Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Middle Passage, the third of Johnson’s novels, is an extension of his previous work. Both of his previous novels, Faith and the Good Thing (1974) and Oxherding Tale (1982), are highly charged works of philosophical fiction, and yet, like Middle Passage, both are also highly readable novels that appeal to general readers. Johnson’s works all feature historical themes, narrative inventiveness, and characters who must make moral choices under difficult, often perplexing, circumstances. One of Johnson’s goals is to develop “a genuinely philosophical black American fiction,” and with that goal in mind, he places his characters in situations in which their ethics must come under close scrutiny. Such scrutiny eventually reveals shortcomings not only in the characters’ understanding of ethics but also in the various ethical programs proposed by Western philosophy. Johnson and his characters confront the inconsistencies inherent in traditional Western ethics and are driven to form their own moral visions from what is left to them after their experiences have forced them to deconstruct their received ethical understanding.

The narrative of Middle Passage is conscious of its debt to other sea stories, especially those of Herman Melville. Many of the characters in Johnson’s novels are parodies or revisions of the great characters in Melville’s works. Falcon, for example, resembles Ahab; Rutherford is a...

(The entire section is 482 words.)