The Street Additional Summary

Ann Petry


(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.


(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.)


(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.)