Themes and Meanings
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.