Critical Context

The novel’s thematic emphasis on identity and family, the failure of identity or family to provide moral satisfaction for Eddie, not only places Wideman’s story within the traditional thematic concerns of black American literature but also asserts the black literary story as a special version of the modern existential story. Bereft of the absolutes and certainties of his heritage, straining, in fact, to escape the agonies endemic to his past and to actualize his inner spirit via language, Eddie represents a figure of modern man. Moreover, he is joined, ironically, in his alienation by Thurley, the white and decadent aesthete, and by Brother, the powerless victim. This disjunctive trinity offers the only completion possible within the narrative, which, shattered into the fragments of many desperate consciousnesses, cannot find its own source and center and thus cannot mature the creative urge present in its beginning. The passion for life is there—in Eddie’s intensity, in Thurley’s romantic hope, in Brother’s fascination with the transmuting powers of the fire, and in Wideman’s inclination to narrate a birth. What the story ultimately reveals is the obsolescence of the self-conscious voice, cut off from life by its inherently tragic vision, as an agent of moral growth in the modern era.