While often treated as a realist novel about the interior lives of its characters and their internal experiences of oppression, Ann Petry’s The Street may also be read as a powerful protest novel—one with the potential to provoke specific political and social changes for the benefit of African Americans and women. Like the other black characters in Petry’s work, the novel’s protagonist Lutie Johnson and her son Bub are victims of an institutional racism that grants privileges to Anglo Americans while denying them to African Americans. By crafting Lutie as beautifully human, while simultaneously paying close attention to the relationship that exists between physical space and freedom, Petry persuades readers that white people bear the ultimate responsibility for the fate of her characters.
To make her protest against institutional racism rhetorically compelling, Petry must successfully dispel the misguided notion that problems of the ghetto may be attributed to some failing on the part of its residents. For this purpose her determined protagonist, Lutie Johnson, is perfect. Willing to do anything short of selling her body for money, Lutie makes every effort to escape the physical walls of her apartment in Harlem and overcome the many racial barriers to opportunity that press in on her with increasing force as she moves closer to her tragic fate. While certainly misguided in her belief that the pursuit of the American Dream will be fruitful, Lutie works with integrity to feed and clothe her only son. As a strong, beautiful woman, she evokes the sympathy of readers, who cannot help but admire her strength and perseverance while those around her insist that she succumb to the lure of easy money by prostituting herself—a proposition that Lutie rejects in spite of her desperation. With Lutie’s uncompromising attitude toward her body, Petry insists to readers that black people are human. In his famous essay ‘‘Everybody’s Protest Novel,’’ writer James Baldwin critiques the genre of protest fiction popular with African American authors, arguing that the ‘‘failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of beauty.’’ With the very human, sympathetic Lutie, Petry appears to succeed where her contemporaries fail.
Intimately tied to the success of her protest is Petry’s treatment of space. In the beginning of the novel, Petry introduces the idea that Lutie’s perception of space is tied to her life journey: ‘‘As the train gathered speed for the long run to 125th Street, the passengers settled down into small private worlds, thus creating the illusion of space between them and their fellow passengers.’’ Implying that everyone has a need for a private psychological world, Petry’s description of the crowded train suggests that a relationship exists between the need for physical and psychological space. The train is in motion, serving as a metaphor for Lutie’s life journey and the processes of changing race relations in the inner-city. By introducing Lutie’s experience of changing physical and psychological spaces in a neutral context relevant to all people regardless of race, Petry builds a foundation onto which she can build an argument with universal appeal:
“She noticed that once the crowd walked the length of the platform and started up the stairs toward the street, it expanded in size. The same people who had made themselves small on the train, even on the platform, suddenly grew so large they could hardly get up the stairs to the street together.”
The crowd that Lutie observes is implicitly diverse but moves together, suggesting from the start that Lutie’s journey concerns us all.
As the story progresses, Lutie’s experience of a need for space grows in its specific relevance to the black experience of the impoverished ghettos in Harlem. No longer describing the details of an experience to which all New York City residents can relate, Petry writes about the inadequate living conditions of the inner city neighborhoods, explaining, ‘‘The trouble is that these rooms are so small. After she had been in them just a few minutes, the walls seemed to come in toward her, to push against her.’’ Likewise, Lutie’s desire to find a better place to live is framed in terms of a need for space: ‘‘Now that she had this apartment, perhaps the next thing she ought to do was to find another one with bigger rooms.’’ Again keeping the prejudices of white readers at bay, Petry conveys Lutie’s experience in terms that are not racially specific while simultaneously evoking sympathy for Lutie’s struggle. By keeping the focus in the beginning of the book on Lutie’s experience of Harlem’s poverty, rather than on race, which was extremely controversial during the 1940s (the United States Army was still segregated racially during World War II and in the occupation of Germany thereafter, for instance), Petry invites white readers to empathize with the need for escape, ‘‘No matter what it cost them, people had to come to places like the Junto . . . so they could believe in themselves again,’’ and with the powerful relief provided by the illusion of increased space:
“The big mirror in front of her made the Junto an enormous room. It pushed the walls back and back into space. . . . It pushed the world of people’s kitchen sinks back where it belonged and destroyed the existence of the dirty streets and small shadowed rooms.”
