Tuesday, 7 May 2019

Analysis of On The Road by Langston Hughes

This article is an analysis of Langston Hughes's short story On The Road.

Background and Context:

Langston Hughes wrote the short story On The Road in 1934 and published it in 1935. This time period was right after the Harlem Renaissance. The period of African-American cultural social and artistic explosion that took place in Harlem for which Hughes was considered the literary leader.

It was also in the middle of the period of Jim Crow laws where the racial segregation state and local laws enacted in southern states after reconstruction in the 1880s that continued until 1964 with the passage of the Civil Rights Act. However, years of court challenges were needed to fully unravel these discriminatory laws. Being that Langston Hughes who was biracial came from a long line of African-American educators and activists including a great uncle who was the first black congressman from Virginia.

A grandmother who attended Overland college and married a man who died in the Schlage rebellion at Harpers Ferry. A grandfather who was an activist for abolition and black education and parents who were both educated at historically black colleges.

Hughes was clearly aware of the injustices of Jim Crow laws and the need for racial equality. Additionally, Hughes traveled the world and lived across the Midwest as well as in Harlem New York further expanding his awareness of the need for the end to Jim Crow laws.

Theme:

All of these factors contribute to Langston Hughes's awareness of racial injustice and his desire to speak out against it. Although Hughes's father moved to Mexico to avoid racial inequality in the United States and expressed hatred for of his blackness arguing that African Americans were somehow to blame for the racial injustice as they experienced.

Hughes's grandmother instilled in Langston a sense of pride in his African-American heritage and a desire to fight for equality which is exactly what he promotes in the story On The Road.

The main themes of this story are racial injustice and hypocrisy of racially segregated churches. In On The Road, the protagonist named Sargent is turned away from saving much-needed shelter on a very cold snowy night by Reverend Dorsett. The white parsonage or clergy member living in the rectory next to the whites-only church.

Sargeant proceeds to break down the doors to the church next door in order to get a shelter that he clearly needs to survive the night. For this act of defiance in his desperate need for survival he is beaten and sent to jail.

The story is clearly critical of the hypocrisy of segregated churches and the racially discriminatory Jim Crow laws that legally protect these laws which result in legal discrimination and extreme poverty and suffering for African Americans.

Allegory and Symbolism:

The story is allegorical in nature meaning it uses symbols to teach a moral. In this case about the injustice of legal segregation and hypocrisy of segregated churches.

The snow represents white oppression and discrimination against Blacks. The snow is cold and wet and makes survival difficult for the sergeant and it goes unnoticed by the protagonist at first because as he arrives in town on a freight train. He was too hungry too sleepy too tired to notice.

Although sergeant is unaware of the snow or the repression or discrimination against blacks when he knocks on the door of the parsonage hoping to find much-needed shelter from the cold. The parsonage is keenly aware of the snow as he found there standing before him a big black man with snow on his face.

A human piece of night with snow on his face obviously unemployed and before Sargent even realized he'd opened his mouth who was turned away as Reverend Dorset tells him "I'm sorry, no go right on down the street for blocks and turn your left, walk up seven and you'll see the relief shelter I'm sorry no" and proceeds to shut the door on him.

We then learned that sergeant has already been turned away from the shelter. As he has hundreds of times before by similar relief shelters which during the Depression didn't serve blacks.

The white snow also covers the steps of the whites-only segregated Church which he is locked out of. Another symbol is the doors of the church which represent barriers between the races that legal segregation creates. Sergeant appropriately breaks down these doors symbolizing his desire to break down the barriers.

The stone Christ on the crucifix is yet another symbol of how segregation imprisons Christ not allowing him to live among those who need his help most.

analysis-of-on-road-by-langston-hughes


The story expresses sergeant's desire to free Christ from the imprisonment created by segregated churches.

The pillars of the church are also a symbol of the false and hypocritical justification of segregated churches which Sargeant breaks down making the church collapse on its white members and the police who protect them. Again this act which only actually occurs in sergeant's dream may also be a wish that sergeant has to tear down segregated churches in the false beliefs that justify their existence.

Sergeant himself represents the average African-American who is a victim of racial discrimination and is paralleled to Christ when he carries the stone pillar while walking alongside Christ. As Christ had to carry his cross on the way to his own crucifixion.

Magical Realism:

On The Road uses a literary technique called magical realism which is when the author presents extraordinary or magical events alongside realistic events as if they could actually occur. Sergeant's ability to pull down the entire church with his bare hands and free Christ from the crucifix and Christ walking and talking with him are all examples of magical realism.

Hughes's explanation that sergeant wakes up later in jail also gives a reader a more logical explanation of the unrealistic events. Perhaps they were all a dream or bush fulfillment or even divine intervention. The tearing down of the pillars with his bare hands is a biblical allusion to Samson in the Bible who with God's help tear down the pagan temple with his bare hands implying that God would sanction. Sargent's rebellion against the whites-only Church and against the Jim Crow laws that legalized it.