Themes and Characters

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

The Slave Dancer focuses on a young man's search for self-knowledge. Caught up in the machinations of a corrupt society, thirteen-year-old Jessie Bollier must define himself through his actions while living in psychological, moral, and physical isolation from his family and friends. Jessie is the only musician on board the ship and the only white character who cares about the slaves as human beings. To his horror, though, Jessie finds himself adopting some of the older men's attitudes as the voyage progresses. He cannot resist the slavers physically, but he resists morally and intellectually and both survives and grows because of this resistance.

The ship's officers and crew compose a rogue's gallery of characters. They range in moral quality from the bluff but honest sailor Clay Purvis, to the conniving, treacherous sailor Benjamin Stout, to the sniveling, savage mate Nicholas Spark, to the unpredictable, sadistic, and selfish Captain Cawthorne. The other adult sailors are less sharply drawn, their characters largely defined by the moral corruption brought on by their work on a slave ship.

Ras, the young slave who survives the shipwreck with Jessie, is the only slave in the novel given a name. Fox does not develop the characters of the other slaves; individuals emerge from the crowd only as they become the victims of specific cruelties. Daniel, the old black man who helps Jessie and Ras after the shipwreck, stands in marked contrast to...

(The entire section is 348 words.)