(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Himes’s epigraph for The Quality of Hurt is taken from William Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice (pr. c. 1596-1597, pb. 1600): “The quality of mercy is not strain’d,/ It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven/ Upon the place beneath.” Himes’s ironic substitution of “hurt” for “mercy” in his title hints at the organizing principle of his autobiography: In a world where justice is not “enthroned in the hearts of kings,” Himes experiences no mercy, only pain—regularly and unremittingly. The autobiography is intended, then, as a catalog of the psychic, physical, spiritual, and racial suffering that the African American must necessarily endure. The central meaning of the narrative is how Himes deals with the cumulative force of hurt, how he makes sense of it, and how he uses it to provide a shaping philosophy for his career.

Certainly, his childhood experiences are central in determining his life of rebellion against authority figures. His mother’s punishment of him for minor misbehavior causes in part his brother Joe’s tragic accident; his father’s servility before whites costs Himes his right to sue the hotel for negligence after his accident; finally, a foolishly bungled burglary puts him in prison as a teenager. The common theme in these incidents seems to be the futility of imposing control on experience by manipulating others. A strict mother, a meek father, a law-and-order judge—all these characters attempt to make sense of experience by controlling Chester; the...

(The entire section is 628 words.)