Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 436

The theme of Ann Petry’s “Solo on the Drums” may be summarized in the aphorism about music having charms “to soothe the savage breast.” Stated another way, the story speaks to the cathartic power of music in the lives of people, especially African Americans. From the ritual music of Africa,...

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The theme of Ann Petry’s “Solo on the Drums” may be summarized in the aphorism about music having charms “to soothe the savage breast.” Stated another way, the story speaks to the cathartic power of music in the lives of people, especially African Americans. From the ritual music of Africa, to the folk songs and spirituals of the slave plantations, to twentieth century blues songs, music has provided a vehicle through which African Americans have gained release from their pain and suffering without resorting to physical violence.

It is apparent almost from the beginning of this story that Kid Jones is experiencing deep emotional stress, compounded by having to share the stage night after night with his romantic rival. Through his music, however, he can vent all the rage inside of him: rage at the Marquis of Brund for stealing his wife, rage at his mother for despising him, rage at his wife for deserting him. As he plays, it seems to him that the music comes “not from the drums but from deep within himself; it was a sound that was being wrenched out of him—a violent, raging, roaring sound.” He thinks, “This is the story of my life, this is the story of my hate, this is all there is to me.” This raging, roaring sound is the sound of catharsis, the purging of his emotions, and when it is over, he is spent. Through his music, Jones is not only cleansed of hatred, past and present, but also is forced to face some of the harsher realities of his life. Now, the healing can begin.

In “Solo on the Drums,” Petry also shows that music can provide a means of escape from the world of reality. This is exemplified in the character of the protagonist, but it is also apparent in the reactions of the audience. As the rhythmic beat of the drums reaches out into the audience, it seems to create a mesmerizing effect. One man sitting near the front of the theater is entranced; he shivers and jerks his head to the rhythm, completely oblivious to his surroundings. A sailor sits with his arms around his girl, and when her hat falls off, neither of them moves; they are transfixed. A boy who has sneaked in by a side entrance and slipped unnoticed into an aisle seat sits motionless, his mouth wide open as he clutches his cap tightly against his chest. Each of these individuals, for a time at least, has managed to escape into a world where the worries and cares of daily living do not exist.

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