Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 709

In a society that is dominated by private ownership of the means of production—tools, land, factories—the freedom and dignity of human beings is constantly limited and threatened. As part of the immigrant working class, Al Condraj’s family—note the father’s absence—depends to a large extent on the labor of its members....

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In a society that is dominated by private ownership of the means of production—tools, land, factories—the freedom and dignity of human beings is constantly limited and threatened. As part of the immigrant working class, Al Condraj’s family—note the father’s absence—depends to a large extent on the labor of its members. Thus, the mother’s summer earnings “had to keep them the whole year.” There is no joy or spiritual gain derived from such alienating work. Johnny Gale, “the fastest boxmaker,” has been reduced to a machine. However, Al’s one-day job in the store, translated into a dollar, is an example of the alienating use of time and energy that, for the boy, becomes transformed into an occasion to redeem himself.

In the beginning, the youthful protagonist refuses to recognize the division of society into those who own and those who are deprived. He rejects this milieu of commodity and private ownership; he believes that he can get a hammer from the store because he needs it, just as he and his mother can pick vegetables from their garden for food. He suffers humiliation, anger, confusion, and bitter shame when he is ushered into a world where things and people are split into use-value (satisfaction of human needs) and exchange-value (profit realized through market operations). For Al, the hammer is useful as a means of making a useful object; for adults, the hammer is valuable as a commodity yielding profit.

What disturbs Al is not the charge of theft—he accepts the distinction between what belongs to him and what does not—but the humiliating treatment accorded him. The only way he can affirm his dignity is to become a worker for the store, the site of his humiliation, and subsequently to reject that position. Even though he has publicly redeemed himself, however, he continues to hate the men—symptom of a divided psyche that signifies that he still cannot accept the alienating world of money and dehumanized property relationships.

Opposed to the public sphere of managers, consumers, workers in Foley’s Packing House, Woolworth, and Inderrieden are Al’s mother, her neighbor Leeza, and the parsley garden. The mother represents the strong, independent, self-reliant woman. She accepts the necessity of the learning process that her son is undergoing. Her parsley garden symbolizes the realm of pleasure and fulfilling work: “Every night in the summer . . . she would sit at the table and enjoy the cool of the garden and the smell of the things she had planted and tended.” When she and Leeza return home from a full day’s work, they make supper with Leeza’s home-baked bread and the harvest from the garden. The vivid description of the two women enjoying their supper, communing together, drinking Turkish coffee, smoking cigarettes, and exchanging stories, juxtaposed to the impersonal workplace and store, exhibits the freedom and humanity of these exploited immigrants.

It is after describing this warm solidarity between the mother and her coworker that the text establishes the communication between the mother and her son, their renewed bond, and his expression of a newly gained confidence and courage.

Associated with the values of natural innocence and life-generating creativity symbolized by the garden, Al’s recounting for his mother of his crisis-ridden day may also be viewed as an attempt to show the control this child of immigrant workers is beginning to have over a world pervaded by cold, materialistic interests and calculating demands. Against it, the garden stands as warm refuge and fertile haven.

The central theme of the psychological crisis generated by the conflict between the alienating, money-centered society and the nurturant ambience of the garden is not completely resolved because the boy is not yet ready to assume his defined position as a worker in a business society. However, the narrative clearly manifests sympathy for the moral predicament of the boy, who is not yet fully aware of his complex situation. The garden and its organic life circumscribe the boy’s unease, a momentary disturbance neutralized by the good fortune that the mother and Leeza read in the coffee grounds: “health and work and supper out of doors in the summer and enough money for the rest of the year.”

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