Unfortunately, as becomes increasingly obvious throughout the novel, the escapes available to African Americans, especially women and children in Harlem, are no more than dangerous traps that seal their fate. Like the adult characters in Harlem who are lured by the illusion of space at Junto’s bar, Bub—an innocent child—is lured by the space William Jones inhabits in the cellar of their apartment building, since ‘‘there was so much space down here, too.’’ In the warmth of the fire and the attention of Jones, Bub’s perception of reality shifts dangerously into line with that of the malicious superintendent,
“This was real. The other was a bad dream. Going upstairs after school to a silent, empty house was not real either. This was the reality. This great, warm, open space was where he really belonged. Supe was captain of the detectives and he, Bub, was his most valued henchman.”
Only, Supe is not the captain of detectives. He is a desperate man acting like a caged animal in his devious ploy to hurt Lutie and Bub. ‘‘He had been chained to buildings until he was like an animal,’’ a fact that Petry underscores through the cruelty of his subsequent actions.
Like Lutie’s, the parallel struggles of other adult women in the novel are tragic. Lutie’s unsuccessful attempts to find more space for herself and Bub are not unlike Mrs. Hedges’s escape from a burning building, ‘‘determined that she would force her body through the narrow window.’’ Like Mrs. Hedges, Lutie survives the novel physically, escaping on a train to Chicago; however, also like Mrs. Hedges, she withdraws from the people who love her. Where Mrs. Hedges withdraws from Mr. Junto, who genuinely admires and respects her, Lutie withdraws from her son when she abandons him at the Children’s Shelter. By aligning the plights of her characters, Petry bridges the gap between her feminine ideal, Lutie, and those characters who gave up the futile fight against institutional racism long ago, thereby extending the implications of Lutie’s story to all African Americans who are forced to live in the ghettos of the inner city by unfair governmental and business lending practices.
In contrast to the insight she develops later in the novel, Lutie’s early view is relatively limited: ‘‘[Lutie] hummed as she listened to it, not really aware that she was humming or why, knowing only that she felt free here where there was so much space.’’ As she continues to come up against the forces of institutional sexism and racism, her perspective begins to shift into a deeper understanding of her own oppression— encouraging readers, who have come to sympathize with her, to shift their perspective on race relations as well. As Lutie discovers after noticing the disparity between her own observations of an event and the way it is presented in the newspaper, ‘‘it all depended on where you sat how these things looked.’’ Viewing her situation from a new vantage point after experiencing multiple setbacks in her attempt to find decent work, Lutie begins to recognize that her situation is not unique: ‘‘It was a bad street. And then she thought about the other streets. It wasn’t just this street that she was afraid was bad. It was any street where people were packed together like sardines in a can. And it wasn’t just this city.‘‘ Here, Lutie begins to understand and clarify for the reader the relationship between housing segregation (a situation created in part by unfair mortgage lending practices) and the poverty of African Americans, thinking,
“It was any city where they set up a line and say black folks stay on this side and white folks stay on this side, so that black folks were crammed on top of each other—jammed and packed and forced into the smallest possible space until they were completely cut off from the light and air.”
By the time Lutie comes to the conclusion that it is white people who are responsible for the situation in Harlem, readers are so invested in Lutie’s perspective that they cannot help agreeing with her when she declares, ‘‘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.’’
As the novel careens toward its devastating conclusion, Lutie herself becomes less able to feel human. After her audition with Mr. Crosse for a position as a singer, Lutie feels trapped, and comes to realize that her attempts to escape have been futile because ‘‘from the time she was born, she had been hemmed into an ever-narrowing space, until now she was very nearly walled in and the wall had been built up brick by brick by eager white hands.’’ Nor can she control the anger she feels in response to being trapped: ‘‘She was neatly caged here on this street and tonight’s experience had increased this growing frustration and hatred in her.’’ To preemptively counter those readers who are inclined to disagree, Lutie’s perspective is immediately juxtaposed with that of Bub’s white teacher, Miss Rinner, who incorrectly attributes the erratic animal-like behavior of her black students to their lack of morality rather than differences in privilege that existed between white and black residents of New York.
The persuasive power of Petry’s carefully crafted work can be traced to the changing perceptions of The Street’s characters as they experience changes in the space available to them in response to their experiences of oppression. By quietly earning the readers’s sympathy for Lutie as a human being and then gradually introducing readers to the idea that white people are to blame for the one-way train Lutie boarded at birth, Petry gives herself a chance to be heard by white and black readers alike and succeeds in protesting the status quo.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Ann Petry, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010
Laura Noll, Critical Essay on The Street, in Novels for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2010.