Style and Technique
Petry writes in a low-key, subtle way about the overwhelming indignity and anger that discrimination against African Americans can cause. Particularly compelling is Petry’s examination of where and how the African American woman fits into this deadly cycle of abuse. The characters’ language and dialogue may be examined closely to see how words change meaning throughout the story, both foreshadowing and causing the horrific ending. One example of this narrative strategy is the title, with which Petry begins and ends the story.
As Mae jokingly notes in the opening paragraph, Johnson is wrapped in a winding sheet, and although he does not know it, he is spiritually dead from repeated encounters with oppressors such as Mrs. Scott. Before going to work, he smiles as he sees his black arms silhouetted against the white of the sheets and tries to shake off the negative connotations of a winding sheet, a shroud. The oppressive mood never lifts, however, as the racially charged dialogue between Mrs. Scott and Johnson at the factory intensifies his hatred of whites, and the chatter of the women workers increases his misogyny.
Gestures are symbolic also, and change meaning within the context of the story. At the coffee shop, the white girl who refuses Johnson a cup of coffee “put her hands up to her head and gently lifted her hair away from the back of her neck, tossing her head back a little.” Petry uses almost the same words to describe Mae’s...
(The entire section is 522 words.)