Buried alive: gothic homelessness, black women's sexuality, and (living) death in Ann Petry's The Street.
The black woman's embattled defense of her body and her right to sexual self-determination constitutes a recurring theme in African American women's literary tradition. Addressing the World's Congress of Representative Women held in Chicago in 1893, Anna Julia Cooper, like numbers of other black women intellectuals, activists, and writers in the last century and a hall emphasizes the vulnerability of black women to the sexual predations of white men (during and after slavery) and the stereotype of black female lasciviousness and licentiousness that has enabled and excused white men's rape--and the general sexual exploitation--of black women. (1) Cooper's description of these tribulations might register for some as excessive in tone; it is nonetheless an accurate marker of the intensity of black women's desire to own their own images, to define their own sexualities, to have the right to determine when, how, why, and with whom they will be sexual. If white women have been far from immune to sexual exploitation, characterization as "whores," and even rape, white women of the middle and upper classes have at minimum been able to take some shelter in the rhetoric of idealized femininity (the "Madonna" side of the feminine dichotomy). African American women, regardless of class or conduct, have been excluded from this "sorority" of "true womanhood" and its protections. The emotionally charged language of Cooper's speech--"fearful ... odds," "horrible death," and "despairing fight"--encourages her audience to participate affectively in African American women's experience of defenselessness.
Cooper's construction of their struggle as frightening foreshadows Ann Petry's employment of the terminology of terror, over 50 years later, in her first novel. Published in 1946, The Street is a fictional depiction of an African American woman's resolute, ultimately violent efforts at sexual self-determination. In this essay, I propose a reconsideration of The Street that reckons with the extent to which social terror is constructed as a way of life for the mostly poor, African American residents of Harlem--but especially for the heroine, in her fight for control of her own sexuality. I locate the roots of Petry's language of fear in the literary conventions of the gothic genre, a fantastic, sensational tradition popularized in English by Ann Radcliffe's late-18th-century romances. (2) I juxtapose Petry's recourse to these gothic conventions with her novel's implicit analysis of the intersecting operations of race, gender, sexuality, and class, and suggest the relationship of both to the tyrannical impact of domestic ideology upon the lives of African American women like Petry's heroine and even Petry herself. I highlight the novel's investment in the gothic, not to distinguish it within the African American literary tradition, but rather to gesture towards the extent to which The Street is typical of African American literature, whose deeply woven threads of gothic and other fantastic elements go largely overlooked. (3)
Recognizing the centrality of Petry's engagement with gothic conventions in The Street extends and enriches our understanding of her work. For many years, the definitive reading of The Street placed it squarely within the naturalist tradition, connecting Petry's work famously (and often disparagingly) with Richard Wright's Native Son. (4) Because of the consequent emphasis on Petry's "gritty, realistic" prose (Holladay 12), the decidedly "unreal" aspect of her aesthetics has been woefully overlooked. As I will demonstrate, the novel draws some of its most structurally significant tropes from among the conventions of the gothic tradition. Not only does the gothic inform my meta-level reading of the production of the text, in which the heroine of The Street and Petry herself stand as doppelgangers, or "gothic doubles," of one another. Additionally, the novel teems with metaphorical figures of vampires, monsters, and ghosts--creatures whose status as the "living dead" reinforces the novel's central gothic convention: the trope of "live burial." This trope, as I explain below, configures and connects two key elements of the novel's thematic structure: Lutie's quest for a normative home and her defense of her sexual integrity in the face of relentless challenges. I begin by fleshing out my argument that the doppelganger trope provides us with insight into Petry's relationship with her novel's protagonist; later in the essay, I will examine how this figure of the double arguably haunts the novel's progression and leads inevitably to its horrifying conclusion. Primarily, I focus on the ways that the trope of "live burial" and other related gothic conventions mark moments of terror in the novel that illuminate the powerful force of domestic ideology upon the meaning and performance of identity--particularly black women's sexuality, in terms of Lutie's experiences. While I do not dispute the value of a naturalist reading of the novel, I hope to illuminate some of what is missed when that reading dominates to the exclusion of all others. A gothic reading of the novel highlights the fact that Lutie is constantly negotiating her identity in the context of a set of norms--for gender, sexuality, race, and class--that are basically Victorian and, for a woman with Lutie's type of identity, fundamentally punitive.
Petry's recourse to the gothic should not surprise readers of her autobiography who note this remembrance: "I was eleven years old when I read Wilkie Collins's Moonstone--that intricately plotted story about the theft of an enormous yellow diamond ... from the head of an idol known as the moon-god.... The Moonstone served as my introduction to the world of books written for adults and it turned me into an omnivorous reader" (Petry, "Ann Petry" 254). The prolific Collins's sensational, gothic novels place him among the foremost 19m-century English writers in the genre. Her ongoing appreciation of this style in Collins's work suggests the likelihood that, by the time she began writing fiction seriously, Petry was steeped in works that, like much of her adult fiction, borrowed heavily from the conventions of the gothic and other genres of melodrama and excess. Her first published story, "Marie of the Cabin Club," shows the clear influence of such fantastic texts as The Moonstone upon Petry's writing: in addition to publishing under an assumed name (a tactic not uncommon to gothic writers), she included a near-stabbing, international espionage, a kidnapping, and a romance troubled by an unspeakable secret, all within less than five long newspaper columns (Petry, "Marie" 248-49). (5) Petry's autobiography and interviews also reveal that she generally used autobiographical detail in constructing her characters and plots--one example being the way she "endowed" the protagonist of The Narrows, a later novel with her experience of seeing a movie for the first time (Petry, "Ann Petry" 266-67; Petry, "Visit" 83). Taken together, such biographical evidence invites a reading of Petry's relationship to the heroine she created through the gothic convention of the doppelganger. The next few paragraphs enact such a reading and begin to outline its payoff.
Ann Petry grew up during the early twentieth century as a member of virtually the only African American family in the quiet, little town of Old Saybrook, Connecticut. Though even this place constituted a racially "hostile environment," through determined collective effort, Petry's family was largely able to shelter her youth from the brutal racism that has defined the collective experience of African Americans in this nation (Petry, "Ann Petry" 257; Petry, "Visit" 79; Holladay 9). Sexism, too, was unfamiliar to the young Petry in some of its most stifling forms; her mother and aunts were educated businesswomen who, whether married or not, "refused to be traditional housewives" (Petry, "Interview" 100). Her parents imbued her and her sister with a belief in New England's traditional Puritan values of "efficiency, thrift, and utility" and taught them that the "early to bed, early to rise" discipline of Benjamin Franklin would work for them as well as for any other person (Holladay 7; Petry, "Ann Petry" 262). Petry put these values into practice. She had earned her degree from the Connecticut College of Pharmacy, become a licensed pharmacist (following the examples of her father and aunt), and worked in the family's drugstores for seven years before she married and moved with her husband to New York. It was then that she was confronted with Harlem and learned, "with mixed feelings of hope and horror," what race and gender more typically meant for African Americans (Holladay 9). The inescapable poverty; the attendant limitations on employment, educational, and residential opportunities; the degradation of interpersonal relationships; the temptations to crime and the fear of it: these characteristic conditions under which too many African Americans were living in the urban north came as a shock to Petry, calling into question much of what she had been taught about herself and her place in the world. (6)
Hillary Holladay, in a sketch of Petry's life, constructs the budding author's perspective of Harlem and her motivations for writing about it in terms likely inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois's well-known trope of "double-consciousness. (7) Of Petry, Holladay writes: "She looked at Harlem with the dual vision of an outsider, who had not grown up with the problems endemic to ghetto life, and an insider, who identified with the people of her own race and wanted to put their struggle into words" (10). This duality of perspective appears to have encouraged in the young writer a disquieting recognition of how tenuous were the distinctions between herself and her new neighbors. Arguably, in other words, Petry's decision to focus her first novel on the ways that Harlem residents' problems were related to their environment reflected a growing understanding that it was less an individual exceptionality than it was her exceptional circumstances that had preserved her from the more common fate of African Americans. Had she not been born into an educated family whose careers provided an economic stability relatively rare for African Americans in that era, had she not grown up in a setting of less pronounced racial hostilities (compared to areas in the South and in northern and midwestern urban centers, where the larger black populations were perceived by whites as a threat), her possibilities would I likely have been just as circumscribed by race as most Harlemites' were. In addition to these racially ' inflected class injustices, a less fortunately born Petry would doubtlessly have suffered a greater economic and legal vulnerability to the repercussions of a particular set of gendered liabilities, arising from and overdetermined by her race and light skin color--including an increased susceptibility to being sexualized and objectified by white and black men. Interestingly, rather than distancing herself from the problems she observed by insisting upon some inherent difference between herself and the residents of Harlem, Petry dove headfirst into an exploration of how little separated her from them.
