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 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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Themes and Meanings

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.