Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Titled after a line in William Butler Yeats’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” (1928), Paule Marshall’s book begins with this epigraph: “An aged man is but a paltry thing,/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing.” The clearest theme shared by the four novellas is the one hinted at by these lines: that life, in the end, is meaningless and empty without love, identity, and beliefs—the features that make up the soul. While the volume also deploys motifs concerning ethnicity and gender, the main theme is all-encompassing: The emptiness plaguing the four old men could be found in men or women of any race and any age. This universality is hinted at in the figure of Miranda, who is a white woman. Her decisions mirror those made by Caliban when he was younger, and it is possible that she will end up like him if she continues to make the same decisions. Other women in the novellas illustrate the importance of connecting with others; an example of this is Mr. Watford’s serving girl, who yells “You ain’t people, Mr. Watford, you ain’t people!” as she leaves. As the attempts of Berman and Motley show, however, communal support cannot exist without individual identity.