Expectations Compromise Reality
Esther endured five long years of loneliness. Her determination to prove herself and fulfill her desire left her more alone and disappointed than her initial hunger for companionship. In “Esther” by Jean Toomer, Esther’s morality and desires are shown to be degraded through several aspects. The townspeople cause the audience to realize Esther is more unhinged from years of desire than was revealed from her own point of view. Esther’s morality is shown to decay because she was so desperate to have the child she dreamed of and loved, she was willing to risk the sin of conception without marriage. The opposite descriptions of Esther and Barlo create a distinction in the reader’s mind to separate the two in more than just race and appearance. By placing her faith and future in a man she actually knew nothing about in order to pass the years, Esther’s five year long wait resulted in anticlimactic regret. In order to illustrate Esther’s descent into hopelessness, Toomer employs the townspeople’s reaction, Esther’s inner thoughts, and the juxtaposed descriptions of the two main characters to portray how Esther’s hope for her future is eventually degraded.
The townspeople’s speculation at Esther’s sense of urgency when Barlo appears back in town is not merely small talk, it reveals the outside perspective of Esther’s wait, particularly her degradation during the five years. In Esther’s eyes, she is simply living a dull life and yearning to have a human connection, specifically a baby, with King Barlo. So she waits. During the five years, her connection with the outside world dissipates and she becomes weary. Her interactions with the customers degrade from them calling her a “sweet-natured, accommodating girl,” to Esther only seeing “vague black faces”(32-33). When Barlo finally arrives, she hurriedly closes the shop, determined to get to him first, and the townspeople take notice of her, claiming “she always was a little off, a little crazy, I reckon” (34). This judgement from the townsfolk reveals how Esther is kept at a distance from them. The influence from the outside world is so present in Esther’s thoughts, it makes its way into her dream of claiming a baby: “Her joy in it changes the town folks’ jeers to harmless jealousy, and she is left alone” (32). This tidbit of her dream also encapsulates another one of her desires that is eventually degraded: the desire to be accepted in her surroundings. Esther’s loneliness without a husband at twenty-seven and no men showing interest in her translates into her extreme hope for Barlo to come back and conceive a child with her. All of her inner plans, which of course are not visible to the public shopping at her family’s store, would seem crazy to the public as well. Observing her from the outside, the townspeople’s comments at her actions remind us that Esther is not simply a lonely girl, her hopes and mentality were degraded- and it shows.
The third person narration limited to Esther reveals her degraded inner thoughts plotting her unrealistic confrontation with Barlo, as well as her crushing disappointment when he is not exactly as she remembered. When Esther realizes Barlo is no longer the man from her memory, she rushes out of the house and finds that “There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared” (36). The disappearance of Esther’s surroundings is parallel with her mind: both have become completely degraded. Quite possibly, Esther’s only reason for staying in the town which held nothing for her was for the chance of seeing Barlo again. Now, since that plan has dissolved, her cause and hope for life has as well.
The polar opposite characterizations of Barlo and Esther create juxtaposition in the reader’s mind and emphasize the ridiculousness of Esther’s hope to unite with Barlo. Esther is white passing, and has had a very “safe” life managing her family’s shop and simply waiting, never experiencing the racism that Barlo likely experienced. Yet in her safe life, Esther has also never experienced the human connection that she so craves, that Barlo seems to have no trouble in obtaining. Descriptions like “a clean-muscled, magnificent, black- skinned Negro” compared to “like a little white child, starched, frilled” distinctly categorize the two characters, and separate them in the audience’s perspective. (29) The fact that Esther is the daughter of the richest colored man in town, yet passes as white, is another way Esther and Barlo differ. Barlo is a known black man. He travels, he picks cotton, and falls into his religious trances which the town knows him by. Yet for all of Esther and Barlo’s differences, they both degrade by the end: Esther is weary, desperate, and lonely. Barlo is an impaired, repulsive man, ruined by his money. The fact that Esther and Barlo both decay physically and mentally only worsens the result of Esther’s wait, because she did not expect the object of her imagination with such a robust physical state, and spiritual mental state, to decay in the similar unfortunate way that she did.
Jean Toomer’s “Esther” illustrates Esther’s descent into hopelessness as she allowed her expectations to compromise her reality. Placing all her confidence into one man based off of a few shallow impressions and expecting him to want to love her upon first sight shows Esther’s innocence and decay simultaneously. The lack of human connection throughout her years has made her so vulnerable and naive that she believes Barlo will indeed give her the child she desires. Esther’s desperation is revealed in the townspeople’s reaction, her own inner thoughts, and her and Barlow’s degradation.
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Esther endured five long years of loneliness. Her determination to prove herself and fulfill her desire left her more alone and disappointed than her initial hunger for companionship. In “Esther” […]