Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Langston Hughes wrote “On the Road” after visiting Reno, Nevada, in September, 1934, when he was nearly out of funds. After observing the treatment offered to several African American victims of the harsh economic times, he wrote the story in one sitting. Years later in a lecture he gave regarding “On the Road,” Hughes recalled that everyone was in desperate search of work and many got stranded in Reno. Many of these people were African Americans, who had even less opportunity for work, shelter, and meals. It was a depression in many more ways than one.

“On the Road” probes the consequences of the Great Depression on one vagrant African American at a low point, perhaps the lowest point in Sargeant’s life. Here the reader observes the transformation of an apparently docile, law-abiding man into a militant and assertive person demanding the basic human necessities of food, clothing, and shelter that are denied to him because of his color.

Hughes treads a narrow thematic line here by placing the concept of Christianity as Christ would have it practiced against the harsh reality of how it actually is practiced by the Reverend Mr. Dorset, the observers at the church, and the police. Instead of practicing the Christian concept of being one’s brother’s keeper, they deny Sargeant basic Christian charity.

The patient, long-suffering Sargeant will never receive equal treatment by white Christians until he asserts himself...

(The entire section is 419 words.)