illustrated portrait of American poet and author Langston Hughes

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

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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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