(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

The Street relates the difficult education of Lutie Johnson, the protagonist; she has not yet learned to read the mythical signs and symbols of American culture with the disbelieving irony required by the conditions of her race and gender. At the opening of the novel, Lutie is intoxicated by such commonplace American images as Benjamin Franklin, self-made individuals, and white picket fences. By the conclusion of the novel, however, Lutie is filled with a new vision of herself, of the society around her, and of her place in that society—a society in which she had formerly fully invested her faith and her imagination. To this end, one of Lutie’s final thoughts in the narrative is the recollection of the words of a grammar school teacher who once proclaimed to her: “I don’t know why they have us bother to teach your people to write.” Lutie understands the rejected position in which she is placed by the views of the dominant society. In a similar vein, the final images of the novel are those of the garbage that lines and defines the Harlem streets, images with which the novel also began but which now recur with a stirring resonance. By the end of the narrative, Lutie begins to reconcile herself to the manner in which she is seen by those who control the signs, symbols, and opportunities of American culture.

The narrative begins with Lutie’s quest to find an apartment for herself and her son, Bub. Having inspected an apartment in the building superintended by Jones, Lutie puts aside her disappointment with the building; she is certain that she will eventually be able to better her lot. Once Lutie has settled into life in the building, her imagination releases her much of the time from the depression and oppression of her surroundings. She recalls the happy, early moments of her former marriage as well as her tenure working as a maid in suburban Connecticut, a tenure during which she was both enamored of and ambivalent concerning “model” suburban life. Lutie’s imaginings are interrupted by the bleakness of her surroundings, and much of the early tension of the novel revolves around this tension between her...

(The entire section is 876 words.)

The Street Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Street follows the foredoomed struggle of a young black woman to escape the street and to evade what the street threatens to do to her and to Bub, her young son. The street is 116th Street in Harlem. The time is the 1940’s; World War II is not yet over.

Lutie Johnson has not come to the street by choice. Lutie had taken work as a domestic with the Chandlers, a white family in Connecticut. The job required that she live apart from Jim, her unemployed husband. In her absence, Jim took up with another woman. Unable to turn to her alcoholic father for support, Lutie has had to do the best she can for herself and her son Bub. At the moment, this means a low-paying job and a walk-up apartment on the top floor of a dismal building.

Three other inhabitants of the building play an important role in Lutie’s story: Jones, Min, and Mrs. Hedges. Lutie senses at once the powerful lust of Jones, the superintendent. Her resistance generates in Jones a rage he takes out on Min, the most recent of a series of shapeless middle-aged women with whom he has lived. Min finally realizes that her only course is to leave him and to hope that some other man will take her. The repeatedly frustrated Jones is determined to get at Lutie somehow. He wins the trust of Bub, and when Jones’s obsession with Lutie turns to hatred, he makes Bub his instrument in a plot to destroy her.

Mrs. Hedges takes an immediate, even protective, interest in Lutie, but her interest is not innocent. Lutie represents interesting possibilities: A nice white man is interested in her.

The white man is Junto, who operates the Junto Bar and Grill and a number of other enterprises in Harlem. He and Mrs. Hedges have been associates for a long time, ever since they met while both were picking through garbage. Junto has come a long way since them. He is now the power behind Mrs. Hedges’s operations; he has powerful connections, and he knows what...

(The entire section is 797 words.)

The Street Summary

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

The Street portrays the economic plight of African Americans in Northern cities. Themes of the novel include the problem of latchkey children, single parenting, and sexual oppression. This novel is perhaps the first written by an African American woman that probes the triple threat to African American women of race, gender, and class.

Much of the action of The Street takes place on 116th Street in Harlem in 1944. The central character, Lutie Johnson, leaves an unemployed womanizing husband and a nice frame house in Jamaica, New York. She moves to Harlem with her eight-year-old son, Bub. Lutie moves to the city to realize a comfortable life. Instead of an independent and prosperous life in New York City, Lutie finds herself living in a tenement. The janitor, William Jones, is a sociopath who lusts after Lutie. A major presence on the street is Mrs. Hedges, who runs a whorehouse. Qualified for clerical or secretarial employment, Lutie can find only menial work in a laundry. Instead of ownership of a piece of the American Dream, Lutie finds herself trapped in a nightmare.

