the ballad notes that “every woman riding” the trains on rails that John Henry helped build lament his early death. In “Property,” the reader sees the wife (and mother) interact with her husband and influence her son.
  4. The ballad is soulful and mournful. John Henry dies at the end. By comparison, the son becomes more enlightened and asserts himself to the tribal elders. The tone overall is more positive.

In "Property," the husband sees the wife like "the tall, cool grasses that swayed in the summer wind." This may objectify her, but the tone and mood are significantly lighter than in the ballad. This description calls to mind how pleasant the cool breeze and wind blown grass are.

In the ballad, by contrast, the tone is harsh and heavy. Even when John Henry “was a little tiny baby sitting on his mama's knee,” he is holding a hammer and steel. These are heavy, weighty objects in contrast to the lightness and softness of the “cool grass” and “summer wind” in the story.

Moreover, the ballad foretells the sad and untimely death of John Henry. In the very first stanza, the baby John Henry tells the Lord that the “Hammer's going to be the death of me.” The story, however, is very forward looking. When the son tells the tribal elders that he refuses to continue their unenlightened traditions, he embraces a more open future.

When the story opens, the traditional wife is expected to be subservient. There are similarities between the woman as worker / slaves in the story and the man (John Henry) as worker / machine in the ballad. The John Henry of the ballad might even have been a prisoner working on a chain gang. The ballad ends sadly, while the story moves forward with the next generation, the son, breaking away from this constrictive and unhappy view. He says,

My wife shall never be my property. She will never be purchased to be the slave in my mother's house. She will never carry a pot of water on her Head and will never collect firewood in the bush. As for the cattle which belong to me, you may all do with them as you wish.

The story characterizes and parallels women to cattle. The ballad characterizes and parallels men to machines, specifically “steel-driving” machines. There is no evolution in the ballad. John Henry lives and dies as a mere machine. "Property," however, makes it clear by the end that people are not cattle and, by extension, not slaves or machines.

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