Joe Turner's Come and Gone

by August Wilson

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Summary and Analysis: Act II, Scenes 4-5

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1529

New Character Martha Loomis/Pentecost: Herald Loomis’ lost wife and an active member of the local Evangelist church in Rankin

Summary Reuben and Zonia are playing in the yard early the next morning as the fourth scene opens. Both of them feel that something spooky has been happening lately around the boardinghouse. Reuben tells Zonia that he saw the ghost of Seth’s mother, Miss Mabel. Zonia wonders aloud what being dead feels like and whether the dead might ever come back. She expresses the certainty that her mother is still alive, in spite of Reuben’s skepticism. Zonia tells Reuben that she and her father will be leaving the Hollys’ boardinghouse on Saturday. To hide his disappointment, Reuben begins to tease Zonia, and then he informs her that he will marry her when he grows up. Zonia lets Reuben kiss her, and he tells her that she is his girl and that when he grows up, he will come looking for her.

The play's final scene opens up on Saturday morning with Bynum, Herald, and Zonia sitting at the kitchen table. Bertha tells Zonia to eat her breakfast, and she kindly suggests to Herald that he try finding a room at a nearby boardinghouse. Mattie enters the kitchen and asks Herald if he’s leaving and where he’s going to. Herald noncommittally tells her that he and Zonia will go wherever the road takes them. Mattie mentions that Herald’s wife might have found someone new, that such things tend to happen when two people are separated from each other for a length of time like eleven years. Somewhat put off, Herald calls to Zonia that they are leaving. Mattie attempts to prevent their leave-taking by offering Zonia a ribbon for her hair. She tells Herald again that she hopes he finds his wife and that she hopes he will be happy. Herald softens a little, and he tells Mattie that a man would be lucky to find her and that she should keep a good heart. Then he leaves the boardinghouse with his daughter. Bertha expresses her astonishment at the gentleness with which Herald has just bid farewell to Mattie, telling Mattie that all that man needs is someone to laugh with and to love. As if to model what she is saying, Bertha breaks out in laughter, and Mattie joins in. Seth comes in at that moment and observes that everyone seems in good spirits. He says that Herald is standing outside the boardinghouse staring up at it in his odd way.

Surprisingly, Martha Loomis/Pentecost knocks on the door and enters the room, followed by Rutherford Selig. Selig triumphantly explains how he found Martha in Rankin. Martha has come to the Hollys’ boardinghouse to see her little girl. The door opens, and Herald and Zonia re-enter. Herald accuses Martha of not waiting for him to come back to her. Martha defends herself by accounting for the past eleven years of her life. When Joe Turner took her husband, her life was shattered. She couldn’t work the land she had shared with Herald by herself, and she was kicked off the land and had no place to go but to her mother’s. She waited there for five years and concluded that Herald might never come back and that he might even be dead. Martha decided to make her life without her husband, and she mourned him as if he was dead. When her church moved up North, she left her daughter with her mother so that Zonia would be safe. Martha was only two months behind Herald when he was finally let loose...

(This entire section contains 1529 words.)

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from Joe Turner’s chain gang and retrieved his daughter. She explains that since then, she has been looking for Herald just as he has been looking for her. Herald tells Martha that now he can say his goodbye to her, and he can go make his own world. He relinquishes Zonia to her mother, telling Zonia to be a good girl and love and obey her mother. He tells Zonia that he loves her and will never forget her. Zonia clings to her father, but Martha pulls Zonia away and soothes her.

Herald turns on Bynum, accusing him of having bound Herald to the road. Bynum denies it, asserting that he only bound the little girl to her mother. Then Herald pulls out a knife and madly announces that though everyone wants to bind him to something, he won’t allow that to happen. Bynum tells Herald that he is only binding himself and urges him to stand up and sing his song. Martha implores him to look to the church, and to Jesus for salvation. Herald angrily rejects Christianity and describes the pain and humiliation he has suffered, thanks to that great big old white man, Mr. Jesus Christ. Herald wields the knife, yelling at Martha that he’s already been washed with the blood of the Lamb of God and that rather than bringing him salvation, it only made him choke on his own blood. He states that he can bleed for himself and slashes his chest with the knife. With this act of defiance, Herald comes to the realization that he is standing on his own two feet. In other words, he has found his song and is thus free of any binding or encumbrance. He is free to find his fit in the world, to overcome all the grief and burdens that tied him down before. He tells Martha, simply, goodbye and rushes out the door. Mattie rushes after him. In this last second, Bynum realizes that he has found his shiny man at last and calls after Herald that he’s shining like new money.

Analysis Although scene four is brief, it encapsulates one of the primary motifs of the play: the losing, finding and binding of people. Reuben and Zonia are new friends, but after only three weeks, she must move on. On the edge of his own childhood, Reuben pledges to find Zonia and marry her someday when he has grown up. For Zonia, this promise probably sounds perfectly natural, since much of her young life has been spent on the road, searching for her mother. But at the same time, she confesses that she suspects they will never find her mother. This sad possibility, that people sometimes do not regain their lost loved ones, coupled with the examples of romantic vacillation that Jeremy, Mattie, and Molly provided earlier in the play, foreshadow the possibility that Zonia and Reuben will never be reunited later in life. In fact, the play repeatedly points to this bittersweet reality.

The plot of the play revolves around a formerly enslaved people’s search for identity. Hence, the logical resolution is that Herald achieves self-realization, or what Bynum might call "song-recognition," and thereby a greater sense of personal freedom. The themes of finding and binding continue in scene five with the return of Martha Loomis/Pentecost. Her arrival functions as a catalyst, or an agent that provokes a change, for Herald’s release from all his physical and mental bonds. All this time, Herald has been clinging to his wife while she has accepted the loss of her husband and moved on to refashion her life. Her name change from Loomis to Pentecost suggests that she has made the world anew for herself after the tragic loss of her husband to the chain gang. She regains her daughter, who is appropriately bound to her as daughter to mother, thanks to Bynum. At the same time, her name change demonstrates the extent to which Herald has lost her. She no longer clings to him because when he was taken away by Joe Turner, she thought he would never return, and she mourned his death. Her arrival makes Herald understand that he cannot return to the contentment and safety of marriage to a woman who no longer clings to him. And when Bynum observes that he is only binding himself, another horrific legacy of slavery is revealed—the psychological self-enslavement of the formerly subjugated Africans. For the former slaves to forge new identities, they must break these psychological bonds. During the play’s most dramatic moment, the knife symbolizes Herald’s resistance to being bound—by slavery, Joe Turner’s chain gang, a sundered marriage, Christianity, and even his own mentalscape. When he slashes his chest, the action symbolically breaks any binds from which he has been suffering. Herald’s defiant rejection of evangelical Christianity that Martha inhabits—the salvation she proposes for her former husband—recounts the Protestant ethic of many of the Southern plantation families. Bynum’s inclination toward the African tradition of rootwork provides an alternative form of salvation, and it is Bynum who fosters Herald’s achievement of freedom through recovering his song, just as it was Bynum who guided Herald through the vision of the bones people at the end of Act One. Herald leaves the boardinghouse a new man; Mattie’s following him hints at a future relationship between them, but as two mature individuals who have experienced pain, loss, and, ultimately, survival.


Summary and Analysis: Act II, Scenes 1-3