Themes and Meanings
Ann Petry, who first published “Like a Winding Sheet” in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People magazine Crisis, has treated several themes in an honest and brutal work of social criticism. Her story suggests that racial discrimination both in the workplace and in society at large is a significant cause of the breakdown in African American family life and marital relationships. Her description of the story behind the Johnson family violence illuminates the devastation caused by such racial injustice.
At the beginning of the story, Johnson is shown to be a caring man who plans to get up early to surprise Mae with breakfast. He savors her sweet giggle and avoids quarrels because they have been married too long and gotten along too well. Despite his apparent love for Mae and his usual nonviolence—he cannot bring himself to talk roughly to her or threaten to hit her, as many other men do to their wives—Johnson is transformed into a violent man. His hatred of society’s oppression becomes a horrifying anger at Mae, which ultimately leads to her beating.
Petry explores both physical and spiritual violence in “Like a Winding Sheet.” It is only after Johnson suffers repeated spiritual abuse himself, both real and imagined, that he adopts a negative image of himself. This is the horrifying realization at the heart of the story, for as one moves painfully from the first scene of degradation to the last, one knows that Johnson’s frustration cannot be repressed indefinitely. It will soon explode.