Petry makes this dive through her portrayal of The Street's tragic heroine, Lutie Johnson, a character who embodies the scenes of Harlem life that began to haunt the sympathetic and outraged author during her years of reporting its news and working with its students. The novel can be understood as the site in which Petry imagines herself into Harlem by way of the convention of the gothic double. As Heidi Strengell has observed, this convention interrogates "the paradoxical existence of good and evil in the same person" (par. 1). If we consider whether Petry has to some degree created in Lutie not only her novel's heroine, but her own doppelganger, the remarkable similarities between them take on increased significance and make their differences--initially and ultimately--truly telling. They are alike in a number of ways: both are smart, statuesque, determined women who have acquired certain values that this society associates with the (white) middle class, particularly the importance of education, honest work, a proper home, and respectability. Both place extreme importance on their maternal roles (Petry, "Ann Petty" 268; Petry, The Street 72). Both have lived inside and outside of Harlem, at different points in their lives, enabling them to make illuminating comparisons between the Harlem environment and other possibilities. (8) Both adopt a Franklinian model of industry and thrift, and they are so similar in their attitudes that when we read Petry's way of describing her financial plans during a particularly lean year, we hear echoes of the novel's accounts of Lutie's obsessive budgeting. (9) Given how much of her own personality, appearance, and value system Petry invests in her novel's heroine, and recalling as well her admission to culling her own life for material to use in her fiction, it stands to reason that Petry has consciously created a double of herself. Moreover, I characterize this doubling as gothic, because what Petry produces in Lutie is not merely a character in her image, but one who perhaps also reflects Petry's ultimate, untapped potential for behaving monstrously.
This argument is grounded in the fact that Petry has identified her authorial concerns in this novel in terms of environmental determinism: "In The Street my aim is to show how simply and easily the environment can change the course of a person's life. For this purpose I have made [Lutie] Johnson an intelligent, ambitious, attractive woman with a fair degree of education. She lives in the squalor of 116th Street, but she retains her self-respect and fights to bring up her little son decently" (Petry, "Talks" 71). Petry seems to have given her heroine as many of her own characteristics and desires as she credibly could, in order to demonstrate what a different direction from Petry's own trajectory the path of such a woman might take. Petry's favorable circumstances--the familial economic, and geographical advantages previously noted--were such that her adoption of normative values appears to have rewarded her with a conventional comfortable middle-class lifestyle. Though she and her husband lived in Harlem for nearly eight years, when they grew dissatisfied with life in New York they were able to purchase a house and move back to Old Saybrook, where they successfully raised their daughter (Petry, "Ann Petry" 266, 268). Here, the differences between Petry and Lutie become important. Lutie is also married, but has separated from her husband and, scorning to consider extramarital cohabitation, effectively becomes a single mother. Pop, her father, can offer her some support, but only to the extent she is willing to compromise her morals to accept his illegal bootlegging and his hard-drinking live-in girlfriend--and she has no other family to rely upon for help or advice. She has a high school education and business school training in typing but no college degree or professional license to improve her chances of obtaining well-paying, non-menial employment. For these reasons, in combination with the de facto racial segregation of New York housing, Lutie is basically unable to obtain safe, clean, aesthetically bearable accommodations for herself and her son. The Street, then, depicts the process by, which "the squalor of 116th Street ultimately defeats Lutie, despite her (middleclass) values, rapidly turning her into a woman who could murder a man and abandon her son. Petry's construction of Lutie as her double, in a sense, allows her to explore "the fear that each of us is capable of great evil" (Strengell par.1). That is, through Lutie, Petry can imagine herself struggling to negotiate the overwhelming challenges of the Harlem landscape under a different set of circumstances--those under which she might become indistinguishable from "the masses" whose behavior seems so debased when measured against the standards of domestic ideology.
Thus, Lutie functions, at the meta-level of interpretation, as Petry's gothic double, or doppelgiinger. Fred Botting writes of this trope--as classically exemplified in Robert Louis Stevenson's The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde--that it "does not establish or fix the boundaries of good and evil, self and other, but discloses the ambivalence of identity and the instability of the social, moral and scientific codes that manufacture distinctions" (141). It is, in this regard, an ideal trope for Petry's exploration of environmental determinism, enabling her in the process to interrogate the types of distinctions that are produced within the framework of domesticity. Insofar as Lutie fits the profile of the "bad mother," for example--leaving her child at home alone and unsupervised--the difference between her and the "good mother" Petry will become is shown in the novel to be a function of the limited opportunities open to poor black, single mothers. Lutie, then, as Petry's gothic double, produces and is produced by Petry's recognition that adopting domestic ideology's values--contrary to the ideological rhetoric--is not enough to ensure that one will reap its rewards. Indeed, Lutie is largely punished for her tenacious embrace of these "middle-class" values, values she literally cannot afford to put into practice. We might say that Lutie's story is calculated to demonstrate the incoherence of domesticity's norms as concerns a black woman of severely limited means living in a racially segregated America. In particular, Lutie's struggle to perform the sexual role that domestic ideology assigns the middle-class woman is revealed to be, if not the heart of her dilemma, a critical and unaccommodating point of articulation between her multiple identities as a working-class African American woman. (10)
Lutie's struggle resonates with the larger one I identified at the opening of this essay, in which Anna Julia Cooper and her contemporaries began to fight publicly to preserve the moral reputation and the bodily sanctity of black women in the US. In providing her readers with an individual yet fairly representative account of the continued need to fight that battle a half of a century later, Petry provides us with a depiction of what I call "gothic homelessness." I use this term to describe the frightening uncertainty of the domestic boundaries that are supposed to safeguard those within its walls--or to evoke the horrifying exclusion (or potential for exclusion) from membership in one's would-be "family." As I will illustrate, Lutie suffers from gothic homelessness because she is unable to create a "home" for herself and her son Bub, no matter how diligently she performs in accordance with the orthodox domestic role assigned to middle-class women. Her performance is either foiled by steps that she is required to take to survive as a black woman in a racist society or misinterpreted by others who are unable to see her behavior as anything other than the deviant, abnormal conduct (actual or potential) that is constructed as "natural" to African American women. "Gothic homelessness" in The Street is closely tied to Lutie's determined, but repeatedly unrecognized, performance of sexual propriety; the anxieties that haunt her as a result are marked, aptly enough, with the gothic convention of "live burial."
Petry's augmentation of the traditional psychological association between "live burial" and repressed sexuality demands a socially and historically contextualized reading of the trope. Hazel Carby's Reconstructing Womanhood, a cultural study of the ideological battles faced by African American women at the turn into the twentieth century, facilitates this contextualization. Carby notes that "the cult of true womanhood" demanded that even married women "repress all overt sexuality," because "'purity denied that [white] women had natural sex drives' "; by contrast, "overt sexuality ... emerged in images of the black woman" (26-27). That such relational, racialized constructions of femininity continued to hold sway throughout the twentieth century has been documented by race and gender theorists. (11) Thus, Lutie's aspiration to a normative home life depends upon her ability to remain conventionally asexual--in accordance with the standards for a (white) "lady"--in a society that constructs her "black" female body as inherently sexually deviant and excessive. Such contradictions, marked by the appearance of gothic tropes, can be understood as the terrifying collision of competing ideological norms at the intersection of Lutie's race, gender, class, national and sexual identities. By reading The Street in light of these gothic conventions, we can appreciate how Petry makes an aesthetic choice inform on a cultural phenomenon. That is, by reading Lutie Johnson's experiences as a tale of "gothic homelessness," we can better appreciate Petry's critique of the sinister manner in which the norms of race, class, gender, sexuality, and nationality are manipulated by the powerful to maintain the status quo. This reading of Lutie's consistent condition of "live burial" teaches us that life within the ideological (and material) confines of her social position is as much a prison as the one she risks entering when she finally commits murder in defense of her chosen sexual identity.
