Themes

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 412

The primary theme of Charles Johnson’s novel is the injustices of slavery. The drunken whims and assumption of impunity on the part of a white slave-owner set in motion a chain of events with both immediate and long-term repercussions. While these relate especially to Andrew, the protagonist and narrator, they also affect many other people’s lives. Bound up with slavery is the theme of the complicated history of race in the United States, as the consequences of ideas of white superiority endured long after abolition. The theme of individual, especially masculine, identity formation is central to the novel; more broadly, the idea that personal identity is inseparable from race is also emphasized. The inequalities of gender relations in the 19th century also constitute a theme, although less fully explored than race.

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As Andrew relates from the outset, one night of excess drinking enabled a Southern white plantation master’s to cross the line from entitlement to recklessness. Such men believed that their ownership of other human beings meant that having sexual relations with enslaved women did not constitute rape. In this instance, the owner, Jonathan, encouraged an enslaved man, George, to have sex with his wife, thus demonstrating his conviction that his wife was his property as well. The consequences of this distorted worldview, and of George’s acquiescence to his master’s wishes, was the birth of a child, Andrew, who belonged in neither the masters’s nor the slaves’s world. The fact that millions of biracial individuals such as Andrew resulted from millions of such instances contributed heavily to the complexities of U.S. racial identities, which Johnson explores in this novel.

Within the slavery system, the inequalities of position and education often corresponded to the master’s guilt over fathering illegitimate children. Here Johnson turns the tables, as Andrew is the mistress’s son, but the master partially accepts responsibility by seeing to it that the boy is educated. Although Andrew’s slave status is not in question, Jonathan understands that he can increase his “property’s” value by providing him with intellectual skills. Again Jonathan’s shortsightedness affects Andrew’s destiny, as his unusual upbringing instills him in a proud attitude that whites considered inappropriate. This, in turn, pushes him into grueling mine work but also inspires him to escape. The paradoxes of his “freedom,” however, include the necessity of passing as white to escape being returned to the dehumanized slave status he had fled.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 879

Oxherding Tale is a richly textured work that uses the first-person viewpoint to portray the complex sensibilities of Andrew Hawkins and of the novel’s central characters, none of whom is a stock type. Andrew is characterized chiefly through the language of his narration itself; the prose style, learned, graceful, philosophic, and reflective, bespeaks a genuinely searching character who is open to all manner of perception and who sees deeply into the lives of his acquaintances. Johnson’s method of presenting Andrew’s early life through several flashbacks allows readers to learn about characters piecemeal, through interwoven series of events that thicken a sense of the density and immediacy of Andrew’s experience and yearnings. Although Andrew’s mature point of view is sometimes ironic and comic, he sees himself as a butt of humor as often as he ridicules others.

The problem of identity is the novel’s central theme. Andrew is uniquely positioned as a character who, light-skinned, refined, and eloquent, can traverse the boundary of race. As he desperately finagles a limited degree of autonomy, he must acknowledge the moral nature of his actions.

Oxherding Tale resists easy categorization because of its experimentation with different forms and traditions of writing. In one sense, the novel joins with the tradition of picaresque novels to which Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Tom Sawyer (1876) belongs, novels whose structures are episodic rather than tightly integrated. Andrew is flung from one situation into another; he careens like a pinball through the novel’s action, achieving what little control he can over his destiny through his superior wits. The novel makes use of the picaresque tradition to the degree that Andrew cleverly improvises language and tactics to meet each new challenge. In this connection, the novel makes use of the trickster-figure tradition of African American folk-tales exemplified by such characters as Brer Rabbit and the Signifying Monkey.

Further, the picaresque hero rarely displays any radical development of character through his succession of adventures. Andrew is so mature in his views and language from an early age that his story often seems to be less about personal development or coming of age than about the exploits of an already sensitive and precocious character in an absurd world. The picaresque hero is often carefree and happy-go-lucky, however, and in this sense the novel represents a revision of the form. The adventures of Andrew—first a slave, later a runaway slave, and finally a man with an assumed identity—are sometimes comic, but they do not allow for an entirely lighthearted tone.

