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Esther Summary

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Esther” is divided into three parts. The first, titled “Nine,” describes the main character, a young black girl who lives in Georgia, at that age. She is first seen walking from her home to her father’s grocery store. Esther Crane is almost pretty; her hair does not have enough shine, and her face is too unemotional. Her skin is pale, so that she could be taken for a white girl. As she walks, a strange things happens. King Barlo, a huge, well-proportioned black man, drops to his knees in the street in an area where men spit tobacco juice. White men continue to spit at the spot, hitting Barlo, but he does not notice, as he is in a religious trance. After hours of kneeling in this place, Barlo begins to speak to the large crowd that has gathered to view this unusual scene. He speaks to them of a vision he has had from Jesus, who has told him to tell of an inspired black man of Africa, who, while rapt in a religious concentration similar to Barlo’s, was captured by white men and taken to America to be sold as a slave. The blacks in the audience are excited and urge him to continue. Barlo stands up and urges those present to turn to the Lord and greet a new awakening of spirit. That night Barlo leaves town. There are rumors of miraculous events, but all that is known for certain is that a black woman drew a picture of a black madonna on the courthouse wall. Esther is told of these rumors, and her young mind fixes on Barlo as an image of strength.

The second section of the story deals with Esther’s adolescence in two sections, titled “Sixteen” and “Twenty-two.” In “Sixteen,” Esther has two dreams. In the first, she sees the red sunlight on the windows of McGregor’s notion shop. She imagines that the shop is burning, and when the fire department puts out the fire, a baby is found, which Esther claims as her own. She cannot think of any way that she might have had the baby except by immaculate conception, but she knows that this thought is a sin, so she stops the dream and replaces it with another, in which people spit tobacco juice on the flames, causing the area to stink. Black and white women lift their skirts to reveal their underwear. Esther rushes in to save the baby and is at first repelled by its blackness but begins to love it as it nurses. The townspeople make fun of her, but she interprets their jeers as envy and is happy with her baby. In “Twenty-two,” Esther’s daily life as a clerk at her father’s store is described. Although her father is the richest black man in town, Esther’s emotional life is limited. A young black boy with whom she had an affair while she was in school rejected her because she was cold to him. A white man who was attracted to her dropped her after he found out who her father was. Esther decided that it is the powerful Barlo to whom she is attracted, and she resolves to tell him that she loves him the next time he comes to...

(The entire section is 834 words.)