Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One Way to Heaven is a study in contrasts. On an obvious level, Cullen is comparing the life of poor blacks in Harlem during the 1920’s with that of affluent blacks. The comparison is sharp and effective, despite the author’s failure to merge his two distinct story lines in such a way as to achieve a unified novel.

On another level, the love story of Mattie and Sam is one of sharp contrasts. Sam is the scheming, opportunistic gambler, the wanderer who deplores settling down, who feels trapped in the routine of what most people would call a normal existence— having a steady job, marrying, having children. Sam is not basically a bad person. Rather he is a person who lives from day to day and who has been accustomed to living only for himself.

Mattie, conversely, wants to have a normal life. She wants to be a wife and mother. She is capable of devotion to another person and she is willing to give of herself. So devoted and dependable is she that she is willing to forgive Sam for leaving her and going to live with Emma May when Mattie most needed him.

If Cullen does not draw many conclusions about his first contrastive theme, the socioeconomic one, he certainly seems in the second theme to leave the reader with the idea that love not only will triumph but also will ennoble one. Sam dies ennobled because, at the very end of his life, he has finally recognized the depth of Mattie’s devotion. Yet, more important, through doing so, he has come to realize that he stands to gain satisfaction from doing something that will give Mattie peace of mind.