How can one write a naturalist novel and still convey strong symbolic effect? I don’t know the answer, but I think you achieved that. The Street (1946) in your first novel is both a concrete space and a distorting mirror for a perverse version of the American Dream, a thin surface impossible to break through.
The novel is set in 1940s Harlem, during World War II. The story begins in a windy day in November of 1944, when Lutie Johnson, a young, hard-working, single black mother, is looking at an apartment available for rent. After the breakup of her marriage, Lutie and her 8-year-old son, Bub, have been living with her alcoholic father and his girlfriend. She wants to escape their negative influence over her son, and longs to give him a better home.
Lutie studied hard and managed to pass a civil servant examination, but her income as a file clerk is barely enough to cover rent and food expenses. She can only afford to live on 116th Street in Harlem, where she found a small, badly ventilated, dark apartment. To makes matters worse, the super of Lutie’s building, Jones, becomes sexually obsessed with her, and gets violent with his partner and roommate, Min. Mrs. Hedges, a big-boned woman who runs a brothel in the same building, keeps luring Lutie into becoming a prostitute to get extra money. Junto, her business partner, a wealthy white man who owns several pieces of real estate in the neighbourhood, seems to have taken an interest in Lutie, too.
The story, told in the third person omniscient point of view, shifts between multiple perspectives, providing glimpses into the thoughts and lives of each of the characters – as well as into the many small ways they frame and misunderstand each other. The book is seeped with loneliness, anger and frustration. West 116th Street is the line that crosses over to the other – distorted, more perverse – side of the American Dream.
Mirroring her former employer’s ideology (a rich white family in Connecticut), Lutie firmly believes that hard work is all it takes to succeed. She has a dream of moving to a nicer neighbourhood and better providing for her son’s education. When we read the story through Lutie’s eyes, we cannot help cherishing her wild hope that she will defy the odds against her and buy her way out of 116th Street. From the beginning, we can sense that moving there is the first step toward downfall – nevertheless, Lutie’s fierce, ever-present hope is constantly clouding our eyes.
Every time Lutie tries to reach for the American dream, it moves a step further away from her. The street is the border its inhabitants are made unable to cross over, an invisible border that segregates them from White American neighbourhoods. The street is a dividing line, a trap, and a prison. It seems to have a will of its own, and it is going to swallow up each of the characters in its own way.
The imagery of the street has many layers of meaning. It is a space, a hostile environment which sinks deep into its inhabitants. But it is also an omnipresent character, pervading their daily lives; the street is a dangerous adversary, an intrusive presence permeating their lives, seeping in from outside directly into their homes, their intimate thoughts, their dreams. “And the street reached out and sucked them up.” The street is a geographic border and an ideology. It is a barrage, keeping African-Americans out, trapping them in a confined space. The street is their limiting and limited allotment of the American Dream. It’s a wall built around black people, “a walled enclosure from where there was no escape”, “three rooms with the silence and the walls pressing in”. The street is a personification of various systems of oppression: institutional racism, sexism, social injustice. The class and white power structures draw the street through enforced segregation – and rarely allow for a way out.
The white power structure and its pervasive ideology are given a face in the character of Junto, the unassuming white man who seems to control the neighbourhood from behind the scenes, perpetuating everything the street represents. Although invisible, his power makes itself present at every turn. Like a ghost, one cannot see it, but only feel its touch. The neighbourhood is submitted to its constant gaze, as if it were a prison, a panopticon. The forces governing everyone’s lives are tangible, but hidden from view.
From the opening scene, there is something invisible barring Lutie’s path. The wind is blowing strongly against her, pushing her back, as if the street itself were attacking Lutie, in a relentless onslaught. “The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she felt suddenly naked and bald.” The wind seems to be violently assaulting everyone one the street; as if the wind had hands, it “grabbed their hats, pried their scarves from around their necks, stuck its fingers inside their coat collars, blew their coats away from their bodies.” The wind was driving people off the streets, doing “everything it could to discourage the people walking along the street.” It is hostile, like a wild, angry, fierce-looking animal.
“A cold November wind” blew through the street, as if it were pursuing its next prey. In contrast to this harsh setting, we have Lutie, “softly and warmly” striving to pass by. Furthermore, in contrast to the “few hurried pedestrians” who “bent double in an effort to offer the least possible exposed surface to its violent onslaught”, Lutie stands defiantly against the wind, refusing to bend to its power. However, we can sense that the wind will continue to assault her, blow after blow, like an invisible barrage, until Lutie’s breaking point. We somehow know from the beginning that she will be in constant struggle against her environment. By the end of the novel, we will not face the same woman who had once refused to let the wind break her. We somehow know that the wind will gradually turn her into “everything she had hated, everything she had ever fought against, everything that had served to frustrate her”. She will take the blows, but she will change.
The book opens with wind and ends with snow. The snow silences everyone, and buries the “grime and garbage”, sweeping the ugliness under the carpet, as if nothing had happened, like a blank. “The snow fell softly on the street. It muffled sound. It sent people scurrying homeward, so that the street was soon deserted, empty, quiet. And it could have been any street in the city, for the snow laid a delicate film over the sidewalk, over the brick of the tired, old buildings; gently obscuring the grime and the garbage and the ugliness.” What the street represents is an inescapable cycle with a violent undercurrent. It could have been any street in the city: this undercurrent is far-reaching. It will cover everything in whiteness.
“Her voice had a thin thread of sadness running through it that made the song important, that made it tell a story that wasn’t in the words – a story of despair, of loneliness, of frustration. It was a story that all of them knew by heart and had always known because they had learned it soon after they were born and would go on adding to it until the day they died.”
― Ann Petry,
“The snow fell softly on the street. It muffled sound. It sent people scurrying homeward, so that the street was soon deserted, empty, quiet. And it could have been any street in the city, for the snow laid a delicate film over the sidewalk, over the brick of the tired, old buildings; gently obscuring the grime and the garbage and the ugliness.”
― Ann Petry,
“She held the paper in her hand for a long time, trying to follow the reasoning by which that thin ragged boy had become in the eyes of a reporter a ‘burly Negro.’ And she decided that it all depended on where you sat how these things looked. If you looked at them from inside the framework of a fat weekly salary, and you thought of colored people as naturally criminal, then you didn’t really see what any Negro looked like. You couldn’t because the Negro was never an individual. He was a threat, or an animal, or a curse, or a blight, or a joke.”
― Ann Petry,
“The stillness. It was crouched down in the next booth. It was waiting for her to leave. It would walk down the street with her and into the apartment. Or it might leave the shop when she did, but not go down the street at all, but somehow seep into the apartment before she got there, so that when she opened the door it would be there. Formless. Shapeless. Waiting. Waiting.”
― Ann Petry,