There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden Themes

Leon Forrest

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

There Is a Tree More Ancient Than Eden blends realistic passages with sections consisting of poetic monologues, surreal episodes, sermons, and letters. The novel contains many aspects of the African American vernacular tradition in its concentration on language, music, and religion. Within the oral tradition of black Americans, the text can be seen as one long piece of signifying or verbal play on the theme of a collective black identity. Through a combination of memory, imagination, and multiple narrative techniques, Forrest presents a spectrum of African American voices that create a cohesive worldview of black America.

With language that often resonates with biblical images and Shakespearean eloquence, the narrative takes readers on an intense journey. The kernel of this journey is the maturation process of Nathaniel Witherspoon. In this sense, it functions as a traditional bildungsroman, pinpointing important episodes in a young man’s life that lead to his growing up. Many of the sections turn inward into Nathaniel’s consciousness, illustrating through the use of symbol and archetypal images his legacy and connection with a mythic past.

The narrative of Nathaniel’s story is fragmented by the entry of other voices into the narrative. These voices amplify his story by introducing readers to ancestral figures as well as members of his surrounding black community. Readers learn of Nathaniel’s troubled upbringing and his need...

(The entire section is 599 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The themes of There Is a Tree More Ancient than Eden are suggested through contrasting elements which are repeated in varying motifs and symbols throughout the novel. First there is the contrast between white and black, emphasizing the white society’s assumption that pure whiteness is the norm. Thus, Jericho’s white father must brand his illegitimate son so that he will “know his place,” know that he is less than he would have been without his black blood. Nathaniel’s mulatto uncle turns away the black boy Jamestown as if, says Nathaniel’s aunt, the black would rub off on the yellow. Insultingly, Uncle Dupont accuses her of liking black men. The relative values of color as perceived by most of Nathaniel’s family are clear in this incident. Symbolically, in a passage of “The Nightmare,” white angels dance and pray, while the black angels are described as “skeletons” which have been chopped down from a tree in Eden, punished for their very blackness.

A second theme is that of broken relationships between fathers and sons, particularly between white fathers and part-black sons. Thus, Nathaniel thinks of fathers (or of great-grandfathers) as lynching their dark sons. Like William Faulkner, Forrest draws on the story of Absalom, but he also refers to Oedipus. Absalom rebelled against his father, but was loved by him; Absalom’s death was not willed by his father. On the other hand, Oedipus’s father ordered a servant to leave the infant Oedipus on a hillside where he would die; only the servant’s disobedience saved him. Both black and white fathers in this novel are...

(The entire section is 658 words.)