Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The nine workers in Geremio’s crew are portrayed as crude and intellectually limited. The author overcomes stereotyping by humanizing them with descriptive nicknames such as Vincenzo the Snoutnose and Mike the Barrel-mouth. Despite their lack of full characterization, they project a strong physical identity. Their childlike qualities are foregrounded, along with their old-country superstitions. With the exception of the cynical Nick the Lean, they are filled with the immigrant’s hope for a better life for the next generation. They depend on their comradeship and their faith to help them endure their hardships and assure them that their dreams will be realized. In contrast to their earthy humor and warm camaraderie stands Murdin, who demeans them with racist insults and drunken indifference, callously refusing to heed Geremio’s warnings about impending disaster.

In the classic dichotomy of protest literature, innocence and goodness are opposed by corruption and evil. The construction site literally represents the material contribution of the immigrants to their new country and symbolically the blood sacrifice demanded of them as the building collapses. In the last moments of these men’s lives, the American dream becomes a surrealistic nightmare. Geremio in his final agony calls on Jesus to save him but then realizes that he is dying and that he has been cheated of life by those in power. Echoing the last words of Jesus, he calls on God to receive his soul. The Christian symbolism in this conclusion is deeply ironic. In Christian theology, Jesus’ death was redemptive, saving humankind from sin. Geremio’s death on Good Friday is a useless sacrifice caused by the inhumanity of the men whose cold authority permits these deaths.

Although both the story and the novel have received mixed reviews, primarily for what some regard as its primitive language and characterizations, critics agree that the short story and the novel that it spawned are forceful documents of social protest in American literature.