illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

Langston Hughes

Start Free Trial

What are the messages in Langston Hughes's play "Soul Gone Home?"

Quick answer:

Langston Hughes's play "Soul Gone Home" conveys multiple messages about poverty, family, racial inequality, and selfishness. Set during a time of racial tension, the play highlights the harsh living conditions and limited opportunities of marginalized communities. The characters, Rannie and his mother, struggle to communicate and understand each other, reflecting a lack of family support. Their vernacular speech patterns and lack of education further emphasize their predicament. The mother's neglect and selfishness directly contribute to Rannie's death, indicating a failed family dynamic. The play also subtly addresses racial inequality through the imagery of the color white.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The one-act play written by Langston Hughes entitled A Soul Gone Home portrays several messages about poverty, family, racial inequality, and selfishness.

This play was written in 1937, which was a time of great racial inequality in the US. In the South, Jim Crow laws were in effect, making second class citizens of black people. All public facilities were separate and definitely not equal. Black people were expected to act in deference to white people in all ways. While this was not happening to the same degree in the North, where Hughes lived, there was certainly inequality. People of color, immigrants, and the vulnerable of society were not able to secure good paying jobs and ended up in tenement housing that sprung up during the 1880s. These were high rise buildings with little light, poor ventilation, and often inadequate plumbing. The extreme poverty of these areas led to many health problems, and opportunities to rise up from that living situation were nonexistent. This was another example of the segregated nature of American society. Poverty of this type can kill hopes and dreams, and it puts people in the mode of survival.

This was certainly true of Rannie and his mother in the play. They didn't seem to really know each other. They weren't able to have an open dialogue until Rannie was dead. Rannie spent his days on the streets and trying to earn money selling papers. His mother also spent her days on the streets. Rannie says: "We never had no money, mama, not even since you took to hustlin' on the streets." 

The racial inequality is nuanced, and it comes from the imagery Hughes uses, the characters' speech and actions, and their living conditions. The imagery of the color white is interesting. Rannie wears a torn white shirt. The orderlies who come to take him away are dressed in white. The mother "whitens her face with powder" after Rannie's body is gone. Rannie's eyes roll, and they are white. White seems to represent both transitions and oppressive forces.

It's clear that both the mother and the son are uneducated.

Son: If I'm lyin' I'm dyin! And lettin' me grow up all bowlegged and stunted from undernourishment. 

Mother: Under-nurse-mint? 

Son: Undernourishment. You heard what the doctor said last week. 

Mother: Naw, what'd he say?

Son: He said I was dyin' o' undernourishment, that's what he said. He said I had T.B. 'cause I didn't have enough to eat never when I were a child. And he said I couldn't get well, nohow, eatin' nothin' but beans ever since I been sick. Said I needed milk and eggs. And you said you ain't got no money for milk and eggs. 

Their vernacular speech patterns and the fact that Rannie learned words like manners and morals since he'd been in the spirit world indicates a lack of education for both the mother and the son. Education can sometimes be a way out of poverty, but in this case, neither of them have acquired this. Readers can infer that this is due to a lack of opportunity.

The message about family that can be inferred from this play is that families need to support one another and look out for each other. The consequences are tragic if families don't do this. Rannie's mother was neglectful, and this directly resulted in his death. She expected him to help her by selling papers. Most mothers help their children rather than expecting their children to help them. But even so, a functioning family will help and support each other. They will look out for each other and do their best to make sure everyone's needs are met. Rannie's mother had makeup, hats, an old fur coat, and cigarettes. Rannie lacked the basic nutrition needed to thrive. That could be interpreted as indicating a failure on her part to protect and care for her son.

Rannie's mother seems only to show concern for him after he is gone, and then it's a shallow concern. She quickly turns on him for pointing out her flaws rather than taking any kind of responsibility. She expects him to thank and revere her for the pain she went through to give birth to him. She weeps and wails until he comes back to admonish her and then puts on the show once more when the orderlies arrive. After they are gone, she cleans herself up and goes on about her own selfish pursuits. She promises him she'll get him a flower if she can find a dollar. Rannie, even in death, seems to be an afterthought to his mother.

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

There are messages on several levels of this play, which is about a sixteen-year-old African American boy who dies of tuberculosis and wakes from the dead to berate his mother for not having been good enough to him. The son claims his mother could not even provide for his comfort and education when she became a prostitute, and he blames his mother for his fate. His mother, for her part, blames her son, who is a bastard child and who she feels held her back in life.

While the mother and son each have credible complaints against each other, the larger message is that racism has caused both the mother and son to suffer. The mother is forced into poverty and degradation, and the son, as a result, does not have the chance to better his lot in life. There are many images of the color white in the play, including the white coats of the paramedics who take the son away in the end, suggesting that the whiteness of the society has done both characters wrong. However, there is also a kind of humor in the characters' remarks, suggesting that even though they have suffered mightily, they have also lived with grace and joy. 

Approved by eNotes Editorial
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

Langston Hughes wrote the one-act play "Soul Gone Home" in 1937.

The messages in the play are mixed. On one hand, the mother clearly loves the son and is genuinely grief-stricken over his death. On the other hand, as he berates her for her negligent behavior, she becomes angry at him for not appreciating her care.

MOTHER: You never was no use to me.
SON: So you just lemme grow up in the street, and I ain't had no manners nor morals, neither.
SON: I found out you was a hell of a mama puttin' me out in the cold to sell papers soon as I could even walk.
MOTHER: What? You little liar!
SON: If I'm lyin', I'm dyin'! An lettin' me grow up all bowlegged and stunted from undernourishment.
(Hughes, "Soul Gone Home," Google Books)

Both express dissatisfaction with their lives, the son with the mother's care of him, and the mother with the lack of result from her years of motherhood. One message, from the mother's perspective, is that children should be grateful to their parents for doing all they can; even when it isn't enough, they never mean harm. A message from the son's perspective would be that parents need to put their children's needs first, even at their own expense, because they brought them into the world and are responsible for their lives.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Approved by eNotes Editorial