Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Like many sea adventures, Middle Passage operates on one level as an allegory, the ship being, as Falcon tells Calhoun, “a society . . . a commonwealth.” The name of the ship, the Republic, and the fact that its captain was born on July 4, 1776, are strong suggestions that the society allegorized is that of the United States. The novel touches on many themes from U.S. history, including slavery, equal opportunity, and race riots. Many of these references are anachronistic—that is, they are themes and issues that did not exist in 1830. While it is difficult to explain how a narrator writing in the nineteenth century could have knowledge of some of these things (such as the vocabulary of affirmative action), Johnson seems to be suggesting the interconnectedness of U.S. history. In other words, the slavery of the country’s early days and the civil strife that Falcon foresees in his apocalyptic death dream (“I saw riots in cities”) are connected in their origins. In this regard, the fact that the Republic is a ship constantly coming apart and constantly being remade metaphorically suggests that the United States is a society in process, undergoing constant upheaval and renewal. Following the beliefs of its captain, the shipboard society is governed by an essential dualism and characterized by a deep fissure, an “ontic wound” in Falcon’s words, that necessitates slavery and strife.

Contrasting with this society of pluralism and division are the mysterious Allmuseri, the African tribe from which the slaves aboard the...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Rutherford Calhoun’s first-person narrative voice in Middle Passage is the key to both the protagonist’s character and the novel’s integrity. The protagonist is many persons: learned African American former slave, practiced thief and liar, agrarian turned urbanite turned sailor. His voice blends many levels of language: philosophical discourse, nautical terminology, lyrical images of field and ocean, witty slang and worn cliché. In this voice, Rutherford Calhoun narrates his adventures in the underworld of New Orleans and the society aboard the slave ship.

Because Rutherford Calhoun is a freewheeling young man who unexpectedly finds himself on a dangerous sea adventure, and because his first words are the humorous announcement that he, like most men who go to sea, is escaping a woman, his character recalls the naïve and comic Ishmael, first-person narrator of Herman Melville’s Moby Dick (1851). There are other elements in Middle Passage that suggest Melville’s narrative as source: a character named Peleg, the mad Captain Falcon, and a cabin boy who loses his mind. Though there are similarities, however, there are differences. Melville’s narrator Ishmael is at first a comic character with matching voice, but as the plot changes from youthful adventure to romantic quest, the narrator’s voice changes to that of a reflective philosopher. Charles Johnson’s narrator Calhoun, on the other hand, maintains consistently a voice that combines comic and serious tones from the beginning to the end of his journal and journey.

This multiregistered voice and its speed hold readers gripped securely throughout the book’s language shifts, historical allusions, altered clichés, and zany anachronisms. The narrative voice safely immerses readers in the plot elements: the young narrator’s moves in and out of trouble; the violent storms and shipboard explosions; the slapstick dialogue and philosophical debates in which Calhoun engages the other characters. So, though indebted in some ways to Herman Melville’s young white American narrator in Moby Dick, Charles Johnson’s young ex-slave narrator Calhoun is both trickster and philosopher throughout his African American experience of coming of age.

The ship named the Republic suggests Plato’s utopia of philosophical truth, and indeed Calhoun makes the ship a scene of philosophical debate. The ship, however, resembles more the American Republic, for most of the text’s historical and literary allusions parody America’s mythic illusions and pseudoheroes. Thus Rutherford Calhoun’s name recalls two American political leaders, Rutherford Hayes, a president who ended Reconstruction in 1876, and John Calhoun, an ardent defender of...

(The entire section is 1130 words.)