Last Updated on May 8, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 770
The most complex character in this collection undoubtedly is Todd ("Flying Home"). He resembles the mythic Icarus in his obsessive love of flying, and like Icarus, he twice falls to earth—when he climbs to the housetop to catch a low flying plane, and again when a buzzard flies into the...
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The most complex character in this collection undoubtedly is Todd ("Flying Home"). He resembles the mythic Icarus in his obsessive love of flying, and like Icarus, he twice falls to earth—when he climbs to the housetop to catch a low flying plane, and again when a buzzard flies into the front of his airplane. In the first instance, his mother worries about his "crazy" ambition to fly; the second time he sees the crash as further proof of his failure to be good enough to fly in combat. In fact, he almost accepts the evaluation of white society, as expressed by Dabney Graves. At the same time, Todd's ambition and his training have separated him from men like Jefferson; yet he believes Jefferson secretly ridicules him for trying to break out of his role as a black man, especially when Jefferson tells his folktale about flying around heaven with one wing. Todd has to experience Graves's insults and physical abuse before he can recognize that Jefferson is attempting to protect him. Once the young airman embraces his racial identity, he can see the buzzard as a golden bird and himself as a successful aviator.
Slightly less complex is Mr. Parker ("In a Strange Country"), the black seaman ashore in Wales. Hearing American accents, he was eager to meet some of his countrymen, but the group of American soldiers beat him severely. Rescued by a Welshman, he is not only admitted to a local singing club but treated as an honored guest. He learns that for these men, music erases all social and economic distinctions, uniting them in a common Welsh identity, and he recalls instances when jazz has similarly linked American musicians. Because his hosts regard him as completely American, they sing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in his honor, and to his surprise, he joins in, seeing the possibility of a common American identity.
Among Ellison's characters, the most appealing are children, generally portrayed as they move from innocence toward awareness of the dangers associated with their world. The most innocent is John's four-year-old son ("The Black Ball"), who still does not realize what it means to be black. John acknowledges that he must teach his son "the rules," but he resolves to delay those lessons as long as possible. On the other hand, James Weaver ("Boy on a Train") has begun to perceive that white people and black people are treated differently, though he still does not quite understand why the distinctions exist. Buster and Riley, two young boys who appear in three of these stories, are still young enough to disregard the cautions of their elders but old enough that their exuberance and imagination are a source of worry to those elders. Like the young male protagonists of contemporary popular fiction, their exploits are amusing, but for them the consequences could be serious, if not deadly.
Ellison's adult characters differ in gender, education, and economic status, but all are struggling with disillusionment. For example, Mrs. Weaver ("Boy on a Train") has a job that will support her family, but now that her husband is dead, she feels little of the hope with which they came west fourteen years earlier. Likewise, by hard work and a self-effacing attitude, John ("The Black Ball") has managed to keep his janitorial job, even when other black workers are being replaced by less educated whites, but he too recognizes the need to "make things better" for his son. The two waiters ("A Hard Time Keeping Up") are aware of the racial code, even in Chicago, but they can laugh when they learn that Charlie and Big Ike have created an elaborate joke on the authorities, enacting a parody of the behavior expected by the police—and the waiters, for that matter. The hobo narrators of "Hymie's Bull" and "I Did Not Learn Their Names" have few illusions about the treatment they will receive from the railroad detectives, or even from their fellow hobos once the train is in the South; yet there is a sense of community among the hobos in the first of these stories, and the narrator in the latter is actually befriended by white hobos. Even the most desperate of Ellison's characters, the "King of the Bingo Game," retains one illusion. He knows he is totally isolated from the other theater patrons; he understands his financial situation is hopeless; but he comes to believe he can freeze time by continuing to press the button that keeps the wheel spinning. When the wheel finally stops on the winning number, he is not cynical enough to anticipate the blow to his skull.