Come Out the Wilderness Summary
by James Baldwin

Start Your Free Trial

Come Out the Wilderness Summary

African American novelist James Baldwin is well-known for his novel Go Tell It on the Mountain, which draws from the author's own experience as a child in Harlem who grows disillusioned with religion. "Come Out the Wilderness" is a short story published as part of a collection titled Going to Meet the Man in 1965.

Download Come Out the Wilderness Study Guide

Subscribe Now

The protagonist, Ruth Bowman, is dating a white painter named Paul. Paul shows no intention of marrying Ruth (though they live together) and often comes home late from work. Ruth is especially diffident in their relationship—when she was a teenager, she was discovered with a boy in a barn in what was assumed to be a sexual encounter. After being insulted by her brother for this indecency, Ruth feels insecure and inadequate in romantic relationships, including her current one.

Ruth gets a job as a secretary at an insurance company, where Mr. Davis, one of the top executives, offers to make her his personal secretary after he himself is promoted. Mr. Davis is black, and so Ruth feels comfortable with him—although she knows that this comfort likely has to do with his race.

Despite her misgivings (and her commitment to Paul), Ruth accedes to Mr. Davis's request to take her out to lunch. Though Mr. Davis pays attention to Ruth, she feels that their connection is only reliant on the fact that they are the only two black people in the office. Paul, meanwhile, claims that she is worth a thousand dollars, referring to the price he could sell a portrait of her at (making a joke about her worth as a slave). As Paul spends more time away from home (especially with a man named Cosmo, whom Ruth distrusts and considers a womanizer), Ruth is left with her private thoughts and intolerable guilt.

The story constitutes Ruth's jarring realization that men treat her as a means of gratifying their sexual desires and nothing more. Ruth, as she wanders the streets of New York alone at the close of the story, grapples with the fact that she must assert her identity as more than a sexual object.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Ruth Bowman, a young African American woman, begins her day by talking with and making love to her white lover, Paul. She feels desperately dependent on his affection, but also senses that he is slipping away. After she gets to her job as a secretary for an insurance company, she tries not to worry about Paul but fails. Her grim day is relieved when Mr. Davis, an African American executive who is about to be promoted, offers to make her his personal secretary. At noon a chance encounter leads to Ruth’s lunching with Davis. It is the beginning of a friendship that Ruth wants to welcome, but which she resists out of distrust and feelings of unworthiness. Her despair returns when Paul fails to return home that night as he has promised, and she is left alone, worrying.

Ruth wants to marry and raise children, but Paul seems to assume they will never marry. Ruth loves...

(The entire section is 770 words.)