Lutie becomes fair game for males. William makes advances and tries to molest Lutie. Junto, the white business partner of Mrs. Hedges, tries to seduce Lutie. Boots Smith, a musician in a bar that Junto owns, charms Lutie with visions of a better life with him. Boots lures her to his apartment, where he attempts to rape her. In an effort to ward off Boots’s rape, Lutie kills him. Vowing revenge on Lutie, William tricks Bub into stealing and gets him in trouble with the law. Disillusioned and defeated, Lutie abandons Bub and runs away to Chicago.

Sexual politics drive the novel and rest on a concept that African American women are sexual prey. Negative sexual imagery of Lutie and by extension of all African American women is held by black and white males and by white females. A mixture of race and gender politics pushes Lutie over the edge. Lutie represents all the walking wounded of 116th Street and all of Harlem’s downtrodden residents. The Street is not merely a graphic portrayal of what it means to be female and to be poor; it is also a story of protest and defeat. The Street presents the African American woman as the center of the family and the community. She shoulders the moral responsibilities of the race.

The Street Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In an attempt to provide a better life for Bub, her eight-year-old son, Lutie Johnson rents a small fifth-floor apartment in Harlem. Even as she inspects the apartment, she has misgivings, but she dismisses them, believing that this arrangement is only temporary and will allow her to advance herself and protect her son from the unseemly influences of her father’s live-in companion, Min, who seems to be introducing Bub to untold vices.

Lutie’s mother had died when Lutie was seven years old, leaving her to be raised by her protective and proper grandmother. Granny taught Lutie middle-class values and insisted that she marry her boyfriend straight out of high school because she was an attractive black woman whom men would see as “available.”

Lutie and her husband, Jim, buy a house in Jamaica, New York, and do well until he loses his job and cannot find another. To tide them over, they become foster parents until the state removes the children. Her father, Pop, had moved in and thrown a late-night party while Jim and Lutie were away. In the aftermath of this setback, Jim becomes resentful while Lutie becomes more determined, sure that she can somehow find a way to generate income. Accordingly, she secures a job in Connecticut as a domestic. In the two years that she works for the Chandlers, she comes to believe even more strongly in the possibilities of achieving the American Dream. Jim, on the other hand, becomes demoralized and takes a lover.

Learning of Jim’s infidelity, Lutie returns to New York with their son and moves in with Pop. She then finds a job at a laundry, attends night school, and ultimately secures an entry-level civil service job. While she is proud of her accomplishments, she feels that she needs a place of her own to protect her son.

Lutie rents an apartment on 116th Street, despite feeling that the superintendent, William Jones, is lusting after her as he shows her the apartment and despite feeling that Mrs. Hedges, who lives downstairs, is sizing her up and trying to figure out how to exploit her vulnerabilities. On Lutie’s initial visit, she also meets Min, the seemingly spineless common-law wife of William.

Lutie soon realizes that the neighborhood (not to mention the neighbors) is not ideal, but feels it is the proper first step toward independence. Believing that, like Benjamin Franklin, she...

(The entire section is 974 words.)

The Street Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

When The Street appeared in 1946, earning Alain Locke’s praise as “the artistic success” of the year, it was immediately identified with the literature of social protest that had become the primary vehicle for African American fiction of the period. Petry’s novel tells the story of a young African American mother in New York City whose ambitions have been fed by her early reading of Benjamin Franklin and her domestic service in the household of wealthy white suburbanites.

Lutie Johnson’s goals are the stuff of the American Dream itself and on the surface appear eminently worthy: Although recently abandoned by her husband, she eschews defeat and is convinced that she will obtain a white-collar job that...

(The entire section is 965 words.)