The Street opens with Lutie's search for a home where she and eight-year-old Bub can live safely and peacefully alone. We soon learn that the apartment they now share with her father, his girlfriend, and a number of roomers is unacceptable because her son is too much exposed to vice: her father's girlfriend, in particular, gives him beer, puffs of her cigarettes, and glimpses of her ample bosom through the always unbuttoned opening of her housecoat. We learn in subsequent chapters that Lutie lost the little house where she had once lived in a conventional nuclear unit with her son and husband when her husband's adultery precipitated a permanent separation (in lieu of a prohibitively expensive divorce). Lutie's (American) dream of the good life centers around the Eden of a single-family home "filled with sunlight and good food and where children were safe" (155), the kind of residence that domestic ideology constructs as the proof and reward of virtue.
Domestic ideology, often associated with the middle classes of Victorian England, is commonly and vaguely associated with the maxim that locates the woman's place in the home, maintaining a clean, orderly, comfortable house for her family. (12) But this ideology's prescriptions encompass more than just middle-class women, and its prescriptive reach extends far beyond its originary era and locale, still exerting social force in present-day America. After all, the creation of a "home, sweet home" depends not only upon women playing a designated social role as nesters and nurturers, but also upon men and children behaving in accordance with their roles: men as loving but firm patriarchs and breadwinners, and children as dutiful, obedient little men- and women-in-training. When proponents of domestic ideology insist that these social roles are "natural," they overlook the way that numerous positive and negative incentives continually work to encourage conformance to these behavioral limitations (McClintock 35-36). For instance, girls who express distaste for housework may be warned that they will be seen as less desirable marriage partners, and the words "spinster" and "old maid" still threaten young women with the stigma associated with not marrying male partners. Not only are these familial roles naturalized (that is, made to seem biologically determined and inevitable--"human nature"), but they are also metaphorically transferred and imposed upon all kinds of social organizations--schools, clubs, even nations--with all their hierarchical baggage intact. Thus, for example, "Founding Fathers" are "naturally" the ones to make decisions about how a nation is to be governed, while women (as teachers, nurses, and homemakers, "naturally") serve as the "mothers of our country" by (re)producing and raising the next generation of its citizenry. (13)
Moreover, those who stand to benefit from it would claim that the rhetorical logic underwriting the ideological narrative of "the happy home" is universally applicable; however, this "universality" unevenly masks the fact that domestic ideology's network of norms justifies the retention of power by the powerful and perpetuates the exclusion of the relatively disempowered from access to social, economic, and political resources. For instance, wealthier women are not able to manage large households and families without domestic "help"; the poor women--typically women of color and/or immigrants--who work as maids and cooks in wealthy households are, then, by definition unable to fulfill the normative role of wife and mother in their own households. (14) We see this scenario played out in Lutie's narrative: her New York home and her marriage disintegrate while she is working in Connecticut as a live-in maid for the well-to-do Chandler family. In another example, on the figurative level, "civilized" western nations, including England and the US, take the (parental/paternal) responsibility for "developing" the "primitive" countries of the global South and "raising" their "childlike" peoples (McClintock 357-58). People of color, poor people, women, "Third World" people, and members of other relatively disempowered groups must fulfill their naturalized, but far from ideal social roles for the current economic and political systems to be sustained--even as the members of these groups are nonetheless measured against the idealized norms of domestic ideology, to their disadvantage. (15) One example of this paradox, which Petry illustrates through Lutie's story, is that African American women have been denigrated as "unwomanly" for not being fulltime homemakers and child-rearers, even as they were deemed by middleclass white women to be "naturally" skilled at doing the (womanly) cooking, cleaning, and caretaking chores they were paid to perform in white homes.
In this light, Lutie's fixation on obtaining a normative home for Bub and herself crystallizes as both logical and futile. And it is at this paradoxical juncture, where some of the contradictions inherent to domestic ideology are made frighteningly manifest, that Lutie becomes susceptible to the dis-ease that I call "gothic homelessness." (16) "Home" is a word deeply invested with ideological meaning; unlike "house," "apartment,.... residence," or other such terms, "home" signifies not simply lodgings, but also safety, belonging, comfort. The term signifies similarly at both the local, literal level and larger, figurative levels (especially, for the purposes of this essay, at the national level). A "home" is a "haven" from the world, precisely because its boundaries ostensibly separate the "family"--those who belong inside--from outsiders, strangers, foreigners. These boundaries are highly desirable to those they include because they offer the illusion of fixity and impenetrability. To those they exclude, these boundaries seem impenetrable because of their lack of fixity, their shiftiness. For instance, America is thought of as the national "home" of its citizens, who are protected within its boundaries from the dangers of the world. The response of many Americans to the events of September 11, 2001, is evidence of how widely and strongly held was/is this belief in the invulnerability of the nation's "domestic" boundaries. But the subsequent experiences of Arab and/or Muslim Americans have demonstrated that US citizenship is insufficient to guarantee that the boundaries of the national "home" will include them. These Americans have not been "safe" or "protected" within the national borders; indeed, they have seen these borders shift so that they may be treated like "outsiders" in their own "home." (17) The "national" borders no longer appear contiguous with citizenship, but are exposed as signifying not nationality so much as a range of other possible identities, including religion, geopolitical origin, and "racial" phenotype. Lutie's experience of being made to feel unsafe in or foreign to her own "home"--of being figuratively "homeless"--is analogous.
The terminology of fear is particularly apt for discussing Lutie's story, because Petry carefully and thoroughly weaves gothic tropes into her narrative. The gothic genre, perhaps most popularly represented by Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, is frequently defined by the conventions it uses to create an atmosphere of terror or horror within which its characters and readers must operate. Of the "classic gothic" romance, the type written during Radcliffe's era, Eve Sedgwick writes:
You can predict its contents with an unnerving certainty. You know the important features of its raise en scene: an oppressive ruin, a wild landscape, a Catholic or feudal society. You know about the trembling sensibility of the heroine.... You know about the tyrannical older man with the piercing glance who is going to imprison and try to rape or murder [her].... You also know that ... certain characteristic preoccupations will be aired. These include ... sleeplike and deathlike states; subterranean spaces and live burial; doubles; ... unnatural echoes or silences, unintelligible writings, and the unspeakable; [and] ... the poisonous effects of guilt and shame.... (9) (18)
Reading The Street with this catalogue in mind, one is struck by the omnipresence of gothic conventions--which are the essence of fantastic, unreal excess--in a novel that has too often been critically pruned to fit neatly into the category of literary naturalism or realism. Petry begins in the first pages of the novel to enmesh her heroine's search for a home in a web of gothic conventions, conveying to her readers a sense of what Lutie will experience as Harlem's horrors.
The "oppressive ruin" of Sedgwick's discussion was typically, in the classic gothic romances, an ancient castle or a medieval monastery or convent: a vast, gloomy place in which the heroine never feels at ease. In this mid-20th-century urban setting, it becomes the eponymous "street" on which Lutie's prospective apartment is located, a trash-infested, dirty, odorous street where the "buildings were old with small slit-like windows, which meant the rooms were small and dark" and the "hallways ... dark and narrow" (4). Lutie's sense of dis-ease begins while she is still standing on the sidewalk estimating with unfortunate accuracy the condition of any place she can afford on her typist's salary. Entering to look at the vacant apartment, she finds her prognosis confirmed: "The stairs went up steeply--dark high narrow steps. She stared at them fascinated. Going up stairs like those you ought to find a newer and more intricate--a much-involved and perfected kind of hell at the top--the very top," where her apartment would be (6). Since the cellar--the hot, dark underground province of the building's "super"--proves to be no less hellish a space, Petry has not simply Inverted the landscape of the building, she has re-imagined the whole structure as a "subterranean space" (Sedgwick 9), a labyrinthine dungeon in which even stairs going up lead down. This apartment building, then, is the very antithesis of "home": rather than being a safe haven, this building quite evidently houses the kinds of evil that the domestic space is purported to exclude. (19) Petry's title reminds us that, for Lutie and Bub, the concept of a boundary between the home and the street, in the traditional, idealized sense, is virtually meaningless, in the traditional, idealized sense.
