Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Plum Bun is a didactic novel containing several messages to readers, all of which are imparted through Angela Murray’s life experiences from adolescence to mature adulthood. The dominant theme throughout the novel is the moral that African Americans should be themselves and should stop imitating whites. The novel was written at a time when African Americans were so submerged in the dominant culture that they were virtually “invisible,” to use the striking metaphor coined by the African American author Ralph Ellison in his 1952 novel Invisible Man. It was natural for many African Americans of the time, consciously and unconsciously, to adopt white values, including white ideals of physical beauty. Jessie Redmon Fauset, like many other writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance, was deeply concerned with persuading African Americans to recognize their own beauty, values, and racial heritage.

Fauset creates an African American protagonist who happens to look white. This device not only creates many suspenseful scenes, making the novel read a bit like a spy story, but also poses a question in a provocative way: If Angela herself cannot find happiness in adopting white cultural values, what chance does the ordinary African American have of doing so? By pretending to be white, Angela involves herself in one unpleasant experience after another. She becomes the kept mistress of a white playboy, and she eventually finds herself alienated from her beloved sister. She is unable to marry the one man she truly loves because, ironically, he is of black descent and believes that she is white.

Another message in the novel is that women should not sell themselves for financial security or social prestige. This is directly related to the message that African Americans should be true to themselves. Women, too, should be true to themselves and refuse to deceive themselves or others for gain. Angela’s relations with men are unsatisfactory until she arrives at the decision to be herself, both as an African American and as a woman. Once she makes this courageous decision, she is able to achieve a reconciliation with her sister, marry the man she loves, and find her true vocation as an artist.

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

One of the major themes of the novel and the one concept that Angela has much difficulty in accepting is that color is a matter of paramount importance in the American social system. The characters are caught in a fallacious social construct that stretches appearance far beyond being. To appear white is more important to the marketplace than any quality of being, so friendship for whites, for example, can be created only if the participants are white or are willing to pass as white. Angela could maintain her friendship with her white childhood friends only for as long as she “appeared” white; once the appearance was assaulted by the truth of being, the friendships ended.

This book, like others of the Harlem Renaissance, touches not only on the racial prejudices of white America but also on the color-prejudice involved in denying one’s race, as Angela does, because she can pass as white. Through Angela, Fauset shows how those who deny their race also deny their own being; they are both victims of the social system that sanctifies appearance and victimizers of their blood sisters and brothers who do not have the “safety” of a white appearance. Moreover, those who pass as white lose the opportunity to do good for the entire race; Angela can defend Rachel against the injustices of the system only after she decides to announce publicly her own racial bond.

Fauset also suggests that society as a whole can claim its identity if it can reject the powerful myths of the white social system. The myths of the marketplace tempt and seduce Angela. She creates and re-creates her identity only after she overcomes the belief that the pleasures of the white world are more satisfying than the life that can be created on the foundation of values not dependent on appearance. The life of Harlem and the life that Virginia creates come from a love of human worth, diversity, and talent, not from the myth that initially attracted Angela—that the combination of white skin and wealth will provide happiness and freedom.