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...
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