Indeed, if the boundary around this building functions at all, it serves to lock its inhabitants in, rather than to keep danger out. The novel consistently constructs Lutie's apartment as claustrophobic. She "can't stand being shut up in this apartment," where the "walls push in against" her (83). It is no coincidence that expressions of such feelings immediately follow thoughts of the grinding poverty that prevents her from progressing towards her dream of making a normative home for her family. Nor is it a coincidence that those expressions, in turn, are followed by invocations of Lutie's sexuality. Petry's metaphorical depiction of the apartment building as a dungeon or prison in which her heroine feels suffocated draws significantly upon the gothic trope of live burial.
In the classic gothic romances, this convention has perspicuous ties to sexuality. "Live burial," Sedgwick notes, was "a favorite conventual punishment in Gothic novels" (20), assigned to those unfortunate nuns who were (accused of being) guilty of breaking their holy vows--implying some failure of chastity. These women were standardly locked away in dark cavernous dungeons beneath the convent and left, for an endlessly indefinite period, to repent of evidencing (or, worse, consummating) corporeal desires. The convention has thus been available to later writers in the gothic tradition as a shorthand for representing buried or repressed sexuality. But importantly, Petry's recourse to the trope of live burial does not rely primarily on the Freudian psychoanalytical model for its intelligibility. Instead, Petry's use of the trope exposes the ghastly gap between the efficacy of Lutie's determined performance of the gender, race, sexuality, and class identities that she desires and the results that such behavior promises to bring in terms of the rhetoric of domestic ideology--that is, Petry invests the trope with a sociohistorical, more than a psychoanalytical, significance. In other words, the gothic convention of live burial marks the eruption of terror that Lutie experiences when faced with the contradictions of domestic ideology and their implications, particularly for her sexuality, given her class, gender, and race.
For example, the language of live burial quoted above appears in the narrative not long after she has begun a life in the dismal apartment. She soon realizes that this move has done nothing to relieve the dis-ease of her gothic homelessness. While getting Bub out of the environment of her father's girlfriend seems initially like "a victory" (56), just a few weeks later she is desperate to escape from the "dirty trap" she feels closing in on her (74). She sees only two ways out of this bleak existence--only two that will allow her to improve or at least maintain her performance of domesticity: she could increase her income, enabling her to afford the rent in a safer, cleaner section of Harlem, or she could "find a man who had a good job and who wanted to marry her" (82). The problem with the first option is that, as a civil servant, her pay increases are tied to examination ratings, which means it might be two years or 20 before she obtains a raise. (20) The second option offers no quick solution because she is still legally married to Bub's father and would need several years to save up enough money for a divorce. Although she has suitors aplenty, none remain interested in marrying once they learn that she is only separated from her husband, but quickly modify their marriage proposals to offers of cohabitation, which Lutie will not even entertain. Tellingly, just as her mind reaches these two dead-ends in her future plans, Lutie complains, "I can't stay here in this little place for another minute" (82). Equally telling is that her immediate idea of simply taking a walk is spontaneously transformed into having a drink at the local bar, an excursion for which she prepares herself "as slowly and as carefully as though she had a special date, putting on a plain black dress and fastening a gold-colored chain around her neck" (83). She puts on her "best coat," the one "she only wore ... when she was going somewhere special at night" (83). This language evokes sexuality and clearly suggests that part of what Lutie needs on this evening is to think of herself as a desirable (and desiring) woman.
The next paragraph of the novel brings all these elements into an even tighter juxtaposition: "When she put the coat on, it was with the thought that wearing it would give her the feeling that she was on her way to a place where she could forget for a little while about the gas bill and the rent bill and the light bill. It would be a place where there was a lot of room and the walls didn't continually walk at you--crowding you" (83; italics added). Petry uses the trope of live burial to convey to her readers another aspect of the horror of Lutie's position. After a few short years of sharing an ideologically "proper" sex life with her husband Jim, this warm, beautiful young woman is gradually forced into an asexual existence: first intermittently, when her job as the Chandlers' "help" requires her to live several hours away from Jim, except during one-week visits every two months; then continually, after he proves unwilling to sacrifice his sexuality for the sake of their mortgage and they separate. (21) As a married woman, Lutie's desire to perform "true womanhood" precludes her from having sex with anyone besides her husband, despite his no longer filling that role in any but the most nominal sense.
This ideological prohibition on extramarital sex is magnified in its importance because of the ways Lutie's gender and race have historically been constructed in US society. Carby notes that post-Reconstruction-era black women "had to confront the dominant domestic ideologies and literary conventions of womanhood which excluded them from the definition 'woman' " (6). As mentioned earlier herein, the "cult of true womanhood" had defined the white woman's performance of middle-class, largely asexual femininity as the ideal, using black women--and their alleged proclivity for sexual excess and promiscuity, among other detriments--to visibly mark the boundaries encircling the privileged gender and class identities (Carby 30). (22) Lutie is very aware of the continued viability of these constructions of black women, based upon her treatment by the women in her former employer's family and circle. She observes: "Apparently it was an automatic reaction of white people--if a girl was colored and fairly young, why, it just stood reason she had to be a prostitute" (Petry, The Street 45). (23) For Lutie to be seen as a "woman," ideologically speaking, she must overcome the racist presumption that she is subject to an "unfeminine" (and immoral) sexual appetite. In other words, to perform the privileged, domestic gender role to which she aspires, she must prove her "femininity" by refraining from extramarital sex (indeed, from expressing sexual desire at all)--which, given her financial inability to obtain a divorce, condemns her to an entirely asexual young adulthood and, at the same time, precludes her from taking advantage of one available means of bettering her material condition quickly (that is, by having a man help sup(24) port her and Bub). Lutie is determined to prove herself capable of performing "femininity" and thus "worthy" of an identity as "woman." Yet the horror of having to bury her sexuality alive drives Lutie, on this evening, from her entombing apartment and into a social setting where she can be affirmed, if only for a few hours, in her sense of herself as a (potentially) sexual being.
Indeed, Petry's deployment of the gothic trope of live burial reminds us that Lutie is her haunting double, in that it not only serves to register the horror enveloping Lutie, but also points toward another similarity--and instructive difference--between Petry and Lutie. The live burial trope, with its long associations with sexual repression, evokes the realm of sexuality without requiring explicit mention of the subject; that is, it enables Petry to signify the depth of Lutie's dilemma without having to refer to her overtly as a young woman with sexual desires. In 1946, it would likely have been important for Petry to be able to achieve this almost paradoxical effect. Kimberly Drake, among other scholars, has noted that, prior to the middle of the twentieth century, African American women writers rarely portrayed their black heroines as having an active sexuality (65). Such writers, in response to the very ideological constraints that plague Lutie in the novel, constructed their characters as "largely asexual" in order "to fight the Jezebel stereotype and to prove that black women could and did adhere to middle-class values" (Drake 65). (25) Thus Petry, as author, arguably confronted limitations upon her identity and self-expression deriving from the operation of domestic ideology's norms upon black women--limitations, in other words, with their source in the same assumptions against which Lutie must fight for her own complex sexual identity. As Drake observes: "Petry seems to want to challenge the literary repression of black female sexuality, yet she cannot explicitly celebrate [a] transgressive sexuality without offending bourgeois black readers and confirming stereotypes in the minds of white readers" (68). Significantly, however, Petry is able to negotiate her confrontation successfully, in that the gothic convention of live burial offers her a means of implicating Lutie's sexuality indirectly. Lutie, by contrast, can neither overcome her desire nor get around the boundary sealing off her sexuality (for it remains alive and buried). Her ultimate confrontation with this ideological dilemma results in her bludgeoning to death her sometime suitor and would-be rapist, the musician Boots Smith.
