Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Baldwin layers this story in several ways. At her job, Ruth finds the possibility for a better life opening up as she and Davis benefit from the integration of African Americans into better jobs. Davis’s promotion promises to improve Ruth’s own life, and their friendship suggests the possibility of a more fulfilling love relationship. Beneath this layer of bright prospects, however, is Ruth’s brooding over her failing love relationship, and beneath that is another layer of fundamental guilt and terror over her family’s betrayal of her innocence.

Baldwin moves the reader back and forth through these layers, always coming back to Ruth’s fundamental problem—her family’s failure to love her. Throughout the story, events in Ruth’s day return her to thoughts of Paul, and then to thoughts about how she came to be as lost as she is. As Baldwin brings these three layers of experience into focus, words and events take on increasingly rich meanings. Each rereading of the story leads to new discoveries of the depth of Ruth’s experiences, until the reader feels resonances that are only suggested. For example, in their morning conversation, Paul says it is time to paint a portrait of her, which she silently reads as a sign that he considers their relationship over. Paul’s joke that he could sell her for a thousand dollars hurts her because it makes her remember how her female ancestors were bought and sold for sexual use. On the level that Paul...

(The entire section is 473 words.)