If Beale Street Could Talk Themes
by James Baldwin

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If Beale Street Could Talk Themes

The main themes in If Beale Street Could Talk are the hypocrisies of religion, familial love and acceptance, and the inequalities of the criminal justice system.

  • The hypocrisies of religion: Mrs. Hunt is staunch in her Baptist beliefs, and yet she treats both Tish and Fonny with scorn.
  • Familial love and acceptance: The immense duress of Tish’s pregnancy and Fonny’s imprisonment force their families to come to their aid out of love.
  • The inequalities of the criminal justice system: In his false imprisonment, Fonny is the victim of racism—at the individual and institutional levels.

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Themes

The Hypocrisy of Loveless Religion

Despite a short-lived career as a minister, James Baldwin was not an especially religious man in his later years. He often criticized Christianity for reinforcing racial inequality through the idea of salvation occurring only in the afterlife; however, he also saw some benefit in religion, believing that it had allowed many African Americans to defy oppression and that it encouraged people to love one another. In this novel, Mrs. Hunt, Fonny’s mother, demonstrates the evils and hypocrisy of a religion devoid of love. After hearing of Tish’s pregnancy, Mrs. Hunt, with an air of self-righteousness, declares that Tish’s baby will die in her womb and condemns Tish and Fonny for their “act of lust.” Though Fonny and Tish are in love and devoted to each other, Mrs. Hunt accuses Tish of ruining her son. Displaying bias and pride, she also claims that Fonny will be forgiven because “[her] prayers will save him.” While this might seem to suggest love for her son, Mrs. Hunt’s description of Fonny to the district attorney later in the novel as “incorrigible and worthless” proves that her “love” for Fonny is merely pride. In all of this, Mrs. Hunt does not show the love that Christianity is supposed to include toward her son, her son’s fiancée, or even her unborn grandchild.

In contrast to Mrs. Hunt, Tish’s parents and sister and Fonny’s father, Frank, are not particularly religious. However, these characters prove to be the most supportive of Tish and Fonny, demonstrating unconditional love, acceptance, and support for the young couple. Though their actions are morally ambiguous, Frank and Joe display a high degree of sacrificial love for their children by stealing from their employers and risking their jobs to help pay for the legal fees involved in Fonny’s case. The characters in this novel who are less religious show more love to Tish and Fonny than the very religious Mrs. Hunt; through this contrast, Baldwin emphasizes the futility of religion without love.

Familial Love and Acceptance 

The novel draws a sharp distinction between Tish’s loving and accepting family and Fonny’s harsh and hypocritical mother and sisters. Mrs. Hunt and her daughters are quick to condemn Fonny, as they had always disliked him: Mrs. Hunt describes him as “incorrigible and worthless” to the district attorney and suggests that perhaps his wrongful accusation and imprisonment are “the Lord’s way of making [him] think on his sins.” Because of Mrs. Hunt’s attitude toward Fonny, Tish explains that as a child, Fonny spent more time at the Rivers’ house than his own. 

Tish’s family stands in contrast to Fonny’s mother and sisters. Her announcement of her pregnancy comes as a shock to them, as she is only nineteen years old and unmarried (although she and Fonny are engaged). Nevertheless, her parents and her sister all insist that she should not be ashamed, but should rejoice. Strengthened by her family’s love and support, Tish is able to comfort Fonny and give him hope throughout his...

(The entire section is 870 words.)