Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Ann Petry - Like a Winding Sheet (Overview - Part 1)

Many read "Like a Winding Sheet" and conclude the drama that ensues has to do with race. Yes, that indeed would be the obvious conclusion. However, details pertaining to lipstick, tossing one's head back, lifting hair away from one's nape tell a different story. 

This story is Ann Petry's primary narrative, I feel, as more care has been given to leave a trail of feminine breadcrumbs against the manifest backdrop of racial inequality and heartless behavior by those in a position of power, which happen to be the destructive forces behind further victimization. Petry manages to show just how everything comes full circle in the worst possible way when people try their damnedest to be the brutes they shouldn't be in their dealings with others.

Can violence towards those closest to us be suppressed once cruelty from outside sources is mitigated? Do our surroundings perpetually invite us to lash out at those weaker than us? If prejudicial sentiments are not eradicated, can domestic violence ever become a thing of the past? The fear is that for all these questions, the overriding issue is whether it is in people's nature to change, whether they are strong enough to overcome social preconceptions or cope with traumatic experiences at the hands of those sadists who refuse to see the error of their ways.

Read Petry's story and decide for yourself.

The story can be found here or here.

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


The following notes can be used for assignments, discussions or by those who simply wish to check my take of Petry's story. 

This is the first part of the overview which deals with an extremely brief biography of the author, the setting and plot (broken up into 4 encounters / confrontations). Read Part 2 here.

Part 3 discusses symbolism, part 4 the title and themes.

Ann Petry – Like a Winding Sheet

  • 1911-1997, African-American author
  • studied pharmacology and worked as a pharmacist (she was the niece of the first African-American female pharmacist in Connecticut) before marrying + moving to NYC
  • worked for newspaper
  • 1946: “Like a Winding Sheet” awarded best American short story of 1946
  • is the first African-American whose book, The Street, sold over a million copies

  • starts at 4pm, Friday 13th (payday) until early the next day (before 5-6 am when the main characters, Johnson and Mae, usually went to bed)
  • Harlem
  • the main character’s home; the plant where he works, a restaurant when his shift ends, back home

  • the story revolves around a series of events within a 24-hour period (= a typical day in the life of Johnson, an African-American worker) 
    • cf. like a mini Odyssey either along Homer's lines or Joyce's Ulysses which follows Leopold Bloom 
  • this series of events is marked by encounters the main character has
  • not entirely a linear series of encounters starts at home and returns home (as if things come full circle)
  • 1st encounter: home
    • Johnson and his wife getting ready for work
    • picture of calm marital bliss (except for the pain in his legs and his exhaustion)
      • story’s first sentence: “He had planned to get up before Mae did and surprise her by fixing breakfast.”
      • “… he lay there smiling and savoring the sweet sound of Mae’s giggling.”
      • “He had to talk persuasively, urging her gently and it took time. But he couldn’t bring himself to talk to her roughly or threaten to strike her like a lot of men might have done.” (1st mention of violence, wanting to hit a woman; here he only thinks of threatening to hit her)
    • 1st conflict: having to explain to his wife why she shouldn’t be afraid to go out of the house on Friday the 13th, that today is a lucky day because it’s payday
    • result of this is that he’s late for work again: his entire day goes downhill because of Mae
  • 2nd encounter: factory / plant
    • Johnson has worked here for 2 years, 10 hours every night, pushes a cart around to pick up finished parts from the workbenches
    • he’s been late twice this week, 3 times last week, once the week before that and more (when Mae lists the number of times, Johnson cuts her off at this point, so Johnson has been late more times)
    • conflict with the foreman who is a woman (Mrs Scott), white, upset, wears red lipstick
    • she calls him a “nigger”, says guys like him always have excuses for being late and that “the niggers are the worst”: “I’m sick of you niggers—“
    • 2nd mention of him wanting to hit a woman: he suppresses his anger but his hands don’t soften
    • his reaction (though spoken softly) to Mrs. Scott’s abusive language and behavior proves to him that by threatening (he stepped closer to her, fists doubled), results are obtained: she backs down and is seen wiping her forehead (was obviously rattled by his stance)
    • note: when he turns away from her, he “turned away from the red lipstick on her mouth”
      • metonymy (synecdoche): she is reduced to an image in his eyes
      • cf. symbolism in part 2 of this overview regarding the lipstick
    • female workers quibbling (they “had started to snap and snarl at each other”) shows quitting time is near
      • “… he could see the quick lip movements that sent words tumbling from the sides of their mouths. They gestured irritably with their hands and scowled as their mouths moved.”
      • synecdoche continued
      • him noticing just the women shows his irritation (maybe the men were also tired and arguing, but he seems to only notice women’s gestures and voices)
  • 3rd encounter: all-night restaurant
    • he stops outside to kill time + avoid the crowds of workers going home (hates the rush of crowds taking the subway)
    • white porcelain tables, imitation marble counter, lights, steam from a metal coffee urn, smiling faces of those who’d just had a sip of coffee: all this lured him in
      • he saw life and motion inside
      • he wanted to soothe the ache in his legs (laughter and voices inside the restaurant helped this happen)
    • girl serving the coffee says there’s no more coffee for awhile
    • he thinks she’s saying this on purpose because of his skin color (however, the girl wasn’t lying)
    • Johnson fixates on her red lipstick and how she tosses her head back a little as she lifts her hair from the back of her neck
      • his hands tingle and clench into fists (3rd mention of him wanting to hit a woman, this time in greater detail)
      • imagines he’d hit her so hard he’d smear her lipstick all over her nose, chin, cheek (the fantasy is becoming more real for him; it's as if he is almost savoring it)
  • 4th encounter: home
    • violence comes full circle
    • Mae was difficult in the morning, now she:
      • is ironic towards him: instead of asking what’s wrong / listening to his problems / going to the door to greet him / giving him a hug
        • “You sure sound cheerful…”
        • “You get bawled out by the boss or somep’n?”
        • she does this while looking at herself in the mirror, fixing her hair
      • is upset he’s “picking” on her the minute he walks through the door
        • it seems she’s ready to pick a fight with him (which is why Petry writes: “… he didn’t want to quarrel with her.”)
        • Johnson knows where this attitude of hers is going and wants to avoid yet another confrontation
      • orders him to get up off the chair where she’s put her overalls (though they’ve been worn this past week, not freshly washed or ironed)
      • says “You’re nothing but a old hungry nigger trying to act tough …”
  • he hits her
    • he’s appalled by what he has done, but can’t stop doing it
    • he can’t “drag his hands away from her face”
    • something inside him was “binding him to this act, wrapping and twisting about him so that he had to continue it”
    • he no longer is in control of his actions – this inexplicable feeling has possessed him
    • he finally describes this thing that has gripped him: “… it was like being enmeshed in a winding sheet…”
  • the story ends with an uncertainty: does he beat her to death or does she manage to survive?

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