The Characters

Lutie Johnson is characterized by independence of spirit. Lutie is greatly enamored of cultural myths of the self-made American—a figure symbolized for her by the suburban Chandlers, for whom she worked as a maid, and by the larger-than-life image of Benjamin Franklin. While preoccupied with notions of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,” Lutie finds herself prey to the desires of those around her—the sexual fantasies of the apartment superintendent, the practiced eye of the resident madame, the lust of the white slumlord. She survives an attempted rape at the hands of Jones, the superintendent, and by happenstance is presented the opportunity to escape her environment and realize her dreams by singing. Apparent happenstance is revealed as a plot on the part of Junto, slumlord and ubiquitous presence, to sacrifice Lutie to his sexual appetite. Faced at the conclusion of the novel with having to solicit money from Junto’s middleman, Lutie is consumed with rage at those who manipulate her and at the patent falsehood of American cultural myths in relation to herself and those who share her circumstances. Faced with an imminent rape attempt, Lutie, in her rage, murders Boots, Junto’s middleman, and flees Harlem, leaving behind her son—in whose name she had so often fashioned her “American” dreams.

Jones, the superintendent of Lutie Johnson’s apartment building, has spent his life on ships and in basements and boiler rooms. He views women almost exclusively as instruments for fulfilling his sexual fantasies. In his life of confinement in the basement of tenements working for men like Junto, Jones...

(The entire section is 666 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In addition to being the protagonist, Lutie Johnson functions as the viewpoint character for much of the novel. Thus, readers come to know her in large part through her perceptions and the actions and reactions based on these. Readers see the street, the hallway, and the apartment through her eyes, and her dissatisfaction with what she sees reflects significantly on who she is. She is determined not to surrender to the street, but readers feel her anxiety and know how close she is to despair.

Other characters assume the role of viewpoint character for extended stretches. Most of these characters are first seen through Lutie’s perception of them, then through their perception of a world that includes Lutie. In Lutie’s perception, Jones, the building superintendent, is frightening in the openness of his lust for her—and, indeed, her initial fears are justified by his attempt to rape her. Yet readers are also allowed to see something of how the world looks to Jones, and of the forces that have brought him to where he is. The result is not to make Jones a sympathetic character, but to suggest that one errs if one sees in him only the stock villain of melodrama.

Others function as viewpoint characters in the course of the novel. Of the principal characters, only Junto is excepted. Junto is depicted essentially on the basis of how others see him and in his effect on others. He protects Mrs. Hedges, as Jones finds out when he summons the law in an angry attempt to put her out of business. To Boots, Junto has given, and Junto can take away. Junto’s desire for Lutie generates much of the action of the novel. Although Lutie manages to resist, this resistance forces her defeat.

The author also develops characters through comparison and contrast. Lutie, readers observe, has internalized the materialistic values of Mrs. Chandler, her white employer. Lutie’s helplessness is shown in contrast to the varying, and ultimately unsatisfactory, sorts of resourcefulness represented by Mrs. Hedges and Min, each of whom might claim to be a survivor, but in a morally shrunken universe. Lutie is, by comparison, a morally vigorous character, but the negative power of the street is finally more than she can overcome.

Characters Discussed

Lutie Johnson

Lutie Johnson, a young, divorced African American mother who is characterized by independence of spirit. Lutie is greatly enamored of cultural myths of the self-made American—a figure symbolized for her by the suburban Chandlers, for whom she worked as a maid, and by the larger-than-life image of Benjamin Franklin. After her divorce and a period living briefly with her father, Lutie seeks an apartment for herself and her son, Bub. She soon discovers herself in one of the ill-kept, overcrowded Harlem tenements reserved for African Americans. Moreover, while preoccupied with notions of “pulling oneself up by the bootstraps,” Lutie finds herself prey to the desires of those around her—the sexual fantasies of the apartment superintendent, the practiced eye of the resident madame, and the lust of the white slumlord. She survives an attempted rape at the hands of Jones, the superintendent, and by happenstance is presented with the opportunity to escape her environment and realize her dreams by singing. Apparent happenstance is revealed as a plot on the part of Junto, a slumlord and ubiquitous presence, to sacrifice Lutie to his sexual appetite. Faced at the conclusion of the novel with having to solicit money from Junto’s middleman, Lutie is consumed with rage at those who manipulate her and at the patent falsehood of American cultural myths in relation to herself and those who share her circumstances. Faced with an imminent rape attempt, Lutie, in her rage, murders Boots, Junto’s middleman, and flees Harlem, leaving behind her son—in whose name she had so often fashioned her “American” dreams.

Jones

Jones, the superintendent of Lutie’s apartment building. Jones has spent his life on board ships and...

(The entire section is 726 words.)