Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“In Darkness and Confusion” is clearly about the destructiveness of poverty and the terrible consequences of unfulfilled dreams. Ann Petry suggests that a dream too long deferred can, and often does, have catastrophic effects, not only for the individual but also for the community. This theme begins to unfold early in the narrative, as William descends the dark, steep stairwell of his apartment building. He wants desperately to find a way out of his situation. He dreams of finding a place, perhaps a first-floor apartment, that would be easier on his wife, but cost is always the deterrent. His thoughts continually return to that one all-consuming dream—release from this environment that is so damaging to his family—but always he comes up against the maddening reality that his meager finances hold him captive in this place.

William’s dream intensifies as he thinks about the deleterious effects of the ghetto environment on his young son, for they could not walk down the streets without being propositioned by prostitutes and pimps. Although he had warned Sam about the dangers in these streets, he is discomfited by the thought that the boy had already explored what the block offered. At such times he would think, “We gotta move this time for sure. This ain’t a fit place to live.” Neither anguish, nor outrage, nor dogged determination will free him, however. Dire poverty has assigned him this place, and it is a place from which there is no escape.

Despite his destitute condition, William still dreams of a better life for his son than that which he and Pink share. Even while sweeping the drugstore floor, he vows that Sam will not have to earn his living this way. He will earn it “wearing a starched collar . . . shined shoes and a crease in his pants.” Looking at his employer, William decides that being a pharmacist would be a good occupation for Sam because it is clean work and pays well. With Sam’s imprisonment, however, it seems that the fulfillment of this dream also will be denied him.