Oxherding Tale Themes
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.
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
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
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