Gorilla, My Love Themes

The main themes in "Gorilla, My Love" are childhood versus adulthood, betrayal, and respect.

  • Childhood versus adulthood: Hazel loves and trusts her family. However, when her uncle remarries, Hazel realizes that grown-ups are often "treacherous."
  • Betrayal: Hazel is raised in an environment that promotes honesty and outspokenness. However, she begins to realize that adults struggle to be fully honest when dealing with children, preferring to shield them from more difficult realities.
  • Respect: Hazel's sense of justice is strong, and she trusts her family unflinchingly. However, as a child, her emotions and opinions are often not taken seriously, which frustrates her. 

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 598

Toni Cade Bambara first published this story in Redbook as “I Ain’t Playin, I’m Hurtin”—a title that aptly conveys the pain and disillusionment that a sensitive, spunky young girl experiences as she grows up. Bright and sassy, Hazel is proud of her own accomplishments; she even boasts, “I am the...

(The entire section contains 1536 words.)

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Toni Cade Bambara first published this story in Redbook as “I Ain’t Playin, I’m Hurtin”—a title that aptly conveys the pain and disillusionment that a sensitive, spunky young girl experiences as she grows up. Bright and sassy, Hazel is proud of her own accomplishments; she even boasts, “I am the smartest kid P.S. 186 ever had in its whole lifetime and you can ax anybody.” She is also tough—a girl who will “jump on they back and fight awhile” when boys pick on her or her brothers in the park. She stands up to the big boys in the neighborhood who try to steal money from the younger children or “take Big Brood’s Spaudeen way from him.” She is an outspoken, determined person with a strong sense of right and wrong. We learn that she “won’t back off” when the teachers tell her that her “questions are out of order.” She also has a strong conviction that people should stand by what they say. As she puts it: “Even gangsters in the movies say ’My word is my bond.’”

From a child’s point of view, Bambara describes a neighborhood filled with colorful characters. Critical of many of the people in her neighborhood, Hazel makes fun of the “chunky” matron who charges down the aisle with her flashlight to keep order in the theater, and she regards with contempt the “oily and pasty” manager who looks at her as if she has lost her mittens or is “somebody’s retarded child.”

In contrast to the unsavory characters whom she encounters, Hazel praises the strong family members who offer love and protection. When she confronts the theater manager, she compares herself to how her mother speaks to her teachers: “like a stone on that spot and ain’t backin up.” Her Aunt Jo is “the hardest head in the family,” even worse than Aunt Daisy. Throughout the story we see the importance of the family where members of all ages interact and stick together. Hazel believes that her family will protect her. She says that her Mama would be at school “in a minute when them teachers start playin the dozens behind colored folks.” Mama is an imposing presence with “her hat pulled down bad” and her fist planted on her hip. She can “talk that talk which gets us all hypnotized.” Hazel says that she has grown up in a house where her parents have encouraged her to speak her mind. Her mother says that if “anybody don’t like it, tell em to come see your mama.” Her father reinforces this advice by adding “tell em to come see me first.” Bambara provides a positive view of family life, filled with strong ties and believable characters.

Because of her own strong convictions and her belief in her family, Hazel feels betrayed when Hunca Bubba does not keep his word. When her pain and disillusionment cause her to cry, Baby Jason joins in and cries too. Even though he is too young to understand what is happening, Hazel believes that he “is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost” because grownups do not keep their word. Hazel has learned to protect herself from the outside world, but she is not prepared for her uncle’s betrayal because it comes from within the safety of the family circle. Bambara deals with universal themes of disillusionment, and initiation, but she also displays a warm sense of humor as she explores the pain and confusion of growing up.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 938

Betrayal
The main theme of ‘‘Gorilla, My Love,’’ and the thread that ties the two sections of the story together, is the idea of betrayal. Specifically, Hazel comes to believe that adults, who should have children’s best interests at heart, cannot in fact be trusted to tell the truth where children are concerned. In the middle section of the story, which comes first chronologically, Hazel has already learned that ‘‘Grownups figure they can treat you just anyhow. Which burns me up.’’ She demands her money back from the theater because ‘‘I get so tired grownups messin over kids just cause they little and can’t take em to court.’’ But she does not have in mind the adult members of her own family. They have taught her to be truthful and to hold people to their word. As Granddaddy Vale puts it, ‘‘if that’s what I said, then that’s it.’’

