Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 888
Prejudice Against the backdrop of Harlem during a season of violence, rioting, and police-neighborhood confrontations, The Friends portrays many different kinds of prejudice. The opening scene of the novel alone introduces three separate and different examples of bigotry. Phyllisia's classmates taunt her because of her West Indian background and accent. She, in turn, scorns Edith Jackson, who would like to befriend her, simply because Edith has holes in her clothes and frequently appears dirty. The teacher, whose disdain for the entire class in this scene later erupts in virulent racist comments, manages to maintain her limited control over the class primarily by focusing their hostility against Phyllisia. This sets the discordant mood of the novel where groundless antagonisms and failures in communication frequently separate the characters, ultimately contributing to the tragedy at the story's conclusion.
Phyllisia faces mockery daily from her classmates. She insists on demonstrating her knowledge and intelligence to the rest of the class, and this simply fuels their dislike of her. Her sister, Ruby, advises her not to draw attention to herself in order to adapt to this new situation in Harlem. Even at home, Phyllisia becomes the victim of another type of bigotry. Her own father mocks her appearance, cruelly describing her as ugly when he introduces her to Cousin Frank and Mr. Charles, subsequently praising Ruby for her beauty. Mournfully, Phyllisia notes that it far easier to laugh at ugly people than pretty ones.
However, Phyllisia is also guilty of intolerance. Beulah, the class bully, could have seriously hurt Phyllisia if Edith had not intervened. In spite of that, Phyllisia continues to be ashamed of Edith. Even when the two girls have formed a friendship, Phyllisia intellectually distances herself from Edith and the life she lives. Phyllisia believes that her way of life, and therefore she too, is superior. When Ruby describes going barefoot on the island, Phyllisia is enraged. She cannot bear to think that her life is, in any manner, similar to Edith's. Shortly after this, when Calvin throws Edith out of their house, Phyllisia is almost happy. It reinforces her belief about her own worth—a belief which is based, like Calvin's, on clothes, money, and material possessions.
Coming of Age In the novel, Phyllisia is forced to deal with a variety of adult responsibilities. On the island, her life had been carefree, her role that of a child. After she arrives in New York, she confronts a series of incidents which test her character. The prejudices of her classmates and teacher force her to examine what behavior she should adopt as a young adult. Throughout the novel, she is tested by her father's frequently unreasoning domination. She must discover how to communicate with him, a man who is unable to express his feelings. Eventually, she assumes the adult role in the relationship, explaining to her father how they might survive as a family. The most difficult of her trials is her mother's death. This forces her to reexamine what is most valuable in her life.
Friendship In spite of the title, throughout most of the novel, Phyllisia fails at friendship. While Edith is open and willing to share, Phyllisia withholds her family and her approval. She sneaks away to be with Edith. In an odd way, her behavior mirrors that of a lover who is conducting a hidden and disreputable affair. The relationship is exciting, but no one else may be aware of it. This continues until Phyllisia's betrayal of Edith in front of the entire Cathay family. Phyllisia must then slowly rebuild the relationship.
Failure of Adult Authority On every level,...
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the adults in the novel are unable or unwilling to protect the children in their care. Although Calvin is a strong, domineering figure who is determined to supply his family with all of their physical needs, he nonetheless avoids developing a relationship with his children. He likes Ruby because she is pretty and compliant. However when he catches her kissing Orlando, he beats her. Until the final scene of the novel, he uses force and domination to get his way. Ramona Cathay, a loving and communicative parent, unfortunately is dying. She cannot provide Phyllisia with the support she needs. Cousin Frank and Mr. Charles, who are also voices of reason in the novel, are only occasionally around.
Edith's life has even less support. Her father seemed invisible even when he was there. Although Phyllisia had been in the room with him for quite some time, it was only when he got up to leave that she noticed him. Traditional figures of authority provide absolutely no assistance to Edith and her family. In fact, most of them do far more harm than good. The police kill Randy. Miss Lass seems to hate Edith, regularly abusing her verbally. After Ellen's death, Phyllisia tries to figure out how the tragedy could have been prevented. ‘‘Why hadn't I been able to talk to Mother—to Calvin? Why hadn't we at least thought of Miss Lass? But thinking of Miss Lass made me shudder again. We could have gone to a policeman. Which one? The one who had killed her brother because he was running? Why hadn't there been some way out of our ignorance? I didn't know. The only thing I did know was that Edith was the only blameless one.’’