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Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In a secondary story line that dovetails with the main narrative, Paul in childhood is repeatedly beaten by the young Mitchell Thomas, the African American son of a horseman who works for Edward Logan. The motif of being “beaten” begins here and continues throughout the novel, as Paul is repeatedly cheated by white men who cannot rise above the racism of their time. Paul receives physical beatings not only from his black peers but also from his father. Subsequently, he experiences metaphorical “beatings” that include his betrayal by several white figures. Interestingly, Mitchell allies himself with Paul because of the latter’s generosity despite the beatings and because Mitchell himself has been repeatedly beaten by an abusive father.

These literal and symbolic beatings link the themes of the novel. Injustice is like a beating and must be accepted as pain but also be patiently fought. Irrational reactions to it only bring tragedy, as the contrapuntal fates of Mitchell and Paul demonstrate. Mitchell fails to resolve his knee-jerk response to the injustices of white society, while Paul (guided by his white father) find safer and more effective means of responding. However, the actions of white men who “beat down” the other race are still represented as evil, self-serving, and destructive. Two white men cheat Paul out of his rightful monetary due, one murders his friend and destroys his property, and others fail righteously to protest when such evils come to light.

Thematically, Taylor indicates the subtle idea that people allow a wrong idea (white superiority) to create rationalizations for evil, intolerance, and inaction. Such rationalizations become like masks—and as narrator, Paul unmasks these rationalizations by enduring and judiciously fighting against them. Taylor, however, also depicts good, well-meaning whites, both men and women, who aid Paul but never really support or “rescue” him. Sawyer’s offer to loan Paul money at the close of the novel is a significant exception. Through his judicious “fight,” Paul defines himself on his own terms,...

(The entire section is 508 words.)