The Struggles of Urban Life in “The Street”
Rife with opportunity, urban centers often allow the diverse groups of people drawn to them to realize their dreams and achieve their goals; however, the challenges that come with a bustling city life are not suited for everyone. One excerpt from Anne Petry’s novel The Street demonstrates this conflict through the image of a personified and forceful wind against city folk and the protagonist Lutie Johnson, who is characterized as she struggles to find an ideal apartment in the city.
The personification of the wind characterizes it as antagonistic to the city’s pedestrians, establishing the excerpt’s menacing tone and the conflict between man and nature. The “cold November wind” (1) introduced in the exposition establishes the setting and characterizes the gust with the connotations of loneliness and inhospitality. The forceful diction of the wind driving people “bent double” (8) out of the streets with its “violent assault” (9) both personifies the wind and depicts it as a hostile being that seeks to claim its turf. The wind’s humanlike qualities are further emphasized as it “grab[s]” (31), “prie[s]” (32), and “st[icks] its fingers” (33) around the hats, scarves, and coats of passerby. With these qualities, the wind becomes a symbol for a kind of street thug that personally violates pedestrians and causes them to seek shelter from it. Although the billowing wind’s interactions with the city folk can be primarily viewed as a perpetuation of the man versus nature conflict, the wind’s antagonistic personification suggests that the interactions also reflect a conflict between man and man.
The constant presence of the wind to citizens of all backgrounds reflects the common struggle of city life, reminding readers of the difficulties and potential dangers that are present in an urban setting. The imagery of “theater throwaways, announcements of dances and lodge meetings” (11-12) blown around shows some of the city’s local color and—with the asyndetic structure—identifies and emphasizes the large scope of the wind’s area of effect. As a symbol of the varied lives of the city-goers, the scraps of paper show how hardships are equally experienced by all kinds of people in the city. The wind lifting dirt “into [the pedestrians’] noses” (24), “[stinging] their skins” (26) with grit, and blinding them as “dust got into their eyes” (25) shows through sensory language the extent to which the pedestrians must face hardship in the city life. The possibility of death or violence in the city is implied through the image of the apartment sign’s white paint—symbolic of purity, innocence—being battered by “years of rain and snow” (53) to appear with a “dark red stain like blood” (55). While the wind is understood to be the antecedent of the repeated sentences beginning with “It,” such as “It found” (10) and “It did everything” (21), the ambiguity introduced by the indirect pronouns suggests that the wind’s antagonism can represent several individuals in the city, whether it be a violent killer or someone violating one’s personal space.
Lutie’s interactions with the wind indirectly characterize her as determined and resilient, showing how she adapts to life in an urban setting. Lutie is also affected by the struggles of the city since she feels “suddenly naked and bald” (36-37) as the cold wind feels its way around her neck and head; however, she does not retreat from the streets like the other pedestrians. Motivated by her goal to find a three-room apartment, which symbolizes warmth and security with its “steam heat” and “respectable tenants” (59-60), Lutie endures the bitter cold, characterizing her as both mentally and physically resolute. Lutie’s qualities are emphasized when her character is juxtaposed with the pedestrians, who lack her physical and mental fortitude as they “[curse] deep in their throats” and “[stamp] their feet” (37-38) when the wind harasses them. The excerpt’s structure of establishing the setting and the conflict between the wind and the pedestrians of the city shows both the scope of the wind’s effect and highlights the contrast between the pedestrians and Lutie before the focus of the excerpt centers on her.
The personification of the wind represents the struggles of an urban life as it affects the lives of the pedestrians and the protagonist Lutie; her conflict with the wind reflects how she too is subject to the hardships of the city, but she remains determined in her goal to find an apartment in the city. The characterization of Lutie reinforces the notion that one can reach their goals in the city amid adversity with the mettle and motivation to succeed.
