The Sport of the Gods

by Paul Laurence Dunbar

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Last Updated on July 12, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1337

The Sport of the Gods is divided into eighteen chapters that follow the fate of the Hamilton family. The title refers to the divine machinations that the Hamiltons seem at the whims of from the beginning of the novel to the end.

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Berry Hamilton is an esteemed and veteran butler for Maurice Oakley, a wealthy Southern businessman who has employed Berry for twenty years. Berry courted and married Oakley’s housekeeper, Fannie, and moved into the cottage just a few hundred feet away from the mansion that Oakley was able to purchase with his growing fortune.

Berry believes his dedication to Oakley and steadfastness have earned him security and relative contentment compared to other Southern Black people in the Reconstruction period. Berry and Fannie provide well for their two children, Joe and Kit, who are eighteen and sixteen when the action of the novel begins.

The action of the novel begins on the night that Maurice Oakley hosts a farewell dinner for his younger brother Francis, who is leaving for Paris. Despite Francis only being a half brother to Maurice, Oakley views his younger brother like his own child. As a result, he throws Francis an elaborate shindig, after which Francis (also called Frank) meets Maurice in the library to tell him about the missing money.

Frank explains that he left the key to his cabinet in the lock, allowing someone to gain access to it. As a result, the thief stole roughly $500, all of which technically belonged to Maurice. After Frank departs for Paris, Maurice contacts the police, who discover that Berry had about $800 in his possession. Oakley is astonished that Berry could have saved this much money based on his meager salary, so he is convinced that Berry stole the money.

Berry is arrested while in the Oakley mansion, after which he becomes the talk of the town. The Black people in town condemn Berry based on the revelation that he had saved so much money, accusing him of acting snobbishly toward them. White people in town attribute Berry’s downfall to his race, ignoring the fact that he could have easily saved money based on his lack of monthly expenses.

Berry is sentenced to ten years of hard labor after being found guilty, after which Oakley tells Fannie that she and the children are to vacate the cottage on his property. In the couple of days’ notice that Oakley gives the Hamiltons to leave their home, Joe desperately searches for work in barber shops and even a hotel in town. Due to either a lack of experience or his father’s recent conviction, no one will hire Joe. After receiving word that they have less than twelve hours to leave, Joe suggests the three of them sell their possessions and move to New York. Fannie reluctantly agrees.

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Upon arrival in New York, Joe is instantly captivated with the metropolitan culture and lifestyle, determining to assimilate to his surroundings as quickly as possible. Fannie and Kit, on the other hand, are cautiously observant of the city’s true worth, unfazed by its glamorous veneer. Joe becomes enthralled with Mr. Thomas, a patron of the boarding house and bar in which the Hamiltons rent rooms, who promises Joe nights of drinking and entertainment.

Mr. Thomas takes the Hamiltons to the theater on their second night in the city, treating Kit like his property to show off and ignoring Fannie’s wishes. Joe decides he will be independent of his mother, both in financial and social terms. Meanwhile, Mr. Thomas decides that the way to winning Kit’s affections is to take Joe under his wing, molding him into the New York man Joe desperately wants to be.

Mr. Thomas introduces Joe to the Banner Club, a cabaret bar, where he surrounds Joe with the best of New York’s night life. Quickly, Joe falls under the spell of a singer at the club named Hattie. Hattie uses Joe’s vulnerabilities to her advantage, manipulating him into fulfilling her every desire.

At the same time, Fannie—who now goes by Mrs. Hamilton—looks for work for Kit and herself, only able to find low-paying cleaning jobs. When Minty Brown comes to New York demanding a visit at the Hamiltons’, Fannie staunchly refuses, prompting Minty to tell the landlady that the family was run out of town because of their thievery. As a result, the landlady asks the family to vacate her boarding house, prompting Joe to curse at his mother for her “foolishness.”

Joe gathers his few belongings and leaves his mother’s apartment. He soon turns to alcohol to soothe his sorrows. Fannie and Kit are fired from their jobs because Minty has been going around the city spreading the lie about the family. Desperate, Kit asks her brother for help finding a new job. Joe talks to Hattie about letting Kit audition for her. Kit impresses Hattie with her beautiful voice, and Hattie offers to set up auditions at various theaters for Kit.

Fannie desperately tries to dissuade Kit from accepting Hattie’s offer, but Kit pursues the opportunity anyway. Fannie confesses that a rich older man named Mr. Gibson had been visiting her at their previous residence, practically begging her to marry him. Kit advises her mother to accept Mr. Gibson’s offer, and Fannie admits she might as well since both of her children have disgraced the family already. Kit nails her first audition and debuts to astounding success, making Hattie jealous and angry at Joe.

Back at home, Maurice Oakley receives a letter from Frank, who confesses that he gambled and lost the money that he had reported stolen years earlier. Tortured that another man is in prison for a crime that did not in fact occur, Frank asks Maurice to have Berry released early from his sentence. Overcome with embarrassment and shame, Oakley and his wife decide to keep this revelation a secret to spare the Oakleys from a public scandal.

Joe’s alcoholism and Hattie’s resentment lead to a tumultuous relationship. On the night Hattie kicks Joe out of her apartment, telling him to never return, he wanders back later on with the intent to kill her. When she yells at him to leave, he strangles her, collapsing into a chair where the police find him. Joe’s arrest causes Fannie much grief and Kit much embarrassment as a local celebrity.

Mr. Skaggs, a reporter and frequent patron of the Banner Club, had latched onto Joe’s drunken tale of his father’s wrongful conviction. Skaggs is determined to discover if there is any truth to Joe’s story, since it would bring the newspaper he works for plenty of attention.

Skaggs travels to Joe’s hometown to investigate. He talks with Colonel Saunders, who reveals several holes in the official story. When Skaggs visits Maurice Oakley, Oakley basically confirms the official version that Berry is guilty. Skaggs manipulates Oakley into admitting that the businessman bears a secret in his breast pocket. Skaggs snatches the letter from Frank, which Oakley has kept in this pocket, barely escaping the mansion with it.

Skaggs publishes the true story in the Universe to much success. As a result, Berry Hamilton’s trial is reviewed and his conviction overturned. Skaggs is there when Berry is released from prison, escorting him to New York to see Fannie.

When Berry discovers all that has happened to his family in his absence, he is overcome with sadness and rage. He discovers that his wife is engaged to Gibson, who physically abuses her. When she refuses to leave with Berry despite her predicament, he skulks away defeated—and resolving to murder Gibson himself.

The next day, Berry approaches the Gibson residence to carry out his mission, only to discover that Gibson was killed in a fight at the racetrack. The novel ends with the news that Mrs. Oakley has invited Berry and Fannie to return to their cottage on the mansion property, which they decide to do.

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