Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Abyssinia is a special child. Marked by fire at her birth, she arises from the ashes like the legendary phoenix. Reborn in youthful freshness, she seems untarnished by childhood traumas.

Women of her community are a support system for her, bringing to mind the chorus of classical Greek drama as they comment on, elaborate, and explain the action. Their responses, however, are African American, rather than Greek, in style. The comments come in a rhythmic flow that may sometimes rise to a pinnacle of emotion. The story’s women work through love and through food, which is another language for love. It is this love that enables the characters to surmount obstacles.

Names help to delineate character. The name Abyssinia, with its biblical allusions to ancient Africa, represents the victory of all black persons over force, oppression, and evil—the Deacon Jacobses and Trembling Sallys of the world. Patience and Strong are descriptive names, not only of the protagonist’s parents, but also of the race as a whole. Mother Barker’s name indicates that she is Abby’s second mother. She is also a guide of sorts, as she teaches Abby about herbs, cooking, and healing. Lily’s name suggests her light color, her purity, and her fragility. She is Abby’s foil, her opposite. Abby is strong, and because of that strength she survives. Lily Norene is too weak and soft to endure what life has parceled out to her; she has a stroke and dies.

Characters frequently emerge through dialogue. For example, Strong tells a story in his barbershop about how he got away from his wife to go to a dance one evening after their baby was born. The story reveals that Patience is queenly and is the color of creamed coffee, but it also gives details about Strong: what he wears, his sense of humor, and his feelings toward his family.

Sometimes a character is rounded out by implied comparisons. Trembling Sally is like a bag lady as she raids garbage cans and puts their contents into a sack. She is compared to a tornado that has no control over its actions as it wreaks its destruction. Several times, her eyes are described as “coals of fire.” Evil ghosts of southern folklore have such eyes. Sally’s clothes make her look like a scarecrow. This simile foreshadows that Abby will prevail in their confrontations, because scarecrows may be fearful, but they are essentially harmless.

Tornadic fury and healing roots are oppositions of a sacred, primitive earth. Abby, the main character, is born outdoors, close to the earth. The most important symbols of the work are fire, which both cleanses and destroys; water, which heals and is holy; and the tornado, which is evil because of its terrible destruction. The eye of a tornado is described as being full of red pepper.


(The entire section is 1139 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel is most specifically the story of Abby Jackson. As a character of fiction, she is never made to be representative of her race, gender, or time; rather, Thomas writes to depict the development of one character during her youth. This is not to say that Abby’s story is not relevant to black identity; indeed, her race and gender, as well as the society in which she lives, do work to define her being and maturation.

The novel’s main theme has to do with accepting evil as fact—and then overcoming it. Thomas does not delve into the origins of evil or try to understand it; there is no explanation, for example, for Abby’s rape by Brother Jacobs or her attempted murder by Trembling Sally. The novelist sees the universe as one in which learning to cope with problems, and not explaining them, is the chief concern.

It is noteworthy that Thomas does not make the rapist a white man or Trembling Sally a white woman. Hence, the novel is not about racial problems, but about the black experience in America.

Pervasive and unresolved throughout the work is the question of God’s existence: Is Abby alone in a meaningless and godless universe? Are the tornadoes, floods, and fires sent from (or, at least, permitted by) God to victimize the innocent and helpless, or do these calamities occur in God’s absence? Abby never answers these questions for herself, and the reader is left in a world where life is at least partially governed by bitterness and cynicism as a consequence. The novelist does not answer questions raised by her own main character. Abby simply moves on with her life, whether God is helping her or not.