Dogs In Cages: The Dangers of City Living in Ann Petry’s The Street
In Ann Petry’s novel The Street, even the most simple, everyday objects take on fiendish personalities and shifting, threatening aspects. From the cruel wind in the story’s opening chapter to the hard, bitter street itself, glaring situational cruelty and injustice brings vivid color to the narrative. Even the walls, as Petry describes, “were reaching out for her – bending and swaying towards her in an effort to envelop her.” (The Street 12) This haunted woman, the protagonist, Lutie Johnson, stands as a perfect example. Facing much more than just the challenges of an economically disadvantaged single mother, wide-spread discrimination places Lutie at a severe societal disadvantage, while an atmosphere of unapologetic chauvinism subjects her to repeated exploitation and disrespect. The aspects of race and gender, though they are only made obstacles due to tragically backward social norms and systemic inequality, become further and further internalized over the course of the novel. As her own perceptions and actions towards the outside world begin to pervert and twist, Lutie’s race and gender function as both inner and outer demons, providing volatile context for her life as a woman, a provider, and a mother.
The perceptions of Lutie as an adult woman, both sexually and socially, range from the inappropriate to the predatory. These prejudices manifest themselves at times in puzzling, yet deeply cutting misconceptions, as Petry bitterly muses, “Apparently it was an automatic reaction of white people – if a girl was colored and fairly young, why, it stood to reason she had to be a prostitute” (The Street 44). Though it may seem a resentful overstatement, the behavior of the men, white or otherwise, around her gives the impression of a more literal translation. From Mr. Crosse, who sees Lutie’s audition for his singing school as an opportunity to extort sexual favors in exchange for free signing lessons, to William Jones, the Super of her apartment building, who violently attempts to rape her on her way home from work, men in Lutie’s life view her as little more than a sex object, to be attained by whatever means necessary or available. It is this pattern which has Lutie surviving in constant fear and thinly repressed anger, robbing her of her safety at home and opportunity throughout her life. Unable to find companionship based on terms of mutual respect and affection, she has little choice but to isolate herself emotionally after the collapse of her marriage. This alienation, coupled with an escalating culture of violence, ultimately plays a critical role in pushing Lutie towards her most life-altering decision of the novel: the brutal murder of Boots Smith.
Another factor of constant frustration throughout the path of Lutie Johnson’s life is the economic disadvantage imposed upon African-Americans by discrimination endemic throughout the job market. Much of her ill-fortune begins after her husband is unable to find work, no matter how hard he searches. The reason for this curious lack of employment is summed up ruefully by Petry, “It all added up to the same thing, she decided – white people” (The Street 206). In times of economic hardship, white men were given obvious preferential treatment in the quality of work, as well as availability. Even when African-Americans were tenacious, and lucky, enough to find work, the work was degrading, humiliating. In the case of Boots Smith, he could not even pursue a career as a pianist without having to be constantly wary of violent abuse at the hands of a white police force. In a country run on the backs of dollar bills, to intentionally hold back an entire race of people is not only indicative of a truly disgusting sense of superiority and entitlement, but is also incredibly harmful to society over the long term. As we see Lutie struggle from one low-paying, demeaning job to the next, we see her own faith and personal character be beaten down bit by bit. It is in this way that widespread discrimination becomes so truly poisonous to a people; by denying the means to succeed or excel, a pattern of entropy is created; a pattern in which a mother’s child truly has little hope of anything more than a lifetime of gradually escalating desperation and violence.
It is the tragedy of young Bub Johnson, and the choices his mother was mercilessly driven to make, that is truly the most poignant condemnation of racial and gender inequality within the novel. Forced to work for such low pay that she must work late into the evening, merely to afford a tiny apartment in a crime-ridden neighborhood, Lutie struggles to raise her son away from corrupting influences. However, the anger and frustration she constantly carries with her surfaces in ways which are confusing and frightening for her son. After finding Bub running a makeshift shoeshine stand, she lashes out, as Petry details, “She slapped him sharply across the face. His look of utter astonishment made her strike him again – this time more violently, and she hated herself for doing it, even as she lifted her hand for another blow” (The Street 66). In being a constant witness to his family’s abject poverty, Bub is left facing a problem he neither understands, nor has any capacity to solve. To raise a child based on the values of love, hard work, and understanding, is virtually impossible within the environment Lutie has been entrapped within. Due not too any aspect of her own personal race or gender, but instead as a result of society’s flawed, hateful beliefs towards those aspects, Lutie’s most sacred and intimate of tasks becomes irrevocably tainted. As she reflects on her decision to abandon her son at the close of the novel, Lutie realizes that to leave is truly the best she could for him. In a world which turns caring mothers into panicked, suffocating denizens of poverty, the woman that the street had turned Lutie into was worse than no mother at all.
