Langston Hughes

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Langston Hughes Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Langston Hughes records in The Big Sea: An Autobiography (1940) his feelings upon first seeing Africa: “ when I saw the dust-green hills in the sunlight, something took hold of me inside. My Africa, Motherland of the Negro peoples! And me a Negro! The real thing!” The trip to Africa confirmed what he already knew—that the subject matter of his writings would reflect his desire “to write seriously and as well as I knew how about the Negro people.” Most of Hughes’s short stories concern themselves with black people presented from many different perspectives and in both tragic and comic dimensions. Even when a white is the protagonist of a story, as in “Little Dog,” the gentle black man to whom Miss Briggs is attracted is given special focus. Hughes, however, is not racist in his presentation. People, regardless of their racial background, are people first participating in a common humanity before they are individuals distorted by prejudice based on ignorance, by fear, or by social conditions which create a spiritual and psychological malaise, sometimes crippling in its effect.

“Little Dog”

“Little Dog” tells the story of a white and gaunt middle-aged woman, head bookkeeper of a coal and coke firm for twenty-one years, who, because of her own sense of prudence, responsibility, and concern, sublimates her own desires to care for her mother, and then, after her mother’s death, is left alone and lonely. Although she keeps busy, is comfortably situated, and does not think too much of what she may be missing, she occasionally wonders why she knows no one whom she can appreciate as a friend. One day she inexplicably stops the taxicab in which she is riding in front of a pet shop featuring in its window “fuzzy little white dogs,” and she purchases for herself a puppy at a very steep price. She arranges with the janitor of her apartment building, “a tow-headed young Swede,” to provide food for her dog, which she names Flips, and soon her life revolves around activities centering on Flips.

One day the janitor does not show up to feed the dog; several days pass until Miss Briggs decides she needs to go down to the basement to search out the janitor. With her dog by her side, she knocks at a door behind which she hears sounds of “happy laughter, and kids squalling, and people moving.” The door is opened by a small black boy and soon Miss Briggs discovers that the “tall broad-shouldered Negro” standing amidst the children is the new janitor.

The image patterns and juxtapositions in the story now begin to form meaningful patterns. The white woman, living “upstairs” with the “fuzzy white dog,” is contrasted with the black man and his “pretty little brown-black” children who live “downstairs.” The gentle and kind black man begins to service Miss Briggs’s needs, bringing more food than is good for the dog because he believes the woman desires it and because he is being paid for it; Miss Briggs, however, never tells him that meat every few days is sufficient. Soon Miss Briggs finds herself hurrying home, never realizing that it is no longer the dog but rather the nightly visits of the janitor that compel her to hurry. One evening her words inadvertently reveal her subconscious needs. The black janitor has just left after delivering Flips’s food and she can hear him humming as he returns to his family. Suddenly Miss Briggs says to Flips: “Oh, Flips I’m so hungry.”

Now, although she never consciously knows why, Miss Briggs decides she needs to move; “ she could not bear to have this janitor come upstairs with a package of bones for Flips again. Let him stay in the basement, where he belonged.” The accumulation of references to bones, meat, and services provides for the reader, if not for Miss Briggs, a moment of epiphany: “He almost keeps me broke buying bones,” Miss Briggs says to the tall and broad-shouldered black janitor. “True,” the janitor answers her. The sustenance the...

(The entire section is 2,033 words.)