Lutie meets Boots at the Junto Bar and Grill, on the same evening discussed above. Petry takes pains to distinguish Lutie from the "young women [who] had an urgent hunger for companionship" and came "to the Junto to pick up a man or to quench a consuming, constant thirst" (144). Lutie is there, rather, "to replace the haunting silences of rented rooms and little apartments with the murmur of voices, the sound of laughter" (147; italics added). In this way, the language of the narrative both reinforces Lutie's performance of a "properly" asexual womanhood and simultaneously reminds us through gothic terminology that Lutie's hungers and thirsts are buried, not dead. Her enjoyment of the two beers that she orders is nearly overwhelmed by her compulsive calculations of how much the drinks are cutting into her tight budget. The scene unfolds as if purposefully to reiterate the previously established connections between class, sexuality, race, and gender, which are marked here again by the trope of live burial. Boots appears behind her--initially attracted by the mournful tone in her voice when she sings along with the juke-box, then by her beauty--and offers to pay for her drinks. She fights an internal battle before replying. Lutie is certain that if she makes it clear up front "that there wasn't any inducement he could offer that would make her sleep with him," he will "disappear" (149). But the thought of going back to do her laundry in "the three rooms with the silence and the walls pressing in" is more than she can bear (150). She allows him to pick up her check thinking that "the walls had beaten her or she had beaten the walls. Whichever way she cared to look at it" (150). That is to say, first, that the literal walls of her apartment, oppressive and dull, have forced her into an encounter with a man that is sure to end in disappointment (when he "disappear[s]"). But we are also to understand this seemingly self-contradictory statement to suggest that Lutie, by giving him an opening to pursue her, has managed to escape halfway the figurative walls entombing her sexuality, to feed her desire just enough to keep it alive a while longer. This ambivalent success becomes more promising in her eyes, however, when Boots suggests that Lutie could make a good living singing and invites her to sing with his band the following night.
Lutie is aware that Boots is tempting her with this opportunity for a chance to seduce her and that she will have to work hard to get what she wants from him--a steady gig as his band's vocalist--without giving him what he wants from her. But her commitment to domestic values is unwavering; indeed, in keeping with the philosophy of environmental determinism that underwrites the novel, her commitment gets stronger the longer she lives on "the street." The less she can afford (economically) to conform her lodgings and her life with Bub to the ideals for "home" and "family," the less she can afford (ideologically) to relinquish the performance of asexual ("true") womanhood. She should not need a healthy bank account to maintain her sexual integrity, she believes, regardless of the racial presumptions working against her. But, in fact, Petry's narrative makes a very explicit connection between class (and racial) identity and sexuality. The novel repeatedly depicts attacks, physical and otherwise, on Lutie's determined asexuality, offenses and indignities that the narrator assures us Lutie would not have had to suffer with such frequency had she not been a poor, African American woman. Lindon Barrett's analysis of the novel deconstructs the legal and economic discourses that inscribe "the bodies of African American women" with "the sign 'whore'" (122). Barrett incisively explores the way that the legal status of "slave" and the economic status of "prostitute" cooperate on the space of the black female body so as to signify a woman who both chooses to make herself sexually available and has no right to choose not to (121-22). Petry represents this discursive situation, according to Barrett, by investing most of the novel's characters with "the notion that access to Lutie's genitalia is almost as uncomplicated a matter as the purchasing of groceries or a newspaper or any other number of routine transactions" (122).
Thus, Lutie suffers increasingly from gothic homelessness while she remains on "the street": whereas the heteronormative "home" is rhetorically impermeable to any threat to a "lady's virtue," Lutie's accommodations seem day by day to invite more and greater sexual threats and attacks. She is solicited at the doorstep by Mrs. Hedges, her downstairs neighbor, on behalf of "a nice white gentleman" (84). This massive, inscrutable, blank-eyed woman, who unnerves Lutie terribly, is used to taking advantage of the financial worries that plague the numerous separated, single mothers on the street, by recruiting them for the brothel she runs in her first-floor apartment. The building "super," Jones, violates Lutie figuratively: he befriends Bub to gain access to her bedroom when she is not at home and takes the opportunity to fetishize her clothes, making "great smudges of dirt and tight, small wrinkles" with his hungary hands on her white blouse (208-09). (26) Later he attacks her physically, attempting to drag her down to the basement and rape her. Ironically, it is the powerful Mrs. Hedges who saves Lutie from this violation--her motivation being that Lutie has been claimed by the "nice white gentleman" whom Mrs. Hedges represents and is therefore off-limits to Jones. All of these episodes take place in or on the threshold of Lutie's dwelling, emphasizing the extent of her gothic homelessness: she has no "proper home," no domestic "safe haven" that is invulnerable to those who do not belong to her "family."
Or rather, as it cannot rightly be said that either Jones or Mrs. Hedges does not belong in the building--they live there, too--Lutie's terror may just as accurately be deemed a response to becoming a part of a frightening "family," a "home"-less family very different from the kind she wants. Petry metaphorically constructs both the super and the brothel owner as gothic figures: Jones as a vampire or devil and Mrs. Hedges as an other-worldly "monstrosity" (241). In the case of the former, a subplot of the novel describes the disintegration of the threadbare relationship between Jones and Min, a woman who moves in with him to escape the burden of paying rent. A "root doctor" counsels the worried Min to hang a cross on the wall above their bed. Jones's instinctive and inexplicable fear of this cross prevents the generally abusive man from laying a hand on her--and marks him figuratively as a vampire (358-59). Mrs. Hedges, on the other hand, is described as "a creature that had strayed from some other planet" (237). Her large size, combined with the "mass of... terrible scars" that have covered her body since she barely escaped a burning building, evoke "sheer horror ...--undisguised, uncontrollable" in those who see her (247). I want to highlight the connection between these two gothic figures. Both vampires and monsters fall into the category referred to in the gothic tradition as the "living dead." Vampires have given up their mortal lives in exchange for a parasitic immortality siphoned nightly from the veins of the living; monsters symbolize not only inhuman, but also "unnatural" life, in the tradition of Frankenstein's creature (whose body was cobbled together and reanimated through an ungodly use of scientific knowledge). Petry uses these figures of living death to dramatize metaphorically the process by which Lutie, as a result of her live burial in the same "tomb" with such characters, is gradually (or suddenly and violently, one might argue) transformed into a member of this ghastly gothic "family." The street itself is figured as actively vampiric: "Lutie thought, No one could live on a street like this and stay decent. It would get them sooner or later, for it sucked the humanity out of people--slowly, surely, inevitably" (229; italics added). Petry's gothic double here voices the fear that the novelist bravely explores in her fiction: the terrifying possibility, even probability, that Petry could far too easily be Lutie, that she is protected from suffering Lutie's fate by not much more than the family, husband, and saleable professional skills that provide or enable her to procure an address far (or far enough) from the hell of 116th Street.
With these lines, Petry inscribes explicitly in her novel the conclusion that she had come to after a few years of living and working in Harlem: that, "'simply and easily[,] the environment can change the course of a person's life'" (Petry, "Talks" 71). Petry's conclusion conflicts fundamentally with the philosophy of self-determination in which her parents had raised her to believe. As I noted earlier, Petry was taught as a child to take Benjamin Franklin's recipe for success for her own. When we recognize Lutie as Petry's doppelganger, we are not taken aback--as some critics have been--to find that Lutie has also absorbed "Franklin's optimistic guidelines for achievement" into her understanding of self and world (Holladay 7). Lutie is frequently taken to task for this characteristic that she shares with Petry--for seeing Franklin as a feasible model for her upward mobility. Nellie McKay is typical of many scholars of the novel when she criticizes Lutie for having "so assimilated and accepted the [Puritan] values [of hard work thrift, and morality] her grandmother touted that they became thought barriers that prevented her from realizing the true nature of her situation as a black woman in a white patriarchal society" (133). (27) Keith Clark's reading goes even further, asserting that Lutie's "obtuseness," "gullibility," and "naivete" are so incredible (as characteristics of an African American woman in 1940's Harlem) that she should be understood as an" 'anti-heroine' " and the novel as a satire (503). By contrast, I submit that Petry is far from ridiculing her doppelganger; rather, the author's gesture requires her readers to recognize that the existence of a woman like Lutie is entirely possible.