Any remotely human sense of justice would regard the life of Lutie Johnson as an undeniable failure of the American social system. A victim of what some may deem as simple bad luck, a closer inspection into how her race and gender affected the behavior of those around her, and in turn her reactions to those around her, reveals a stark pattern of discrimination and exploitation. Over time, these outside influences begin to color Lutie’s own thought-processes and beliefs about herself, creating a volatile frame of mind verging on psychosis, driving her to beat her son, lash out at strangers, and ultimately commit murder. To cage a human being as if they were an animal is crime enough; but the consequence of a human being that has been made to believe they truly are one is even darker, and impossible to truly measure, count, or comprehend.
Petry, Ann. The Street. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin, 1946. Print.
The Male Box: Shrinking Feminine Space in The Street
Viewed as a Naturalist novel, with its realistic prose, indifferent environment, and an aesthetic network built around motifs, the narrative of Ann Petry’s The Street reads like a mid-century black version of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: a woman (Carrie is single; Lutie Johnson is saddled by a child) and her relationships with a series of men (using them in Sister Carrie; being used by them in The Street) either propels her up the social ladder (Dreiser) or knocks the rungs out below her (Petry). Petry’s blatant protest against societal restrictions placed on women, especially black women, is underscored by a subtler portrayal of the omnipresent claustrophobia that physically confines Lutie. The various cramped spaces she occupiesher unsuitable apartment, crowded buses, massed sidewalks, the packed Juntodefine her social immobility and bodily objectification. She seeks a spacious apartment that never arrives, so throughout the novel she settles for finding alternate ways to expand her spatial presence. However, the constant threat of masculine sexual assault and power, aided by the use of objects, reduces these expansions and imprisons Lutie, who is unwilling to capitalize on her only object of valueher own body. The titular antagonist of the novel is, of course, the greatest enemy Lutie faces and, as do Jones, Junto, and Boots, it treats her and everyone else as objects, amalgamating and de-individuating them: “It was any city where they set up a line and say black folks stay on this side and white folks on this side, so that the black folks were crammed on top of each otherjammed and packed and forced into the smallest possible space” (206). The linehere, segregationrecurs in The Street as that which spatially separates the safe from the dangerous, agency from passivity, selfhood from anonymity. The destruction of lines removes the harmful effects of crowds and makes them joyous, as the busy streets of Harlem are a sudden relief from the jammed subway: “Escaped from the openly appraising looks of the white men whose eyes seemed to go through her clothing to her long brown legs” (57). Even the white men are objectified; while their “open” looks may defy the constrictive space around them, they are reduced to “eyes,” just as Lutie is defined by her legs and her clothingher one object of defensebecomes useless. Nevertheless, sight, as we will later see, is the most powerful sense in The Street; it opens up space for males, often as an illusion, while women are cornered in, as is Lutie here. Interestingly, in a novel whose every action is directed towards acquiring private space, Petry often sings the praises of crowds, so long as they provide individual movement within the anonymous block. The streets of Harlem are a welcome change from the subway, and although the homogeneity of race would seemingly further compromise individuality, the opposite is true, as pedestrians ironically accrue differences when placed in an environment of supposed similarity: “Up here they are no longer creatures labeled simply colored’ and therefore all alike. She noticed that once the crowd walked the length of the platform and started up the stairs toward the street, it expanded in size” (57). It is this metamorphosis”The same people who had made themselves small on the train, even on the platform, suddenly grew so large they could hardly get up the stairs to the street together” (58)that defies objectified labels, and the competition for street space is based upon personal largeness rather than on the shrinking of the public sphere. The metamorphosis comes about through immersion in the new, larger