In another sense, Johnson uses the form of the bildungsroman, the novel of formation or novel of education. Such novels usually begin with an account of the circumstances into which their hero is born and follow the hero’s growth into early adulthood and into a discovery of identity and purpose in life. Johnson’s use of this form is underlined by the novel’s first scene, a largely comic account of the bizarre night on which Andrew is conceived by George Hawkins and Anna Polkinghorne. The opening of the novel with a humorous account of the narrator-hero’s own conception, leaving readers to wonder how these events are known to the narrator, is also a feature of Tristram Shandy (1759-1767), Laurence Sterne’s eighteenth century bildungsroman. Oxherding Tale is not focused centrally on the extraordinary development of Andrew Hawkins, which is presented as already achieved, but the novel crucially raises questions of identity and of life’s purpose as its hero enters adulthood.

The form of writing to which Oxherding Tale is perhaps most importantly connected is the nineteenth century slave narrative. Johnson makes explicit reference to these writings in his novel. Slave narratives are nonfictional, first-person accounts written by former slaves, often tracing a movement from slavery to freedom and from South to North; the most famous examples of this form are Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass: An American Slave (1845) and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861). With Oxherding Tale, Johnson invents a fictional slave narrative that imparts a sense of the density of lived experience upon the form. Rather than portray his characters as good or evil stock types, Johnson renders the sensibilities of his fictional slaves and slaveholders as complex, three-dimensional, and ambiguous.

The language of the novel varies considerably, sometimes using contemporary slang alongside the southern vernacular of the nineteenth century. By using modern as well as antiquated language in a novel about slavery, Johnson suggests the difficulty of comprehending the past, the timelessness of the themes of identity and responsibility, and the influence of the past over the present. Like a jazz musician improvising upon standard melodies, Johnson creates a freehand mix of styles and literary modes of expression in order to provide an imaginatively rich, magnanimous, and immediate sense of his characters.

Oxherding Tale is a virtuoso performance that incorporates many linguistic and narrative strategies into a re-exploration of the tangled problem of how slavery can be understood from the perspective of the twentieth century. There is some affiliation between the transcendentalist teachings of Ezekiel and the movement of the novel itself: The narrative scope extends beyond narrow limitations, platitudes, or stereotypes toward a full, imaginatively rich vision.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 339

Oxherding Tale is clearly not to be read as a novel about the brutality of slavery in the American South, although that element is certainly very evident. Instead, Charles Johnson would like his readers to see the novel as a parable about one man’s attempt to free himself—both literally and figuratively—from a life full of traps. In other words, this is a novel that explores the existential truth of trying to lead an honest life, one that allows a person to be free spiritually. After experiencing many different “lives,” Andrew comes to realize that Reb’s philosophy is the most suitable for living in this world. His philosophy, which one critic has called “the phenomenology of the Allmuseri,” is similar to Eastern religions in that it holds that the path to freedom lies through negation of the self.

Reinforcing this theme of finding one’s true self is Johnson’s style in the novel. It can best be termed “metafiction” because it eschews the traditional conventions of fiction—such as an author who remains aloof from the world he has created—in favor of experimentation. For example, there are two philosophical digressions in Oxherding Tale about the very nature of slave narratives and first-person narrators. These digressions seem to undercut the story itself, until a reader places them within the context of the overall fable that Johnson is relating. It is then that the true purpose of the digressions—their function as an “objective” commentary upon Andrew and his story that allows the reader to see the novel in a different light—becomes clear. In short, Johnson’s metafictional techniques enable the reader to search for the true meaning of Oxherding Tale just as Andrew searches for the true meaning of his life. In summary, Johnson would like the novel as a whole to serve as a microcosm of human life; slavery in Oxherding Tale is meant to represent metaphorically the captivity in which human beings live until they manage to set themselves free through self-negation.

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