The critical analysis of a piece of literature involves the identification of dominant and recurring symbols or motifs that represent embedded meanings and a deeper understanding of overarching themes that epitomize the message of a given story. Taking note of the themes allows a reader to determine what the literature stands for and how the growth of the characters and the progression of a story contribute to the full representation of the underlying meaning. To exercise the definitive meaning of critical literary analysis, three separate pieces of literature – “Barn Burning” by William Faulkner, “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston, and “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker – will be analyzed by searching for common themes prevalent in these stories. For this particular project, the themes of initiation and wounded vanity will be studied based on relevant literary elements embedded in the three short stories, as well as the literary devices used by the authors to convey themes or ideas, the plot, and the narrative style. The conflict and character roles in Faulkner, Hurston, and Walker represent the relevance of the two aforementioned themes – initiation and wounded vanity – and will be thoroughly discussed in the succeeding paragraphs.
A common theme in Faulkner, Hurston and Walker
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The short stories by Faulkner, Hurston and Walker deal with a common theme – social injustice against some of the characters due to class, gender, and race. In Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”, the protagonist Sartoris Snopes’ family deals with the problem brought about by his father’s tendency to destroy property through arson. The story begins in the courtroom when Mr. Snopes is on trial for burning Mr. Harris barn after the latter asked him to pay fines for trespassing and damage of property. Instead of admitting fault, Mr. Snopes burns Mr. Harris’ barn instead. Although Mr. Snopes was not proven guilty due to lack of evidence, the court still asked his family to leave. The Snopes leave and moves to another place where Mr. Snopes was employed as a sharecropper by a Major de Spain. Mr. Snopes’ destructive nature starts another conflict between himself and Major de Spain and leads to another court battle. After the court ordered Mr. Harris to a pay fines, he plans to burn Major de Spain’s barn with his son, Sartoris’ help. However, Sartoris flees, never to return to his family. In this story, Mr. Snopes commits arson due to his vengeful and destructive nature. Although his actions are unacceptable and unjustifiable, the Mr. Snopes’ crimes could be rationalized by considering the social context within which the story was set. The Snopes is an African-American family of hard-working laborers who most probably witnessed or experienced the injustice against them because of their race. Mr. Snopes’ antagonistic attitude towards Major de Spain, for instance, was because he refused to show respect towards someone whose house was built by slaves. For this reason, Mr. Snopes’ actions could be a result of years of struggles and injustice he and his African American brothers experienced during that time. While Mr. Snopes’ character represents the theme of social injustice, Sartori, on the other hand, represents the theme of initiation. Sartori is young and has not seen what his father experienced. Therefore, Sartori does not feel the same amount of hatred like his father. Sartori’s inexperience to crime led him to refuse his father’s request for him to take part in his crimes.
Hurston’s “Sweat” is about an African American laundress, Delia, who is married to an abusive man. Delia’s husband, Sykes, physically and verbally abuses his wife. Sykes is unemployed so Delia is expected to do all the work to pay the bills. However, instead of helping his wife, Sykes cheats on Delia with another woman and to make matters worse, he even pays for his mistress’ bills. When Sykes planned to murder Delia through snakebite, his plan backfires and he is bitten by the snake instead. In the end, Delia shows no mercy be refusing to help her ailing husband from the snakebite. Hurston’s story reflects gender and racial inequality. Delia’s abusive relationship with her husband represents male dominance. Moreover, Delia, being subjected to hard labor represents the organization of social classes due to race. The pressure that Delia feels as a washerwoman for her White clients represents the hardship that African Americans and women face for being wrongly treated as second hand citizens next to dominant racial groups and gender.
Walker’s “Everyday Use” is about the relationship between a mother and her daughters as well as the relationship between siblings. Mama’s daughter, Dee, is about to come home from college after being away for a long time. Mama expects a cordial homecoming because she will be reunited with her daughter she feels proud of. However, conflict ensues when Dee returns home and shows how she has changed not only her name, but also her identity and beliefs, which are different from her heritage. Mama eventually feels distant from Dee and learns to appreciate her younger daughter, Maggie. Although the story does not directly tackle racial inequality, it underscores the impact of cultural diversity. Cultural differences lead to conflict, as represented by Mama’s relationship with Dee after seeing her embrace another culture different from her own. Mama who is not used to other cultural practices shows her disappointment over Dee by diverting her attention to Maggie who has been living with her, and thus, practices Southern culture.
Overall, social inequality or injustice is the common overarching theme of the three short stories. However, the three stories differ because they deal with different social issues as well. Faulkner’s short story represents the themes of injustice against African Americans and initiation, Hurston’s short story represents dominance of Whites and males, and Walker’s short story represents social conflict brought about by cultural differences. Although the themes developed through characterization, conflict, and metaphors, the authors utilized context effectively to embed deeper meaning within their stories. On the surface, the literary pieces could be mistaken for stories about a man’s predilection to arson (Faulkner’s “Burning Barn”), a woman’s revenge against her abusive husband (Hurston’s “Sweat”), and a mother’s relationship with her daughters (Walker’s “Everyday Use”), however, a closer look proves that based on the context (setting, time period, social issues during that time, and existing relevant social issues like racial and gender discrimination, cultural conflict, etc.) within which the stories were written by the authors prove that context is the literary element that embodies the common themes shared by the short stories.