Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Demby’s narrative method in Beetlecreek is simple: He constructs a series of short chapters composed largely of dialogue. The result is a readable story that eschews any modernist techniques and relies on conventional character development and plot complication.

Beetle images occur several times, reinforcing the novel’s title, but symbolism plays no significant role in the working out of things. At one point, Johnny’s state of mind is described thus:And Black Enameled Death that he had seen represented everything of Beetlecreek and was like the restlessness and dissatisfaction of the birds, only inside him, swarming and swooping inside him, filling him with vague fear and shame, preparing him for something, telling him, warning him, separating him from things that were happening around him apart from him, pulling him along toward things he could not see or know.

The menace that Johnny senses here foreshadows the moral collapse that overtakes him finally.

Bill Trapp is a marginal man, living on the fringe of life for all of his lonely years. His childhood was marginal, with its only solace his love for his sister, Hilda. His wandering carnival years were empty except for his brief friendship with the Italian performer. After leaving the carnival, he has settled in a boundary area between the black community of Beetlecreek and the white business district of Ridgeville, a social limbo made worse by his extraordinary shyness. His comparative poverty estranges him...

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel focuses on the idea that there is the ever-present challenge to make something of one’s life, no matter what stage of life in which one may be—Bill’s, Johnny’s, or David’s. This quest for meaning is one that transcends race—racial concerns and mores being factors that aid in keeping people locked in superficial interactions—and it also transcends the routine religious activities, in which Mary and the Beetlecreek community are very much involved.

Finding human connection briefly, as the three main male characters do, is important, but being trapped in a meaningless existence is inevitable, Demby suggests. One can accept the challenge to escape, as these characters do, and that attempt to escape can be courageous, humane, and heartwarming, but it is ultimately doomed to failure. The most that man can do is accept the terrible responsibility of acting for himself, although he will certainly fail. Thus, in this context, the human experience is tragic, and the tragedy is not diminished by the fact that the novel suggests an unachievable, ideal life. That ideal is an existence that is fresh, humane, independent, sensitive, spontaneous, and free—somewhere between the structured but mindless triviality of Mary and the careless, insensitive abandon of Edith.