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Analysis and Summary of Langston Hughes' "Berry"


Langston Hughes' short story "Berry" explores themes of racial discrimination and social injustice through the experiences of Milberry Jones, an African American boy who works at a summer camp. Despite his hard work and kindness, Milberry faces systemic racism from his employers and other staff, highlighting the broader societal issues of inequality and prejudice during the early 20th century.

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What are the themes of Langston Hughes' short story "Berry"?

The theme of appearances and reality is one of the strongest themes in "Berry." There is a phoniness to Dr. Renfield's home that "troubles" Berry. He sees it in "Mrs. Osborn's grand manner to everybody but the doctor." Berry remarks, "Funny how the food ain't nearly so good 'cept when some ma or pa or some chile is visitin' here- then when they gone, it drops right back down again."  Berry suggests that the entire hospital is "jest Doc Renfield's own private gyp game."  There is a difference between appearance and reality that dominates this setting.  It can be seen in the nurses complaining about the children behind their backs or in how Doctor Renfield is more concerned at the end of the story about the potential for lawsuits as opposed to the welfare of the child that fell. Berry is the only one who can perceive this difference between appearances and reality.  As an outsider, a person of color, Hughes suggests that he might be more perceptive than most in discerning this gap between what is and what is shown.  It is interesting to note that the only people who are authentic with Berry are the children, who Berry feels are "there like himself because they couldn't help it."  

Another theme in the story is economic challenge. Hughes brings this out in Berry's character.  Hughes mentions the hunger that Berry experiences. While the job is far too much work for so little in way of compensation, Berry "needed work and food" and "had been hungry too long." He has to keep a substandard job because of his financial condition.  Berry's paltry salary highlights his economic challenge.  Hughes shows that people of color during the time endured this reality quite often.  At the end of the story, when Dr. Renfield reprimands Berry with a deduction of ten dollars for the broken chair, he has to be corrected that Berry makes only eight dollars.  When Berry leaves to Jersey city without his last week's wages, it is a reminder of the defining role economic challenge plays in his life. This condition impacted many African-Americans.

Hughes plays with the theme of double consciousness quite a bit in "Berry." In this case, "double consciousness" refers to living a life different than everyone else. It is a term that can be found in W.E.B. Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk.  It refers to how African-Americans lived a life that forced them to be different in the company of white people than with other African-Americans.  Being a man of color in a setting where there are nothing but white people, Berry lives this existence as "the other" or the outsider.   Hughes writes that Berry was only spoken to when "they had some job for him to do, or when they were kidding him about being dark." Being "the other," Berry experiences the reality of being a person of color. He is seen as foreign or different. Hughes is able to illuminate how African-Americans experience a much different form of consciousness than white people.

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How does Berry solve his problems in Langston Hughes' short story "Berry"?

Milberry had learned to solve problems through hard work. He had made a decision that he was not going to be bothered by other people's prejudices because he had suffered too much and was not prepared to go hungry again.

When he started work at Dr Renfield's Summer Home for Crippled Children, Milberry soon discovered that the white people there were prejudiced and exploitative. He had been appointed as a kitchen help but was gradually burdened with a variety of other tasks as well. Everyone took it upon themselves to delegate some of their tasks to him. He realized that they were taking advantage of him since he was black but, as the text states:

Still, he did everything and didn't look mad - jobs were too hard to get, and he had been hungry too long in town.

And so he continued working. He realized that the whole set up at the home was a fake, for his employer was only interested in making a profit and did not care at all for the disabled children they were supposedly taking care of during the summer holidays. Their middle class parents were only too glad to be free of them and were willing to pay good money for their care.

Milberry noticed how the children were fed poor quality food and that the best was only used when the parents came. He felt sorry for the poor children who unknowingly suffered abuse from both sides - their parents, who basically abandoned them, and the unscrupulous owner, Dr Renfield, who did not provide them with what they truly deserved. Milberry, knowing that he was reliant on the doctor for an income, obviously said nothing for fear of losing his job.

It came to be that his services were needed one day to help the nurses take the children back inside from the beach. Milberry was too glad to assist and he then became a regular. He would play with the children and tell them stories. He was affectionate and caring, unlike the nurses, and the children came to love him as he did them. They called him Berry and his interaction with them made his tasks seem so much easier.

Disaster struck when one of the children, after a long period of rain, was so excited to get to the beach when the sun was shining, that he could not wait and fell out of his wheelchair in an attempt to get to the beach sooner. Berry, in an attempt to save the child from harm, knocked over the wheelchair which broke. The child, obviously traumatized more by the fall than actually being hurt, cried and Berry was blamed for the accident. Dr Renfield, who feared legal action from the child's parents and obvious criticism of his institution, decided to dismiss Berry sans his last wages of eight dollars, which was to be used to fix or replace the broken wheelchair.

Milberry then went to Jersey City.

The story is rich in irony. Firstly, Milberry's hard work and dedication did not avoid him keeping out of trouble. It was, in fact, his commitment that led to his dismissal. Dr Renfield, and the white people who worked for him, were guided by their racist prejudice. In their estimation, because Milberry was a black man, he could never be right and had to, therefore, carry the blame. 

Secondly, Milberry was the only one who truly cared about the disabled children. All the others did not have an ounce of compassion for them and saw the children either as a burden or as a means to an end. The irony lies in the fact that the one who cared, was the one who was dismissed, leaving the children with very little to look forward to.

The story illustrates the dilemma so many blacks had to face as victims of others' prejudice. Their choices were limited to such an extent that even the good ones they made, as in Berry's case, eventually turned out bad, through no fault of their own. 

