Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Narrows is a complex work of literature that touches on several crucial issues in the lives of black people in a small New England city. The reader sees the deterioration of a neighborhood: The area in Monmouth where Abbie and Link live was once a mixed neighborhood of Irish, Italians, Finns, and Poles. Now it is a black ghetto called the Narrows, Eye of the Needle, the Bottom, Little Harlem, Dark Town, and Niggertown. Racism has taken its toll on the black people who live here: Abbie is ashamed of being black; Link is confused about his racial identity and learns to take pride in his heritage only through painful experiences; the black butler at the Treadway mansion, Malcolm Powther, becomes a Judas by pointing Link out to his master. The interracial love affair between Link and Camilla brings out the worst in people in Monmouth. Mrs. Treadway refuses to say Link’s name but refers to him as “the Nigger”; she and Captain Sheffield have to kill Link to clear their names and save Camilla’s reputation; the black population is more interested in Camilla’s involvement in the scandal than in Link’s fate; Bill Hod, upon Link’s death, is ready to take the law into his own hands and kill Camilla in revenge. Miss Doris—a character in the novel—says that Link’s death is everybody’s fault. In a sense she is correct, but racism comes closer to being the primary cause of the evil. The novel makes clear that racism poisons people’s thinking, prohibiting toleration and understanding of any deviation from established norms. As a result, Link is murdered for breaking the taboo against interracial love. Nevertheless, the author is not content merely to present this particular racial conflict. She goes a step further, making it clear that societal violence has to be stopped before a society can progress. It is symbolic that Abbie is chosen to break through this cycle. Her decision to protect Camilla shows that forgiveness is stronger than hatred. Her willingness to take care of J. C.—a little black boy who has been largely neglected by his parents—reveals that Abbie has come to terms with Link’s death and her own neglect of him at the age of eight: She is not going to abandon this son and lose him to a racist world.

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Narrows is a complex novel, involving several subplots and a multiplicity of characters skillfully interwoven. Essentially, The Narrows is a New England novel: the characters are cast in the tradition of the New England Puritan ethic and may be viewed as conforming to or deviating from that tradition.

Both Abbie Crunch and her friend, Frances (F. K.) Jackson, the black woman undertaker of Monmouth, conform to this tradition. Despite her genteel manner and her aristocratic attitude, Abbie is hardworking and fiercely independent. Before her marriage to the Major, Abbie earned her living as a schoolteacher; after the death of her husband, realizing that she must supplement her income in order to care for herself and Link, she rents the top floor of her house. While the transition from housewife to landlady is not easy, it is necessary, and Abbie makes it without hesitation. F. K. Jackson, though different in appearance and demeanor, is much like Abbie. She has managed to graduate from Wellesley College in a period when matriculation at that institution was almost unheard of for a black woman. She relinquishes her dreams of becoming a doctor to take over her father’s undertaking business in Monmouth, which she does quite successfully. Both Abbie and F. K. are highly intelligent, well-educated, hardworking business women, competing successfully in a world in which both their race and gender are prohibiting factors.

While Abbie and F. K. conform to the tradition, the other two women of importance in the novel, Mamie Powther (black and poor) and Camilo (white and rich) deviate from the tradition. Because neither has found productive work, each becomes bored, and that boredom leads them into destructive acts. In the case of Camilo, her cruising of Dock Street in The Narrows late at night leads ultimately to the physical destruction of Link Williams and to her own emotional destruction. In the case of Mamie Powther, her sexual escapades and her penchant...

(The entire section is 814 words.)