Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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...

(The entire section is 536 words.)