Critical Context (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series)
Ann Petry was not the first novelist to explore aspects of African American life in naturalistic terms. Richard Wright’s Native Son, published in 1940, was a great predecessor. Part of the significance of Petry’s achievement was her success in applying the naturalistic approach to the story of an articulate woman, in contrast to Wright’s inarticulate moral drifter.
The significance of literary naturalism for the African American writer is plain. To see characters in terms of the forces that shape them, to define the distorting effects of negative social forces, offers a possibility of explanatory power in the depiction of African American life. It also provides the materials of a strong implicit indictment of white America, which has, after all, largely created and maintained the world writers like Wright and Petry depict. Lutie Johnson has a lucid perception of the ways in which white power works to limit the options of black Americans, even though this lucidity does not enable her to escape the effects of what she knows.
Yet it is no denigration of what Petry has achieved to point out that naturalism is but one option open to African American novelists, and that other alternatives will appeal to those writers for whom the portrayal of black people as victims is ultimately not enough. The folk imagination of Zora Neale Hurston, manifested in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), and the Transcendentalist impulse of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) suggest other models, to which younger writers have responded. Petry’s fine novel takes its place in an African American literary tradition the richness of which readers and critics are still learning to appreciate.