Tell Me How Long the Train's Been Gone Analysis

James Baldwin

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This first-person narrative is told through the eyes of a ten-year-old African American boy, who describes himself as timid, fearful, sensitive, and creative. This technique requires the reader to be alert and to evaluate the responses of this boy in the light of a mature awareness. One quality of the story as the boy tells it stands out in sharp relief: the sense that the story is about people living in the dark. There is no mention of sunshine or brightness, only night scenes. Perhaps this exclusive focus on the lives of the Proudhammer family living in darkness is a way of conveying to the reader that the consciousness of the storyteller is in a state of darkness, a state of ignorance. Despite his awareness of what is going on around him, he does not see a way to deal with it. At this point in his life, no light is available—he has no understanding—to guide him to comprehend how to free himself from this darkness.

The episode in the subway serves as a metaphor for this situation. Leo states that he loves subways, and they taught him the geopolitical construct of the city. Black people got on and off the train in certain stops, white people at others. His recognition of this neighborhood segregation terrorizes him and eventually leads him to get hopelessly lost. This getting lost can be understood symbolically: Not only is he lost physically, but he has lost his ability to cope with a racist world beyond his comprehension.

From the standpoint of style, the story is told simply, as if from the consciousness of a ten-year-old. Leo has no awareness of politics or economics, of history, or intellectual movements of great figures. Nonetheless, politics, economics, history, and intellectual movements impinge on his consciousness through the reality of his life. He knows he is black and the world he lives in is dominated by whites and also repressive toward his people.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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