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...
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