Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The old Negro spiritual from which this story takes its title celebrates the joy and release felt by one who accepts belief in Jesus and thereby finds a way out of the wilderness of sin. James Baldwin’s complex narrative explores several ways in which Ruth Bowman is lost in a wilderness. The story takes place mainly on three levels of Ruth’s consciousness: She moves through a workday that opens a new opportunity for her; she broods over her failing relationship with her lover, Paul; and she struggles to come to terms with the events that drove her from her rural southern home at the age of seventeen. On each level, Ruth feels conflicting wishes and fears.

Rich in implications about race and gender in the modern United States, the story can also be examined through the concepts of master and slave. Ruth ends her day drinking in random bars and sees a young white man who seems as lost as she is. She connects him with Paul and with all the white “boys” she has known: “The sons of the masters were roaming the world, looking for arms to hold them. And the arms that might have held them—could not forgive.”

The main offense that Ruth cannot forgive is being forced into slave consciousness by a white male master. Although her white lovers acknowledge that slavery ended a century earlier, they unconsciously treat her as a slave, eliciting her protest, “I’m not the black girl you can just sleep with when you want to and kick about as...

(The entire section is 549 words.)