Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 439

In The Great White Hope, Howard Sackler presents the conflict between white power and black dissidence within the context of the struggle for the heavyweight championship in the years preceding World War I. Jack Jefferson antagonizes the boxing world by mocking and beating his white opponents and by having publicized affairs with white women. The play’s themes, meanings, and conflicts emerge from its many perspectives on Jack’s character. Jack appears to fulfill the stereotype of the black man lusting after white women, but he undercuts the public roles he adopts, with sarcasm and irony, to taunt his antagonists.

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Although Jack himself reveals some aspects of his personality, he is more fully revealed by the views that others have of him. For Cap’n Dan, Jack is the “uppity” black who must be defeated by the Great White Hope. To Goldie, Jack is a fool to flaunt his relationship with Ellie. According to Clara and Scipio (but for different reasons), Jack betrays his race by loving a white woman. Finally, Ellie believes that Jack is a proud and loving man who is destroying himself by his futile attempts to defeat the establishment. As she says near the end of the play, when their resources have been exhausted, “How can you be your own man, they have you! They do and you know it, you’re theirs. . . .”

Through the many perspectives on Jack’s behavior, Sackler creates ambiguities about his motivations. Does he really love Ellie, or is he using her to taunt the white world? At the rural cabin in Wisconsin, Jack is very caring, but he grows increasingly bitter, particularly whenever she tries to influence his decisions. He may blame her for his exile, but he is the one who insists on flaunting their relationship. Jack drives the unstable Ellie to suicide by viciously rejecting her, but when he sees her broken body, he appears repentant and uses her death as the reason for his acceptance of the fixed fight.

In contrast to Jack’s ambiguous behavior, the white power structure remains single-minded in its devotion to dethroning him. White people have power, money, and control over the legal system and public opinion. Jack has his talent, pride, integrity, and energy, all of which he loses as he attempts to escape through exile the destiny represented by the Great White Hope.

Ahead of his time in his rebellion against the establishment, Jack is forced to play only stereotypical roles which he infuses with a satirical edge, but which his antagonists use against him. He is a lone black champion in a white-dominated profession whose hierarchy crushes him.

Themes

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1152

Racism and Racial Conflict
The Great White Hope is a title reflective of the racism and racial conflict present throughout the work. There is an air of superiority, a notion among several white characters in the novel that they are better than their black neighbors. The rights and privileges of black members of such a society are defined by white interpretation. Cap’n Dan feels that Jack’s status as a boxer is wrong and should be corrected. He says at the outset of the play that Jack has no right to think he can be a champion. This notion is reflected in Cap’n Dan’s statement when he asks Smitty:

How’re you going to like it when the whole . . . country says Brady let us down, he wouldn’t stick a fist out to teach a loudmouth nigger, stayed home and let him be Champion of the World?

Blacks themselves also define their place in step with white perceptions. A black man, only identified as ‘‘Negro,’’ comments on the threat Jack poses to the community, stating, ‘‘For the Negro today, the opportunity to earn a dollar in a factory should appear to be worth infinitely more than the...

(The entire section contains 1591 words.)

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