Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

To the familiar literary theme of the repressed, young, middle-class woman who is both excited and frightened by her sexual desires, Jean Toomer in “Esther” adds the theme of the person of mixed blood struggling to come to grips with an ethnic heritage that is also both exciting and frightening. Esther Crane looks more white than black, so her fellow blacks reject her. Her black suitor said that “for sweetness he preferred a lollipop,” but a white suitor also rejects her because of her blackness. Esther is not torn between two worlds; rather, from the beginning, she can fit into neither.

As befits a middle-class shopkeeper’s daughter, Esther’s sexual desires are carefully hedged round with the disguises of housewifely duty and religious fervor. Although Esther thinks that she loves Barlo, her dreams disguise his identity in the form of a fire so that even her subconscious can interpret her desires to her conscious mind only in the form of a wish for a baby whose blackness at first repels her. She can accept sexuality only if it is disguised as a component of a respectable life. Barlo first appears in the story as a religious messenger, telling a story of a new age to be led by a new black man. Barlo is as powerful as a god, and the black madonna drawn on the courthouse wall is Esther, who, she imagines, will bear Barlo’s child. Tellingly, when she first dreams of having a child with Barlo, she does not even think of sex with him but instead...

(The entire section is 404 words.)