Themes and Meanings

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...

(The entire section is 709 words.)