Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

From the opening of the story, McKay relies on wry juxtapositions to underline what might best be termed societally induced alienation. As the tale opens, Barclay and his wife are safely ensconced in “Nigger Heaven,” a Broadway theater that caters to those who love clean vaudeville. The show features the Merry Mulligans, a garishly proper vaudeville family who personify the popular cultural ideal of the happy family mindlessly skipping through life.

The show, in all of its mawkishness, appeals to Rhoda’s sense of decorum, despite its unreality. This allows McKay ironically to contrast her reaction to that of Barclay. Although she is put off by the “cheap old colored shows,” Barclay longs for the dynamism of the Harlem cabaret. It is therefore no surprise that when she chooses to upbraid Barclay for his irresponsible truancy, she is walking out the door to enjoy an evening of whist and dancing. Nor is it any wonder she fails to recognize the internal strife that is gradually destroying their marriage.

“Truant” revolves around conflicting personalities and mind sets. Rhoda, although a caricature of the bright woman who has used marriage as her ticket out of the workaday world, is a foil against which to present Barclay’s dilemmas. Within this context, Barclay, although by no means a heroic figure, is a sympathetic character resisting the mindless and mind-numbing forces of his current environment. His decision to surrender to his own wanderlust is, finally, a decision to reclaim both his soul and his identity.