Saturday, November 10, 2018

Ann Petry - Like a Winding Sheet (Overview - Part 3)
Read part 1 of this overview which includes a brief introduction, includes a link to the full text of the story, some details about the author's life as well as an analysis of setting, plot.

Part 2 contains an analysis of the characters that appear in the story and the point of view. 

This part discusses the symbolism found in this complex short story.

Part 4 follows to discuss the themes and the title of the story.

Don't forget to read other overviews of literary works or find posts explaining literary terms by clicking on the picture below.

Ann Petry - Like a Winding Sheet


red lipstick
    • acts as a muleta (stick with a red cape of a matador -- Johnson is the bull in this case)
    • is the ultimate feminine cosmetic/ symbol of femininity
      • lips are colored to seem fuller (studies show larger lips are linked to higher fertility/ estrogen levels) + mimic red lips during intercourse
      • historically:
        • used to show social status, not gender (Ancient Egyptians)
        • worn by prostitutes + courtesans, later the upper class (Ancient Greece)
        • part of puberty rituals (Australian Aborigines)
        • until late19th century UK + US: unacceptable (was worn by actors + prostitutes)
        • exceptions: 16th century (during Queen Elizabeth’s reign) red lips were fashionable
        • end of the 19th century – start of the 20th century: became more acceptable to be seen wearing lipstick in public
        • conclusion: until 20th century, connection between lipstick + provocative/loose women
        • in the 1960’s = linked to femininity
    • if there’s one characteristic symbol that unites all female characters in this story it’s the mouth / lipstick
      • the one linked to male character = leg pain + fists
      • male + female symbols are highlighted through repetitive use
    • What do the lips / mouth / lipstick refer to in the story?
      • they remind Johnson of
        • the essence of women (attractiveness / sexuality)
        • their smugness / self-confidence
        • artful way to hide plainness / harshness (lipstick beautifies natural, unadorned lips)
      • Johnson’s vexation grows each time he
        • is reminded that women are able to delight in that which asserts their identity whereas he has to suppress what society dictates is men’s essential attribute (strength / authority / toughness)
        • hears women’s lips spew out nonsense / obscenities / insults:
          • Mae’s superstitious fears force him to have to persuade her to leave the house in the morning, which causes his delay
          • women factory workers snap and snarl when they’re tired at the end of the day
          • all women are bossy: Mrs. Scott: “You get in here on time.” ; coffee girl: “No more coffee for awhile.” ; Mae: “Come on, get up.” “… come on and eat…”
          • women are foul-mouthed: “nigger” uttered by his superior and his wife
        • feels humiliated because a woman doesn’t let him deal with his difficulties (by getting her own way / because he backs down)
          • Mae doesn’t show any sympathy for his leg pain in the morning; tells him to get up, get to work
          • Mrs. Scott doesn’t show any sympathy for his leg pain + inability to get started in the morning; puts him in the same boat as all men and reaches the peak of malice with “And the niggers are the worst. I don’t care what’s wrong with your legs.”
          • coffee girl (Note: her lipstick is scarlet – brighter shade of red) doesn’t allow him the pleasure of enjoying that which he sees soothes other customers: the forewoman’s racist remarks linger in his mind and poison his mind to believe that the girl is refusing him coffee on purpose
          • Mae (whose lipstick at the end of the story is dark red) doesn’t let him rest on the chair because she’d draped her overalls over the back of it
      • lipstick keeps his mind fixated on how women pamper themselves, hiding their bitchiness behind appealing lips: they stress their womanhood which further prevents his assertion of manhood (he has to accommodate them each time, because as he keeps telling himself, they’re women)
        • key sentence in the story: “He stood motionless for a moment and then turned away from the red lipstick on her mouth that made him remember that the foreman was a woman.”

winding sheet
    • shroud to bury the dead
      • symbolism behind this is that everyone -- regardless of social class, race, gender – wears the same clothes before God
    • is white: connected to the color scheme juxtaposed in this story (see further down)
    • Johnson is wrapped in the bed sheets that seem like a winding sheet to Mae
      • Mae links the sheets to death by calling the sheets a shroud
      • all he sees is his color enmeshed in the sheets: his color is stifled by the white of the sheets (white people): “ He looked at his arms silhouetted against the white of the sheets. They were inky black by contrast …”
      • Mae is giggling at this sight: subconsciously this must have remained with him throughout the day as yet another humiliation
      • the connection between death and his skin color wrapped in the whiteness of the sheets is a potent idea that whiteness is killing him

    • Mae calls him this when she sees him wrapped in the bed sheets: “You look like a huckleberry – in a winding sheet – ”
    • connotations this word has:
      • originates from 15th century phrase: “Something/someone is a huckleberry to one’s persimmon.”  = something or someone is slightly better than someone else (the huckleberry is smaller than a persimmon lotus)
      • the word itself connected to an ignorant person, someone who lacks ability
      • linked to sth insignificant, minor, humble
      • later connected to someone who is unimportant: Mark Twain used the word to ascribe characteristics to his character Huckleberry Finn (Twain stated he wanted to create a boy of lower extraction than Tom Sawyer)
      • “I’m your huckleberry” = I’m the man for the job: this could extend to imply that someone who’s a huckleberry is a stooge / whipping boy because they’re weak and inferior, just there to do a job and nothing more
    • conclusion: Johnson is reminded of his color, inferiority and insignificance by Mae

colors (white vs. black)
    • colors and race pervade the story, reminding Johnson of the inequality and gap between the powerful and the powerless
    • references to white
      • talcum powder Mae puts on in the morning
      • white bed sheets
      • “light colored slacks” forewoman at the plant wore
      • restaurant: “white porcelain topped tables”, “thick white cups” of coffee
    • references to black
      • darkness of the night that would help Johnson sleep (versus the daylight which prevents him from resting) is a time for toil + pain
      • huckleberry
      • inky black arms
    • for Johnson: white soothes, shows superiority; black is inferior, working-class
    • Note: other colors in the story = (for red, see above) blue tied to denim overalls and blue flame under the coffee urn; yellow housecoat Mae is wearing at the end of the story

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