Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

By focusing on the white middle class, with its anxieties, disaffections, and strategies for sublimation, dem draws attention not only to issues of race but also to those of class and gender. This trio of concerns has come to occupy a central position in the contemporary sociology of literature and in the culture of present-day literary criticism. Their dynamic interaction in dem is one of the novel’s most provocative and significant achievements.

The class element is evident in the manner in which Opal is treated, and in the demoralizing effect of that treatment. Such treatment is the inevitable result of the ethics of advertising, as presented in the novel’s second scene. The manner in which the image of the consumer is identified and addressed in that scene is as heartless and dehumanizing as the manner in which Mitchell deals with Opal. More important than the perception of the economic dimension of class is the representation of class’s cultural dimension. Class is conceived of as a matter of appearance, and of the assumptions that can be based upon appearance, so that the judgmental and exploitative character of class stereotyping is made at the level of impression and reaction, rather than at a conscious, deliberate level. Mitchell’s self-consciousness about his own appearance, and about how other people look, together with Tam’s infatuation with hairstyles, emphasizes the novel’s total comprehension of the deadly...

(The entire section is 591 words.)