Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536

The idea of a scapegoat has a long literary tradition and has taken various forms. Oedipus, though guilty of punishable crimes, is himself a victim whose suffering and exile purify the city of Thebes. Hamlet, who is a more innocent example, still must die for Denmark’s corrupt state to be redeemed. Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” offers a twentieth century version of the ancient ritual sacrifice. In all three works, the scapegoat dies or suffers excruciating pain. Dunbar’s scapegoat is a sociopolitical figure, at least on the surface; Asbury has none of the deep, mythical, religious, or cultural significance that one attaches to these other examples, or to the goat that the Jewish high priest sent off into the wilderness. He neither dies nor suffers—at least Dunbar does not show the suffering. Instead he chooses to show Asbury’s triumph, strength, and self-confidence.

Within the structure of the story, Asbury remains a scapegoat for only a few moments; afterward he is unquestionably and permanently a martyr. The martyr chooses his fate, and while Hamlet, too, makes such a choice toward the end of his play, Asbury is a martyr who remains alive and enjoys privately the fruits of victory. Dunbar creates a man willing to submit to social ostracism and even to self-exile from public honors. What he will not give up, however, are his principles and the power that derives from them. He consistently abides by the principle of democratic rule—one person, one vote; he remains loyal to the people; and most important, he does not define the best people according to wealth and status. Such a presentation of the scapegoat suggests an unexpected optimism in a black writer at the turn of the twentieth century: Goodness will out, even in politics; the truly good man will, in the end, receive his due. What he must be willing to sacrifice are vanity and material success.

Behind this political story, however, lies a hint of racial comment. The final statement in the story, “Cadgers had learned its lesson,” may have implications beyond the political one that the will of the people must not be violated. Dunbar is speaking specifically to the black community as a political bloc capable of challenging white supremacy. His specific advice is to black leaders who use the people to get power, then abandon them, and perhaps even to white leaders who underestimate minorities. That Dunbar’s story is a form of protest literature should be clear from the beginning. In his initial paragraphs Dunbar describes the demographics of American cities: with the “usual tendency [of blacks] to colonize, a tendency encouraged, and in fact compelled, by circumstances, they had gathered into one part of the town. Here in alleys, and streets as dirty and hardly wider, they thronged like ants.” When Asbury goes into business for himself, he puts up “the significant sign, ’Equal Rights Barber-Shop.”’ Together with this protest, however, Dunbar insists on a pragmatic deception in achieving ends. Isaac Morton begins his political career as “an innocent young man,” whose “ideals . . . should never have been exposed to the air.” He eventually becomes more adroit, and Asbury’s own success relies on the principle of deception.

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