Come Out the Wilderness

by James Baldwin

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Last Updated September 5, 2023.

This story brings together a number of themes frequently expressed in James Baldwin's fiction, themes that relate to issues of race, gender, and the experience of people in transition and facing the changing world of America in the late 1950's and early 60's.

An interracial relationship is the main focus of the story. Ruth, an African American young woman originally from the rural South, is living with Paul, a white artist, in Greenwich Village. As the story begins, Ruth already senses that the relationship is coming apart. Paul typically goes out late at night with no explanation, but even apart from this Ruth's sense that something is wrong illustrates the subliminal dynamic that occurs between couples at all stages of relationships:

She knew that he was going to leave her. It was in his walk, his talk, his eyes. He wanted to go.

Ruth works in an office for an insurance firm, while Paul seems to be unsuccessful at selling his paintings, so it becomes evident that she is the breadwinner in the household. Yet, unsurprisingly for the time (the story was first published in 1958) Paul exercises a form of "power" over her not only indirectly but in offhand, condescending remarks, and in not taking her positive appraisal of his paintings seriously. She reflects about this and recalls him saying:

"You're sweet, funnyface . . . but, you know, you aren't really very bright."

Ruth is aware of her lack of self-confidence about her own opinions. There is, unfortunately, an element of insecurity she feels in relation to Paul's attitude that is at least partly due to their relationship being a "mixed" one. But at the same time she thinks back on a former boyfriend and the fact that a similar dynamic had existed with him. She remembers

. . . how stupid she had felt about music all the time she had lived with Arthur, a man of her own color who had played a clarinet.

Ruth recalls the circumstances under which she left her home in the South and the culture shock of moving to New York City. There is also a sense of not only the hardness and the impersonal quality of the city, but of the differences between, on the one hand, the neighborhood in the Village where she and Paul live, and on the other, the midtown milieu where she works. In Midtown,

The people . . . rather resembled these gray rigidities [of the skyscrapers] and also resembled, in their frantic motion, people fleeing a burning town.

Another African American employee at the firm, Mr. Davis, is interested in Ruth, but she discourages him, not accepting that she really wishes to move beyond her relationship with Paul. The ending of the story is ambiguous in tone, as Ruth has gone to a restaurant alone at the end of the workday, having called the apartment and received no answer from Paul.

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