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What challenges does the character face in Langston Hughes' "Berry"?

Milberry Jones finds that he meets with demeaning treatment and exploitation on his new job, which isn't very different from the treatment that caused him to leave his previous job.

Milberry is hired sight-unseen through an employment agency to work at Dr. Renfield's Summer Home for Crippled Children. When Mrs. Osborn, the housekeeper, sees that the new kitchen boy is a "Negro," she is perplexed because she does not know where he can sleep or how the other employees will react to him.

Milberry has come from segregated Georgia to New Jersey in order to find more opportunities. Yet at the Home for Crippled Children, he encounters treatment similar to what he has experienced in the South. He is exploited by being paid less than the Scandinavian man he has replaced, he is asked to perform tasks outside of his job description, and he is treated as an inferior, being made to sleep separately from the other help.

Then, when he performs tasks that the indolent nurses do not want to do and there is an accident, he is fired even though the child whose wheelchair breaks is uninjured. Despite this fact, Dr. Renfield keeps saying,

"Criminal carelessness! Criminal carelessness! [and] Mrs. Osborn kept agreeing with him...."

"Indeed it is! Mulberry was to blame."

"Get rid of him today. The fool nigger! And deduct...for that broken wheelchair."

Milberry Jones returns "where he had been hungry for weeks in Newark and Jersey City." He could just as well have stayed in Georgia.

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What challenges does the character face in Langston Hughes' "Berry"?

The main character of “Berry” is faced with the challenge of powerlessness.  He realizes that the children at his workplace are being neglected and he himself is overworked, and he can do nothing about it.

When Milberry shows up at Dr. Renfield’s Summer Home for Crippled Children, no one is expecting a black boy.  They are not sure what to do with him, but Dr. Renfield decides to pay him $2 less and keep him.

Miberry was a nice black boy, big, good-natured, and strong…He needed work and food.

Milberry is not educated because he came from the south where there were not many colored schools, but “he had plenty of mother wit and lots of intuition about people and places.”  He knows he is being taken advantage of, but he does everything that has been asked of him because he has been hungry too long.

Milberry begins to think that there is something phoney about the place, which is far from town.  No one seems to have the children’s interests at heart.  Milberry spends time with them, and the staff let him because they don’t like to.

The children became Milberry’s friends.  They adored him and he them. 

One day Berry is helping take the children to the beach and one falls, and he is fired.  And so the only person who cares about the children has to leave them.

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Can you summarize "Berry" by Langston Hughes?

As the story opens, an employment office in Jersey City has sent a worker, Milberry Jones, to a large home near the beach that houses disabled children for the summer. It's run in part by Mrs. Osborn, the housekeeper. She's surprised to see that the new worker is black, and his race creates problems for her because the other servants might not like it. She has him wash dishes, and then, trying to figure out where he can sleep that night (because the other servants won't want him near them), she walks over to Dr. Renfield's house.

This Dr. Renfield is the one who owns the whole facility. But he's not at home at his cottage at the moment; his wife answers the door, and it's a bit awkward because Mrs. Osborn has a crush on Dr. Renfield.

He stops by Mrs. Osborn's office later and finds out from her what's going on. (She refers to Milberry as a "Negro," and Dr. Renfield refers to him as "the darkie.") They decide that Milberry will sleep alone in the attic and that, because he's black, he'll earn $8 a week instead of $10.

Milberry is described as uneducated but quick-witted, grateful for his new job, but a little annoyed that the employers are working him to death because he's "just" a black kid. He senses something "phoney" about the whole facility, though: all the adults complain and gossip a lot, and the disabled kids aren't treated very well.

The kids love Milberry, though, and he enjoys playing, singing, and talking with them. They offer him warmth and affection and call him "Berry."

One August day, Berry is helping a child in a wheelchair head down to the beach, when the child leans out and falls, and the wheelchair breaks. Even though the child isn't really hurt, and even though he clings to Berry for comfort, Dr. Renfield and Mrs. Osborn blame Berry for the accident and make it a huge deal. Not only do they fire Berry, they also deduct his last week of pay to make up for the broken wheelchair. He has to go back to Jersey City.

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In Langston Hughes' "Berry," how is Berry treated?

In Langston Hughes's short story "Berry," the African-American boy named Milberry Jones, called Berry for short, is instantly treated like an "other" the moment he arrives to work in the kitchen at Dr. Renfield's Summer Home for Crippled Children. Mrs. Osborn immediately sets him to work washing dishes, but also immediately treats him as a problem. The greatest problem she thinks she has to resolve is where he will sleep, since she's not sure how the other white help will react to sleeping in the same room with him.

She immediately goes to Dr. Renfield to present him with the problem, and he propose that they let him sleep in the attic and only pay him $8 a week, whereas the Scandinavian boy formerly working in the kitchen was being paid $10 a week.

While they allow him to stay, and he is grateful for the job, soon, they begin taking advantage of him, making him do the jobs that belonged to the handy-man, the waitresses, and extra cleaning and odd jobs. However, the tide turns, at least for a bit, when he begins to realize the crippled children at the home are just as mistreated as he is and begins doing all he can to make them happy. As a result of his kindness, the children begin treating him like a friend. All goes well until a child has an accident while Berry is pushing him in a wheelchair. Dr. Renfield then calls Berry a "fool nigger," demands that a week's worth of his wages be deducted to cover the child's broken wheelchair, and fires him, sending him back to Jersey City to be unemployed and hungry again.

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