Summary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 850

Illustration of PDF document

Download Big Black Good Man Study Guide

Subscribe Now

“Big Black Good Man” opens on an August night in Copenhagen, Denmark. The year is not specified, but the setting seems to be contemporary with the time of the story’s writing, the late 1950s. Olaf Jenson sits in the office in a cheap hotel that caters to sailors and students. Jenson, the night porter, will be sixty years old the next day. He finishes a beer, smokes a cigar, and reflects on his comfortable, unremarkable life.

It is late, and Jenson is about to take a nap when a very large black man opens the office door and asks for a room. Jenson is so taken aback by the man’s size that he does not answer until the man repeats his request. Jenson asks if the man is an American (yes) and a sailor (yes). The porter thinks that, although he is not a bigot, “this particular black man . . . Well, he didn’t seem human. [. . .] There was something about the man’s intense blackness and ungamely bigness that frightened and insulted Olaf.”

Jenson wants to refuse the man lodging but is afraid to do so. As soon as he agrees to give the man a room, the sailor hands Jenson a roll of fifty- and one-hundred-dollar bills to keep in the safe. Wracking his brain for a way to get the man out of the hotel, Jenson plans to tell him that the hotel does not let rooms for one night only. The man, however, says that he is staying five or six nights.

The man refuses to let the elderly porter carry his suitcase, but Jenson shows him to his room. The man asks Jenson to get him whiskey and a woman, which are common requests in this hotel. Still revolted by the man, Jenson returns to the office and reluctantly calls Lena, a prostitute who regularly visits men at the hotel. He warns Lena about the man’s size, but she is unconcerned and soon arrives. Jenson worries about her while she is with the man, but she later leaves, first giving Jenson his percentage of her fee.

The next night, the man comes in late and asks for Lena by name. This pattern continues for six nights. Then the man comes to the office to pay his bill and get his money from the safe. The man gives Jenson a tip. Then, instead of leaving, he simply stares at Jenson, who becomes increasingly terri- fied. Finally, the man commands Jenson to stand up. He then approaches and places his hands around Jenson’s neck, grinning. Convinced that he is about to be strangled, Jenson urinates on himself. The man moves his fingers on Jenson’s neck gently and then withdraws them. Jenson pleads with the man not to hurt him, and the man replies, “I wouldn’t hurt you, boy. So long.”

When the man is gone, Jenson weeps out of humiliation, fear, and anger. He wishes that he had killed the man with the gun he keeps in the desk drawer. He calls the hotel owner to say that he is ill, and she comes to take over so that Jenson can go home and change out of his soiled clothes. He lies to his wife also, again saying that he is sick.

For the next year, Jenson fears the man’s return and harbors detailed fantasies of revenge. He imagines that the man’s ship sinks in a storm and that the man drowns “gasping and choking like a trapped rat.” His rotting corpse is eaten by a white shark.

Then, on an August night one year after his first appearance, the man returns. Jenson tells him that there are no rooms available. The man says that he does not want a room. When Jenson asks what he wants, the man grins, opens his suitcase, and takes something out of it. Then he approaches Jenson and again puts his hands around Jenson’s neck. Jenson tries to reach the drawer where the gun is, but the man pushes him away from the desk. The man then proclaims, “A perfect fit!” and takes from his suitcase six new white shirts—gifts for Jenson, one for each night that Jenson sent Lena to him.

Jenson becomes hysterical, laughing and crying. The man asks him what is wrong and then tells him to try on a shirt, which Jenson does. Jenson asks the man if it is Lena he wants, adding that she has not returned to the hotel since the man left a year ago. The man answers that he and Lena have been writing and that he is going to her house. Jenson admits that he thought the man was going to kill him. Incredulous, the man laughs and tells Jenson that he would not hurt him because he,

Jenson, is a good man. Jenson tells the man that he is a good man, too, adding, “a big black good man.” The man replies, “Daddy-O, you’re crazy.” As he leaves, Jenson thanks him. The man turns back, grins, and says, “Daddy-O, drop dead.”

Next

Themes