Petry herself, at Lutie's age, was living proof that a young woman could hold and live by the values that domestic ideology prescribes and that underwrite the American Dream, even while being well aware of the existence and power of oppressive forces like racism, classism, and sexism. Petry's family folklore included a profusion of references to the evils of racism and other such obstacles. Her maternal grandfather had been a fugitive slave, whose "nursery song" offered some grim advice: "Run, little baby, run / or patterrollers / goin' come, / run, little baby, run" (Petry, "Ann Petry" 255). Her aunt, Anna Louise James, had been the only woman in her class in the Brooklyn College of Pharmacy and was refused membership in the Connecticut Pharmaceutical Association specifically on the grounds of her sex ("Ann Petry" 261). But exceptionalism is a seductive doctrine, and Petry's family, even while sharing their experiences of oppression with her, did everything in their power to shelter her from the direct effects of racism and to encourage her to believe that her own discipline, thrift, and effort--essential qualities of the ideal domestic woman--were the key factors in her ability to achieve her goals. To see Lutie's experience as not the same as Petry's, but sufficiently similar to produce in her a like mindset, we must read closely and, as much as possible, without the obfuscating lens of stereotypes of the ghetto. Though the first seven years of Lutie's life are barely hinted at, we learn, importantly, that her home life was more domestic in this period before her mother's death than afterwards. Only subsequently did her father begin boot-legging in preference to the ongoing, futile search for steady employment (80). But his defection was balanced by her grandmother's vocal disapproval, and the remainder of Lutie's childhood was spent in the domestic security that her Granny's constant, soothing presence provided (404). Upon Granny's recommendation, as a means of ensuring that Lutie remained protected from the sexual advances of dubious men, she was married at 17 years old, as soon as she was out of high school (76). Petry constructs Lutie's past with light but careful strokes that make her quite a plausible character. And perhaps more important for Petry than whether a woman like Lutie was possible in 1940's Harlem was the question of whether it was possible for such a woman, upon reaching young adulthood in that grim arena, to come to any other end than the violent, tragic fate that her heroine meets in The Street. Petry creates a character enough like herself that she can interrogate the beliefs she was raised with by imaginatively testing them in Lutie's fictional experience.
Given Petry's authorial interest in environmental determinism and my related reading of Petry and Lutie as gothic doubles, Lutie's stubborn adherence to domestic ideology does not constitute gullibility as much as resistance. Granted, it is a resistance grounded in exceptionalism, but not in ignorance. As Lutie puts it, after cataloguing all the physical spiritual, and psychological damage suffered by her neighbors, Mrs. Hedges, Jones, and Jones's girlfriend Min: "None of those things would happen to her ... because she would fight back and never stop fighting back" (57; italics added). Indeed, it is here that we come to see that the doppelganger trope is a double-edged sword: that is, Lutie shadows Petry, but Petry also haunts Lutie. The fictional Lutie cannot imagine giving up on her performance of domesticity because Petry, her author and gothic double, cannot imagine herself doing so. Petry's exceptionalism is not wholly obliterated by her personal experiences, though she learns to question it by observing and participating in Harlem life. Similarly, Lutie, except in brief moments of despair and self-doubt, remains certain that she can exempt herself from the alcoholism, bad health, moral concessions, and dehumanization that overcome her parents and neighbors, simply by refusing to give into the economic and social pressures that make such outcomes seem inevitable. But Lutie's determined inflexibility--Petry's unwillingness to represent her heroine as compromising any further on her values and standards--becomes a key element of her downfall. It is a painful irony of the novel that Lutie's "fight" against dehumanization is, in a sense, what dehumanizes her. The gothic tropes that structure the novel's denouement, then, might be said partly to mark Petry's horror at being unable to imagine herself succeeding against Lutie's odds.
Along with the trope of live burial another gothic convention from Sedgwick's catalogue becomes increasingly significant: the trope of "unnatural ... silences" (Sedgwick 9). It appears throughout the novel; again, for example, I referenced the "haunting silences" that characterize apartments like Lutie's (147). This trope begins to loom larger and larger in the narrative, however, as it approaches the climax. Lutie's attempt to get a place in Boots Smith's band fails when his employer--Mr. Junto, the owner of the dance club and the bar where they originally met--prohibits Boots from hiring her. We learn why later, when Mrs. Hedges reveals that the "nice white gentleman" for whom she panders is Junto (417). Lutie's despair at losing the opportunity to earn money by singing is unmistakable even to her son, who--in his eagerness to assist her financially--is tricked by Jones into robbing mailboxes. Believing he is keeping only the ill-gotten gains of criminals whom the super has been asked to spy on by the police, Bub is soon arrested for mail theft. Lutie comes home from work to find two policemen serving her with the long white legal paper that represents the utter ruin of her domestic dream. Her search for money to pay for the lawyer whom she (wrongly) believes she will need leads her to Boots's door, and to her surprised relief he tells her he will have the money for her the next evening. It is while she is waiting for this provisional salvation that Lutie begins to notice the unnerving silence as a constant presence, shadowing her every step.
The silence begins to take on substance in the waiting room of the Children's Shelter where Bub is being held. Here Lutie notices "a smell--a distinct odor that filled her nose until it was difficult for her to breathe" (410). The waiting room is full of women who are not all black--but who are all poor. Petry's critique thus spotlights the societal systems that herd so many poor women into this role of "bad mother." While Lutie, employing the logic of domestic ideology, thinks that "it was always the mother's fault when a kid got into trouble, because it meant she'd failed the kid somewhere" (405), Petry's gothic silence reminds the reader that a poor mother could hardly help but "fail" in domestic ideology's terms. Lutie had not known this threatening silence as a child, "because Granny had always been there," rocking in her chair and humming (404). But Bub had faced this silence every day after school because Lutie could not be home to protect him and earn the money she needed to feed and clothe him, at the same time. The trope of silence thus becomes the "unspeakable" indictment of the ideological contradictions that force poor mothers into this lose-lose situation.
Petry's reliance on the gothic convention of silence increases as its substance builds. It follows Lutie to the movie theatre, where it begins to assume a human form, "coming at her softly on its hands and knees" (412). It sits down in the next booth at the hairdresser's shop. As Lufie wastes her quarters on empty consumerism--purchasing the "glitter" and glamour of cinema and style (412), which are of no more use to her than the rhinestone earrings Boots gives her instead of a job--she begins to imagine the silence rushing ahead of her to the apartment, able to "seep in ... before she got there, so that when she opened the door it would be there. Formless. Shapeless. Waiting" (413). Lutie does not have a "home" whose walls and threshold form boundaries that such frightening societal forces as poverty and racism must respect. And indeed, once inside her apartment, Lutie recognizes "the deep, uncanny silence that filled it" as the man who has been responsible for so many of her problems: Junto (418). She believes that she sees him sitting on her couch with his feet planted on her rug and feels an almost uncontrollable panic rising. Petry's gothic silence takes the shape of the wealthy, white man with a persistent desire for bodies like Lutie's. First, it helped to place her at odds with her neighbor, Mrs. Hedges, who might otherwise have been a source of useful information. Further, it played a part in transforming her from an object of lust to an object of hatred in the eyes of Jones, who assumed and resented that Lutie would prefer the white man's advances to his own and determined to hurt her by getting Bub in trouble. And, finally, it essentially precluded Lutie from obtaining a well-paying singing job and possibly even a proposal of marriage from Boots, because Junto, as his employer, forced the musician to choose between his lavish lifestyle and his incipient affection for Lutie. The last straw for Lutie is finding Junto waiting with Boots at his apartment that evening, standing between her and the money she needs for her son.
The two gothic conventions that Petry has most emphasized in Lutie's narrative come together in this closing chapter. Lutie realizes that the haunting silence occupies Boots's apartment, too, despite its spacious, elegantly appointed rooms; that Junto can cross this threshold at will, just as easily as he can enter her dismal little dwelling, which he in fact owns. The silence represents the power of wealth, of manhood, of whiteness: the power to achieve the American Dream that Lutie does not have and cannot access without giving up her sexual virtue. (28) That claim to a "properly" asexual identity has become increasingly valuable to Lutie as her performance of domesticity has become decreasingly normative in so many other uncontrollable ways. Her performance of asexuality is all that distinguishes her, according to the ideological rhetoric, from Jones, Mrs. Hedges, and all the others living (dead) in Harlem. And this terrifying silence that is Junto threatens to strip that performance away from her: "All the time she was thinking, Junto has a brick in his hand. Just one brick. The final one needed to complete the wall that had been building up around her for years, and when that one last brick was shoved in place, she would be completely walled in" (423). In other words, Lutie would be permanently buried alive--not just her sexuality, but all of her (which is to say, Bub, too), locked into a different wing of the same ideological prison in which her desires had been buried for so long. To obtain the money she needed to save her son from the street, she would have to sacrifice her already-damaged performance of idealized womanhood and play the stereotypical role of the "black woman"--by definition, in this schema, a role of sexual availability.