space, but for women, it is clearly a dependent reaction. They require the helping hand of the space and cannot create largeness on their own: Young women coming home from workdirty, tired, depressedlooked forward to the moment when they would change their clothes and head toward the gracious spaciousness of the Junto. They dressed hurriedly in their small dark hall bedrooms, so impatient for the soft lights and music and the fun that awaited them that they fumbled in their haste. (144) The Junto’s “gracious spaciousness” is not merely an opportunity for rhymingthough the space itself suggests a harmonic environmentbut emphasizes the Junto itself as the women’s date; they prepare for the night out as if they were trying to impress a man whose own stature heightens theirs. These “small dark hall bedrooms” are everywhere, and while the women may not like them, for Jones they represent the feminine spaces he is unable to invade as he toils away in his own small dark space, the cellar. The compartmentalization of apartments is correlated to mailboxes, as a building holds many apartments and a mailman’s master key opens all mailboxes at once: “The postman opened all the letter boxes at once, using a key that he had suspended on a long, stout chain. The sagging leather pouch that was swung over his shoulder bulged with mail. He thrust letters into the open boxes, used the key again to lock them and was gone” (290-1). Petry writes this as an episode of virtual intercourse; the postman’s key (a traditional phallic signifier for its ability to penetrate a lock; cf. “Rape of the Lock” which, while without a key, pun on this through its castration themes), on a “long, stout chain,” is able to open up all boxes simultaneously the masculine fantasy of sexual omnipotence and omnipresence”thrust[s]” its missives inside, and is able to lock them away from anyone else’s touch before he exits the scene. Cellar-dweller Jones can only dream of such spatial conquest, the ability to control the analogous small bedrooms from one place of command. His assault of Lutie, “dragging her toward the cellar door” (235), is an attempt to close off her mobility, as is the locking of the mailboxes: She grabbed the balustrade. His fingers pried her hands loose. She writhed and twisted in his arms, bracing her feet, clawing at his face with her nails. He ignored her frantic effort to get away from him and pulled her nearer and nearer to the cellar door. She kicked at him and the long skirt twisted about her legs so that she stumbled closer to him. She tried to scream, and when she opened her mouth no sound came out; and she thought this was worse than any nightmare, for there was no sound anywhere in this. There was only his face close to hersa frightening, contorted face, the eyes gleaming, the mouth openand his straining, sweating body kept forcing her ever nearer the partly open cellar door. (236) The subjects, grammatically or to the reader’s eyes, of the choppy sentences are usually body partshis fingers, his arms, her feet, her nails, and the final demonic image of Jones’s faceas both assaulter and victim again are objectified, as on the subway. Yet Jones still has the upper hand as the environment betrays Lutie. The balustrade does not offer protection, and her clothing once again proves useless in defense. Her silent scream recalls Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in which the overflowing lines suggest the subject’s immersion in a hostile environment that the observer of the mute painting cannot comprehend. Likewise, Jones’s open mouth pairs with the gaping cellar door, the approaching threat of rape, and Lutie’s silence makes the reader just as powerless as she is. Yet Lutie does find her voice, and this is the one instrument that seems to offer a way out of street and out of the cellar: “She screamed until she could hear her own voice insanely shrieking up the stairs, pausing on the landings, turning the corners, going down the halls, gaining in volume as it started again to climb the stairs” (236). Her voice, as part of herself that emanates outward in waves and echoes, can expand beyond her personal space. The female voice’s musicality is a provider of agency throughout the novel; Mrs. Hedges thwarts two different assaults, Jones’s and that of a pack of boys on Bub. She tells Lutie to “‘Shut upYou want the whole place woke up?'” (237) and Petry describes the swelling power of her voice: “Her rich, pleasant voice filled the hallway, and at the sound of it the dog slunk away, his tail between his legs” (237). Her “rich, pleasant voice,” here performing a sort of castration on the dog, returns twice during Bub’s assault: “‘You heard me, you little bastards,’ she said in her rich, pleasant voice. ‘You go on outta this block, Charlie Moore.’ Mrs. Hedges’ rich, pleasant voice carried well beyond the curb” (347-8). Of course, Lutie hopes that her own pleasant voice literally translates into riches. Her singing temporarily obscures her social and spatial station: “The music swelled in back of her and she began to sing, faintly at first and then her voice grew stronger, clearer, for she gradually forgot the men in the orchestra, forgot even that she was there in the Casino and why she was there” (222). The repeated word “there” is crucial; the sentence does not require the first instance, but its superfluous entry makes presenceand its provisional obliterationthe focus of Lutie’s singing, just as when Lutie sings a note so low and sustained that “it was impossible to tell where it left off” (148), rather than when it left off. The note is defined in spatial, not tonal, terms. Lutie’s musical escape is temporary because of the absence of objects for her to manipulate; she, not a physical instrument, is the manipulated object, the “lute.” Her attempts to make money off singing are constantly derailed by men who use objects to their own advantage, and try to take advantage of Lutie as an object. She waits in a singing school’s “small waiting room” (318) and enters a room whose inventory runs non-stop for nine lines (319). Like Junto, portly Mr. Crosse, the owner of the school, dominates the room not just through his obesity but by making himself visible without objectifying himself to the social gaze: “She was quite close to the desk before she was able to see what the man sitting behind it looked like, for his feet obstructed her view” (319). Junto is far more powerful since he magnifies his presence with an inversion of the traditional trope for the masculine gaze; Lutie always stares at him through reflected mirrors, rather than the other way around, yet he transcends objectification: “She looked at him again and again, for his reflection in the mirror fascinated her. Somehow even at this distance his squat figure managed to dominate the whole room” (146). Mirrors, which make “the Junto an enormous room” (146), create an illusion of expanded space that Boots later capitalizes on in his bedroom: “there were too many mirrors so that she saw him reflected on each of the walls – his legs stretched out, his expression completely indifferent” (420). Boots’s indifference to the synecdochic stand-in of his legs suggests an imperviousness to Lutie’s gaze that only bolsters his omnipresence. As a musician, not a singer, Boots is deft with objects and can move via objects, as his name suggests. His car, and his resourcefulness in finding gasoline, affords him a spatial independence whose noises carry not just from their source, as Lutie’s voice does, but moves with the source: “It was like playing god and commanding everything within hearing to awaken and listen to him. The people sleeping in the white farmhouses were at the mercy of the sound of his engine roaring past in the night – before any of them could analyze the sound that had alarmed them, he was gone” (157). His greatest fear is that Junto will ban him from playing and he will have to return to his previous jobas a porter on a train, where is subject not only to the demands of others but has no choice in the vehicle’s movement. Lutie ends up on a train in defeat, and the air of resignation the novel concludes with parallels the passenger’s passivity; both destination and route are unalterable and fated. Preceding Lutie’s total loss of object-manipulation is the climactic action of murdering Boots. Lutie bludgeons him with a “heavy iron candlestick” (429), perhaps an unsubtle Freudian allusion by Petry to a phallic-holder without a phallus, and turns him into a “thing on a sofa” (431). Unlike the dead man Lutie once saw on the sidewalk, whose shoes “she had never been able to forget” (196), Boots’s metamorphosis into a virtual pair of boots does not humanize him; Lutie infects him with the same strain of objectification she has dealt with through the novel, and she assumes a masculine space with her murder. The scar on Boots’s face, a “souvenir” (271) from a girlfriend, is described as a “thin, narrow line” (272). One page earlier, Petry uses the same wording to describe murder: “He never realized before what a thin line you had to cross to do a murder. A thin, small, narrow line” (271). Lutie crosses this line, but only after she has been scarred and imprisoned in a much more narrow spacethe street.