Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Fear is the principal theme of the novel. From the first page—the nightmare sequence that structures the book, the war-effort atmosphere, and the accumulation of indignities—to the last page, Chester Himes reinforces this main idea: the psychological terrors of the black man trapped in a racist society and the brutalizing effects of those terrors will destroy him. Bob Jones is a victim of America’s double standards. What he wants to be is an effective leaderman and to live peacefully. He has been brought up to believe that every man in America can achieve these goals, but he cannot. Bob is blocked in every aspect of his life and is offered no chance to assert his identity. The nightmares through which he suffers each night are not different from the nightmare he suffers each day. His terrors stem from his lack of an identity and of a structure to shape and define his life. Bob’s only recourse is self-directed rage, for he will not seek accommodation with white society. Without a sense of purpose and a sense of understanding and support, Bob sees only the threat of continued failure. As he seeks to obliterate his pain and finds only helplessness, Bob Jones is reduced to a mechanical existence. For him there is no available bridge between black and white worlds. There is nothing to obviate the terror.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

If He Hollers Let Him Go is rife with themes. Most obvious is the theme of how different the American experience has been for black Americans. One part of Bob’s experience is accepted universally by his fellow black characters: the indignity, essential inequality, and hypocrisy of America’s treatment of black people. No black character in the book argues that America is fair. Even Alice, who disagrees radically with Bob’s solution to the problem, never disputes his diagnosis.

Most of the book’s white characters, on the other hand, act to reinforce the subordinate status of black Americans. They are at best oblivious or mildly sympathetic to the plight of black people, at worst very pleased to remind Bob that he is black and therefore of a lower status.

The theme of racial disparity is made particularly poignant by two subthemes. First, Bob’s peculiarly intense feelings of anger and despair are linked closely to his belief in the principles of American democracy. Bob supposes that these principles apply to black as well as white Americans; the reality he confronts, however, is that American ideals are expressed in universal terms but are applied selectively—and certainly not to black people, no matter how bright, hardworking, or ambitious they might be.

A second subtheme increases the weight of this realization. The United States is at war, the ultimate test of ideals and allegiance. The situation is an uncomfortable one for Bob and many other black Americans, since they are asked to be patriotic in a country that has betrayed their hopes and dreams. The book’s...

(The entire section is 664 words.)