Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The characters of Seven Guitars are displaced both spatially and emotionally. The false promise Floyd sees in Chicago shatters under the weight of Pittsburgh’s Hill District. Ruby, a young girl who believes that salvation comes through sexuality, personifies the fallacy of assuming that a new place can create a new self. Men abandon Vera and Louise. The unconscious desire to reconcile the past in order to progress in the future proves heartbreakingly impossible. While Red Carter and Floyd are comparing guns, Canewell pulls out a knife, a weapon condemned by Carter as “nothing but a piece of history” and “out of style.” This displacement is most noticeable in Hedley: His economic and personal freedoms rest on a dream he had of his father, and his intention to build a plantation in Pittsburgh is preposterous. In a community that at least attempts to embrace the reality of its situation, Hedley is an anomaly who surrenders his fate to mystical beliefs and hallucinations.

Perhaps the most enigmatic symbol of the play is the rooster. Its timed and deliberate crowing amid the cacophonous urban landscape is a constant reminder of the failure of the African American community to prosper in the North. That Hedley kills the rooster and Floyd in the same manner speaks volumes to the insignificance of the African American individual in the play. The rooster, too, is displaced, being more appropriate for a southern farm than a northern city.

The characters of the play, through their dialogues, create a collective lens through which audience members must make sense of the play’s world. It is generally believed that the “seven guitars” are the seven characters, each strumming his or her individual, often out-of-tune, chords in a blues-driven pattern.