In a world where adults routinely take advantage of children, being able to count on one’s family (as gangsters can count on their partners) is important protection. But Hunca Bubba has not only changed his name to Jefferson Winston Vale but decided to marry a woman his own age, and Hazel’s family seems to be offering only double-talk in his defense. He is not changing his name, but changing it back, they say. The promise to marry Hazel was ‘‘just teasin,’’ not a real promise at all. This strikes Hazel as the ultimate betrayal, because now her beloved uncle and Granddaddy show themselves to be no better than the rest of them. Completely unable to understand the adults’ point of view, she is frightened and alone, with only Baby Jason on her side ‘‘Cause he is my blood brother and understands that we must stick together or be forever lost, what with grownups playin change-up and turnin you round every which way so bad. And don’t even say they sorry.’’

Bambara and the reader, looking over Hazel’s shoulder, know that Hunca Bubba and Granddaddy are not evil or unkind. They see complexities in the world that Hazel is too young to understand. But Bambara does not mock Hazel; her pain is real. In an essay called ‘‘Salvation Is the Issue,’’ Bambara noted that the heart of ‘‘Gorilla, My Love’’ is a ‘‘broken child-adult contract,’’ one of those ‘‘observed violations of the Law.’’ Bambara takes Hazel’s point of view seriously, and uses her story (and many other stories) to ask, ‘‘is it natural (sane, healthy, whole-some, in our interest) to violate the contracts/covenants we have with our ancestors, each other, our children, our selves, and God?’’ Although ‘‘Gorilla, My Love’’ is humorous, and the protagonist is limited in her understanding, the questions the story raises about betrayal and trust are important and real, especially for Bambara.

Childhood and Adulthood
At the age of ten or twelve, Hazel is a typical combination of strength and weakness, of courage and fear, of adult and child. In some ways, she is tough-minded. She is ‘‘the smartest kid P.S. 186 ever had,’’ and takes that title seriously. Even in her daydreaming about how the extended family would react if Big Brood acted like Jesus, Hazel is working on her arithmetic while the rest of the family is shouting and swinging purses. She reasons with her parents, and sometimes avoids punishment by making good arguments. She defends her brothers on the street and in the park, even to the point of physical fighting against ‘‘bad boys.’’ She is the leader of the renegade children, getting them all to shout, ‘‘We want our money back.’’ And although Big Brood becomes frightened and disappears before they reach the theater manager’s office, Hazel does not hesitate about going in alone. With her Mama as a role model, she finds it in herself to ‘‘kick the door open wider and just walk right by him and sit down and tell the man about himself.’’ Hazel is a tough little girl. Even though ‘‘Gorilla, My Love’’ does not end happily for her, the reader knows that in the long run she will be a survivor.

But Hazel the adult is not fully formed yet. Although she can be hard and cynical beyond her years, she is still a child. She is afraid that there might be rats in the buckets of pecans, so she will not sit in the back with them. She is afraid of the dark, although she tells everyone that she leaves the lights on for Baby Jason. She believes what she learns from the movies—even that gangsters tell the truth. Her behavior during the movies can only be called childish: her indignation about being shown the wrong movie aside, Hazel walks into the theater expecting the gorilla movie and buys the Havmore potato chips because they have ‘‘the best bags for blowin up and bustin real loud so the matron come trottin down the aisle with her chunky self.’’ Clearly, much of the screaming and popcorn-tossing and seat-kicking is normal behavior, not a reaction to being cheated. In the final scene, back in the car, Hazel cannot maintain her adult pose. She tries to deal with Hunca Bubba adult-to-adult, but she crumbles into tears, as the bewildered Hunca Bubba protests, ‘‘for cryin out loud, Hazel, you just a little girl.’’ What makes the story so touching is the combination of childhood and adulthood that Hazel displays. Each facet of her personality is clearly and accurately developed, and the swirl of feelings that results captures perfectly what it feels like to be a pre-teen girl.

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