Though Junto agrees to leave, when faced with her enraged refusal to accept his proposal, Boots promises him that upon his return he will find a cooperative Lutie awaiting him. Boots plans to rape her in the interim. His aggression pushes Lutie to make a choice: she can sacrifice her self for her son, or she can sacrifice her son for her self. Yet Lutie does not consciously choose: the narrative deals at length with the way Boots is reduced in her mind to nothing more than an "anonymous" outlet for her rage against all kinds of societal inequities (429-30). But Petry, as author, makes her doppelganger's choice for her, and she chooses to have Lutie continue to fight. Barrett describes Lutie's most definitive, excessive action--murdering Boots to protect herself against rape, cudgeling his head until it is bloody and deformed--as "her most violent effort to resist [the] imagined legitimacy" of the inscription "of the sign--'whore'--... on the bodies of African American women" (122). But for Lutie, self-preservation is self-destruction. Boots dies, and with him dies her dream of domesticity, despite the continuing sanctity of her body. What she has not eradicated, of course, is Junto, the novel's representative of the powerful people who benefit from all of the ideological contradictions that combine to destroy the disempowered like Lutie (and even Boots, who is no innocent and has a good deal of masculine and economic power vis-a-vis Lutie, but who unarguably takes the fall for Junto). Before Lutie can flee for Chicago, she must cross a room that is "alive with silence--deepening pools of an ominous silence" (433). This gothic omen apprises us that Lutie will find no room in Chicago large and loud enough to drown out the rhetoric of domestic ideology, US society's self-contradictory mantra for maintaining a status quo that structures so forcefully the identities of its citizens.
My reading of The Street situates the novel in relation to the gothic tradition--one distinctly different from those traditions with which the novel is usually associated. But Petry's use of the gothic does not simply link her to the tradition of English literature within which the Wilkie Collins novel she loved so much was written; it additionally calls our attention to the widespread appearance of gothic language within the African American tradition to which she equally belongs. Her employment of gothic conventions to mount a critique of domestic ideology constitutes a commonality, rather than a distinction, between Petry and African American authors as diverse as Harriet Jacobs, W. E. B. Du Bois, Richard Wright, and Toni Morrison. Some of these writers have been discussed in terms of their relation to the gothic tradition, though not in light of domestic ideology as a possible provocation to employ gothic conventions. For example, Teresa Goddu's Gothic America: Narrative, History, and Nation includes a chapter concerning Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl; additional treatments of the gothic in African American texts from which I have benefited include Joseph Bodziock's "Richard Wright and the Afro-American Gothic" and Wesley Britton's "The Puritan Past and Black Gothic: The Haunting of Toni Morrison's Beloved in Light of Hawthorne's The House of Seven Gables." (29) As yet, however, there has been no sustained consideration of what the gothic might mean in or for the African American literary tradition. The critical neglect of this fantastic element of African American literature, in favor of an overdetermined emphasis on the tradition's realism, ultimately impedes our comprehension of what the literature represents as the excessive, horrific nature of the African American social real. (30) My reading of Petry thus points to the amount of challenging, exciting work that awaits scholars in this field.
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Harris, Trudier. From Mammies to Militants: Domestics in Black American Literature. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1982.
Henderson, Carol E. "The 'Walking Wounded': Rethinking Black Women's Identity in Ann Petry's The Street." Modern Fiction Studies 46.4 (2000): 849-67.
Hicks, Heather. " 'This Strange Communion': Surveillance and Spectatorship in Ann Petry's The Street." African American Review 37 (2003): 21-37.
Holladay, Hilary. Ann Petry. New York: Twayne/Simon, 1996.
Holloway, Karla FC. "Coda: Bodies of Evidence." Summer 2006. The Scholar & Feminist Online 4.3. 15 Sept. 2006. <http://www.barnard.columbia.edu/sfonline/sport/ holloway_01.htm>.
Hondagneu-Sotelo, Pierrette. Gendered Transitions: Mexican Experiences of Immigration. Berkeley: U of California P, 1994.
Ibish, Hussein, ed. Arab-American Anti-Discrimination Committee. Report on Hate Crimes and Discrimination Against Arab Americans: The Post-September 11 Backlash, September 11, 2001-October 11, 2002. Washington, DC: 2003.
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Lubiano, Wahneema. "Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means." Race-ing Justice, En-gendering Power: Essays on Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas, and the Construction of Social Reality. Ed. Toni Morrison. New York: Pantheon, 1992. 323-63.
--. "Perfect Offenders, Perfect Victim: The Limitations of Specularity in the Aftermath of the Lacrosse Team Incident." 13 Apr. 2006. NewBlackMan. 15 Sept. 2006. <http://newblackman.blogspot.coml2006/04/social-disaster-voices. from-durham.html>.
McBride, Kecia Driver. "Fear, Consumption, and Desire: Naturalism and Ann Petry's The Street." Twisted from the Ordinary: Essays on American Literary Naturalism. Ed. Mary E. Papke. Knoxville: U of Tennessee P, 2003. 304-22.
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McDowell, Deborah. "The Changing Same": Black Women's Literature, Criticism, and Theory. Bloomington: Indiana UP: 1995.
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(1.) See, e.g., Cooper's contemporary, Terrell, as well as later 20th-century thinkers including Carby, Giddings, and White. Recent events at Duke University provide dismayingly up-to-the-minute evidence of the ongoing applicability of Cooper's observations. At the crux of these events was the alleged rape of a young black woman by members of Duke's virtually all-white men's lacrosse team; the woman had been hired to dance at a team party. For incisive analyses of some of the issues raised by these events, see Holloway, Lubiano's "Perfect Offenders, Perfect Victim," and Neal.
(2.) Radcliffe's The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian were wildly popular, oft-imitated instances of the gothic romances written in England during the tradition's original Anglophone heyday (1764-1830).
(3.) This essay is drawn from a larger project in which I analyze the profound relationships between the gothic, identity, and domestic ideology in African American literature from as early as the mid-1800s through the present.
(4.) Bone's dismissal of The Street as a derivative, unanalytical work in "the Wright School" might have unfortunately been one of the most influential articulations of this comparison (157-60, 180). More recently, critics-especially those sensitive to Petry's particular and unprecedented literary representation of issues of gender and sexuality in relation to race and class--have rehearsed the connection between Petry and Wright to challenge or complicate it. See, e.g., Holladay's literary biography (12-13) and essays by Bell (105-09), Henderson (850), and Hicks (21-22). McBride's recent essay, in particular, rejects the construction of Petry's novel as derivative of Wright's in the context of a wonderfully nuanced re-reading of The Street as a naturalist work. For a useful summary of the critical history of the novel from its publication through the 1970s, see Pryse (130n3).
(5.) Jarrett, who introduces the first reprinting of Petry's story (in PMLA's "Little-Known Documents" feature), frames her choice to use a pseudonym within a tradition of "African American Noms de Plume." Jarrett argues that "Pseudonymity ... allowed African American writers to advance [a] polemic against racial realism" by instead "offer[ing] literary entertainment through genres of popular fiction, such as romance and mystery" (245). While I find this to be an extremely instructive lens through which to view Petry's choice to publish as "Arnold Petri," it is important to recognize that use of the pseudonym as a sign of "authorial disavowal" has also long been associated with the conventions of one such genre of popular fiction: the gothic (Botting 49).
(6.) Though Petry's experience and the setting of The Street centralizes late 1930's-early 1940's Harlem, the disproportionately dismal conditions described here and in the novel are not limited to that time and place. As Petry writes in her autobiography: "The sad and terrible truth about The Street is that now forty-one years later I could write that same book about Harlem or any other ghetto. Because life hasn't changed that much for black people" ("Ann Petry" 265). While the way of life in the rural South is certainly different from life in urban northern centers, numerous disadvantages and dangers that were and are typical of the latter setting are also common to the former, albeit sometimes in variant forms.
(7.) This famous language appears in the first essay of Du Bois's The Souls of Black Folk: "It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his two-ness--an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder" (364-65).
(8.) According to Ervin's Ann Petty: A Bio-Bibliography, Petry lived for eight years at 2 East 129th Street, which is sometimes designated as Harlem proper and in other instances as East Harlem. In any event, the conditions on Petry's block appear to have been quite different from those that characterized the section of 116th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues) where Lutie was renting her apartment, even though they are only about 16 blocks apart. Lutie's years outside of Harlem were partly spent in Jamaica (Queens), where she and her husband had a small house, and partly in Lyme, Connecticut, where she worked as a live-in maid for a well-to-do white family.
