Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

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White Rat’s narrative exposes him as a violent, abusive, alcoholic husband with mixed feelings about his racial identity. He acknowledges that he has always “been a hard man, kind of quick-tempered” but denies that he has changed since the marriage. Maggie claims that he started drinking after they were married and that the drinking makes him quick to anger, causing him to verbally abuse her. Afraid that the verbal abuse may lead to physical abuse, Maggie leaves him: “She say one of these times I might not jus’ say something. I might do something.” She takes Henry with her because she is afraid that White Rat might hurt him, a fear that is validated by White Rat’s statement that Henry “know what it mean when you hit him on the ass when he do something wrong.” Her return home may, in fact, have been prompted by her desire to protect her son.

Although he claims that he has been sober for two months, White Rat is a heavy drinker. After he leaves Maggie, he goes to a white bar, where he passes for white and tells the bartender two versions of his marriage to Maggie. In the first, he tells the bartender about a black priest who is punished for renouncing his vows of celibacy; his punishment is having a clubfooted son. In the second, he describes a white priest who also breaks his vows, but his punishment is that he has a “nigger” for a child. In the second version, White Rat can also be seen as the child who is the punishment for miscegenation. Even though he claims that he hates the “hoogies” (whites) as much as his father did, Maggie disagrees and states that he marred her because she is “the lightest and brightest nigger woman” that he could get and “still be nigger.” When he returns from the bar, he finds Maggie has gone and declares, “She the nigger.” He may complain about the problems involved in being a light-skinned African American, but some of his comments suggest that he enjoyed some of the privileges and status that used to be given to light-skinned African Americans: “I kept telling Maggie it get harder and harder to be a white nigger now specially since it don’t count no more how much white blood you got in you.”

Because of the first-person narration, the reader gets only White Rat’s perspective on the action. What is not related is Maggie’s situation as a black woman abused by her husband, abandoned by her lover, and forced, either by concern for her child or for economic security, to return to a husband who expects to be fed the morning after she returns to him. He is, as Cousin Willie puts it, “the lessen two evils.” Maggie can only retaliate by mentioning the child she will soon have, if, in fact, she is pregnant.