Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel is a fairly conventional love story, told in an unconventional structure of alternating voices. By telling the story from both Franklin’s and Zora’s points of view, McMillan depicts a relationship between a black man and a woman that is sympathetic and presents both as well-rounded characters. At the same time, however, she uses their story to explore larger issues of race, sex, and class in American society.

McMillan has been consistently praised for her portrayal of Franklin, which some critics claimed broke with stereotypes of black men traditionally found in African American women’s writing. Franklin is at once a victim of oppression in white America and an oppressor and victimizer in his own home. Through him, McMillan shows what happens to a person who feels great anger but who has no way of venting it and ends up taking it out on those he loves. He is constantly in and out of work and cannot seem to get ahead in the white world. Yet McMillan is careful to present Franklin as more than a victim of racism; contrasted with Zora, who has a successful career and works hard for her dreams, Franklin is also seen as someone who fails to take responsibility for his own life at crucial moments.

The story is also about class differences and how these affect a relationship. Traditionally, black men have not had the same kinds of opportunities as black women, both in higher education and white-collar jobs. Although Franklin is smart,...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

McMillan creates an African American woman character who is comfortable with her sensuality, who has achieved professional status and financial independence, and who seeks a life-giving relationship with an African American man. Both Zora and Franklin, the man she finds, seek to make meaning of their lives in the 1980’s.

Both are first-person narrators, alternating chapters. Their voices are rich in the vocabulary of African American culture. Franklin, however, speaks a nonstandard English African American dialect, and Zora speaks Standard English. Occasionally Franklin self-consciously imitates Zora’s speech, with pride; if Zora notices his “correction” of his speech, she approves. Though her voice seems the norm, Franklin’s holds the power.

As these two characters talk and listen, they try to build a bond of love across a range of widely separated experiences. Their love bond is real, including but going beyond sexual compatibility. Franklin is supportive of Zora’s hopes of becoming a popular singer; Zora is supportive of Franklin’s hopes of earning a college degree and becoming a successful businessman.

Yet, McMillan seems to say that these bonds will break because the African American male is by both tradition and social forces the one who must dominate in a relationship. So when Franklin’s professional failures are juxtaposed with Zora’s achievement of education and professional employment, his frustration...

(The entire section is 519 words.)