(9.) Petry has written of the period when her husband was serving overseas and she wanted to work full-time on her novel in this way: "I decided that if I lived as frugally as possible I would be able to pay the rent and buy food. I would have to develop a life-style that was simple, inexpensive" ("Ann Petry" 265). Lutie, in a similarly penny-counting manner, calculates how she can get by on her salary and still save enough to move out of Harlem: "if she and Bub were very careful they would have more than enough to last until her next pay-day"-because if they weren't "very careful," they might "have to go on living here year after year ... [w]ith just enough money to pay the rent, just enough money to buy food and clothes and to see an occasional movie" (Street 64, 74).
(10.) When I speak herein of the performance of a social role defined in terms of one or more aspects of identity-usually sexuality, race, gender, or class, for purposes of this essay-I am drawing and expanding upon the concept of performativity developed by Butler in Gender Trouble (25). This theory sees socially constructed identities as highly unstable ways of being that we become by continually doing them, to encapsulate Butler's understanding of gender (33), and is helpful for thinking about the way that domestic ideology's rhetoric presents certain identities as the product of specified behaviors (rather than the privilege of economically, politically, or otherwise relatively empowered persons).
(11.) For example, Lubiano's "Black Ladies, Welfare Queens, and State Minstrels: Ideological War by Narrative Means" discusses the impact of this ideology on the portrayal of Anita Hill in the media; Williams's The Alchemy of Race and Rights registers the implications of her race and gender identities, and how they are perceived by her students and colleagues, for her career as a law professor.
(12.) While domestic ideology has a much wider application, as I discuss further herein, Victorianera England is quite accurately isolated as the site of the ideology's fullest flowering. See, e.g., Hall; McClintock; and Davidoff and Hall.
(13.) For an extended discussion of gender and nationalism, including an analysis of nationalists' reliance on the terminology of domesticity to communicate national relationships, see McClintock, especially pages 352-60.
(14.) The Victorian-era woman needed "domestic help" in part to maintain her performance of middle-class leisure (McClintock 162). Today, a different reason obtains. Writing about the experiences of women emigrating to the US from Mexico, Hondagneu-Sotelo identifies a direct correlation between the influx of numerous middle- and upper-class US women into the workforce and the increase in demand for (poorly) paid labor to perform the domestic work that "the woman of the house" is still held responsible for having done (151). Harris highlights the conflict between the domestic worker's own household and her employing household, by asking, "To whom could the black woman complain if she were forced to leave her children alone for two hours to cook dinner for a white woman ...?" (10).
(15.) See McClintock's discussions of domestication (34-36) and abjection (72), in which she explores the way domesticity authorizes the labels by which, and the reasons for which, disempowered groups are stigmatized, even as those groups perform social roles that the powerful "cannot do without."
(16.) My thinking of "gothic homelessness" as a dis-ease is indebted to Wald's description of the cultural and medical phenomenon of the "healthy carrier." This figure occupies the boundaries between sickness and health, medically speaking, and, in cultural terms, represents the dangers that arise when social borders are transgressed or exposed as permeable. See Wald 185-86, 193.
(17.) For a discussion of the impact of the post-9/11 US climate on Arab Americans (and Arab immigrants), see Ibish 7-9, 38-47.
(18.) I borrow Wilt's phrase "Classic Gothic" to signify romances written during the genre's formative period, approximately 1764-1830 (12, 23).
(19.) Petry's narrative, however, should not be read as supporting the dominant rhetoric, which would have one believe that the white, middle-class home, with all its luxuries, is, by contrast, actually impenetrable. Her portrait of the Chandlers' would-be "home," where Lutie works for over two years, exposes it as vulnerable to all kinds of "un-domestic" behavior, including Mrs. Chandler's probable adultery, her neglect of her son, and the Christmas Day suicide of her brother-in-law. Petry thus undermines racist, classist constructions of the working-class/black home as the exclusive and natural site of immorality and violence.
(20.) Shulman deconstructs the "myth" that "low-wage work is merely a temporary step on the ladder to a better job." To the contrary, upward mobility does not follow inevitably from hard work and "play[ing] by the rules," she writes in an analysis of the potential political power of the working class. The author of The Betrayal of Work, Shulman cites a University of Michigan study that followed a group of workers over the course of their careers and "found that half of those whose earnings ranked in the bottom 20 percent in 1968 were still in the same group in 1991" (par. 3 and 5).
(21.) An important aspect of the narrative, which space does not permit me to address fully here, is the way racism, sexism, and classism collude to masculinize Lutie as the family breadwinner. Petry points repeatedly to ways that racist employment practices exclude African American men from steady, well-paying jobs and push African American women into the workforce, leaving the men feeling emasculated. Harris observes that this system kept a steady supply of African American women to fill positions as paid domestic laborers; she applies this analysis specifically to Lutie's situation in The Street (9-10, 88-89).
(22.) Put differently, Lutie's gothic homelessness here is a product of her exclusion from the "sisterhood" of "women." For additional illuminating discussions of the relationship of race to the "cult of true womanhood," see Tate and Giddings.
(23.) Lindon Barrett makes the same point in his excellent reading of the capitalist market as a violent force in The Street "African American female bodies are ... established as what might be understood as the ur-site of 'prostitution,' a site of both social and natural pollution" (120).
(24.) Obviously, this "option," in which Lutie's economic possibilities depend upon her relationship to a man, is grounded in the same ideological network that this essay criticizes--specifically, in domesticity's idealization of the heteronormative "nuclear" family and the male breadwinner. While I decry the sexism that underlies this route to financial security, I nonetheless wish to note the way that class and race circumscribe Lutie's opportunities to participate in even the marginal "benefits" of the gender hierarchy.
(25.) Other scholars noting this phenomenon include McDowell (37-38) and duCille, whose essay acknowledges the "widely held critical opinion" that most women writing during the so-called Harlem Renaissance "tried to rebut racist imaging of black women as morally loose," but nonetheless faults this observation for preventing critics from noticing the ways in which these texts circumvent and challenge the convention of portraying "prim," "proper," "bourgeois" black "ladies" (422).
Drake sees Lutie in this tradition of African American heroines, though she argues that Petry modifies the tradition by contrasting Lutie's asexuality to "sexualized minor female characters" who "survive and even flourish during the course of the novel, while the protagonist suffer[s]" (66-67). My reading of Petry's use of gothic conventions in portraying these =minor female characters" does not accord entirely with Drake's view of them as "flourishing" in comparison to Lutie; while they do indeed "survive," so does she, surviving and suffering not being mutually exclusive. Nonetheless, I find compelling the main thrust of Drake's point, that Petry attempts to show us the then-unfamiliar picture of a black female character whose increasing troubles can be linked with her adamant asexuality.
(26.) Petry's symbolism here draws upon domestic ideology's mandate that white things be kept "clean" and "pure." See, e.g., McClintock (207-31).
(27.) Cf. Bell (108-09), Pryse (117), and Clark (497), for similar perspectives on Lutie's Franklinian philosophy. Instances of Lutie's assimilation of Franklin's values include The Street (68-69).
(28.) Pryse's research on Benjamin Franklin makes clear that Junto can be seen as a stand-in, or double, for him: "The name Junto is also a direct allusion to the first significant men's club in American colonial history, the name Franklin gave his secret group of friends. Formed ostensibly for moral and intellectual improvement, Franklin's Junto actually served its members as a central sphere of social and political influence.... [I]t became ... 'an instrument to help him and his associates to rise in the community'" (118). By associating Lutie's (and Petry's) "model," Franklin, with her nemesis, Junto, Petry in effect concedes that the rhetoric of the American Dream (and domestic ideology) has a much more limited application than her parents' teachings indicated.
(29.) Cf. Bryant.
(30.) Cf. Glave.
Evie Shockley is Assistant Professor of English at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N J, where she teaches 20th-century African American literature and creative writing (poetry). Her research interests include the African American gothic and the relationship between race and innovation in African American poetry. She is the author of two collections of poetry: The Gorgon Goddess (2001) and a half-red sea (2006).
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|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2006|
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