Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

It is hard to say what meaning is supposed to be derived from Cecil’s frenetic behavior. His grief over Simon is understandable, but does it, by itself, justify his actions—especially his callous treatment of Esther?

It is difficult to admire Cecil in the novel’s introduction to him, as he couples meaninglessly with a stranger while Esther toils in the basement. He emerges no more sympathetically during his extended moratorium from life’s demands. His activities in Europe have no substance. The two expatriates with whom he temporarily takes up bring out nothing in him. Webb, the man looking for his son, becomes a useful guide to the art treasures of The Prado but does not prompt Cecil to assert himself in any way that reveals substantial character traits. Hieronymous Bosch’s paintings open up to Cecil the grim, lurking horror of human existence, but no defiant gesture against evil ensues. Whatever moral credit accrues from a fleeting aesthetic shiver is certainly too slight to build a sympathetic character.

The overwhelming impression left by Cecil’s three-year absence is of an abandonment to debauchery. He may be anguishing over Simon or struggling with unresolved identity crises, but his actions suggest little more than self-pity. When he finally decides to return home to Esther, the stage is set for a happy ending, but that ending has already been undercut in the novel’s opening pages in the scene with S. Sherman. Apparently...

(The entire section is 476 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

An important theme in this novel is cultural displacement. In this sense the title Hurry Home is ironic because the protagonist has no past to which he can return. He has been severed from his African heritage, from the birthright of the conquering Moors as well as that of the terrified tribes who survived the Middle Passage. Doubly displaced, he knows that he can never assimilate fully into the white world of his classmates. Yet he simultaneously represents all people seeking traditions in a throwaway world; he investigates moorings in Europe as well as Africa, family, religion, careerism, the imagination, even sex.

To underscore this theme, Wideman bombards the novel with phrases in French, Spanish, German, Italian, and Latin as well as allusions, to name a few, to the Bible and the Koran, James Joyce and T. S. Eliot, and William Shakespeare and anonymous ghetto wits. This technique, coupled with the stream-of-consciousness style, brilliantly renders Cecil as a man picking through the legacies of many civilizations for a shard he recognizes as his own. In particular, his frustration at interpreting the meanings of paintings manifests his cultural thirst. When he resorts to hairdressing, he describes himself as an artist without a tradition. He proclaims himself to be a “ripplemaker, coiffeur supreme. Creator of an art that has no past or future, no tradition to be sustained or transmitted infinitesmally modified to generations unborn.”

As if to mitigate the novel’s uncertainly, concomitant with this theme of cultural displacement is the emphasis that suffering is inescapable. “Nothing good comes without sacrifice,” Cecil observes, and he and the other characters disclose tales of betrayal, separation, and numbness. While Easter symbolism recalls Christ’s suffering on Calvary, the cave-like rooms and red objects riddling the novel’s landscape suggest a kind of hell. In this context the “soft, sucking earth,” the “thick tailed, heavy muzzled grey dog,” and the falling, swirling leaves that Cecil once dreams about resemble closely the muddy banks, guard dog Cerberus, and tumbling, jumbled damned of Dante’s Inferno (c. 1320). Such images question whether the characters’ sufferings, like Christ’s, have come to any good. They further emphasize the theme of rootlessness because these particular sinners to whom Wideman alludes were condemned for always being indecisive, and prohibited from entering either heaven or hell.