The Street opens with the story’s main character, Lutie Johnson, braving a bitter, cold wind as she walks through Harlem in New York City. The wind Lutie faces is personified as a hostile character, mirroring the aggressive attitude of many white Americans toward African Americans during the pre-civil rights era. More generally, the wind represents the oppressive forces of poverty and racial inequality and the chilling impact they have on the urban-dwelling African Americans of Ann Petry’s novel. Lutie is on her way down 116th Street to look at an apartment she is interested in renting for her and her eight-year-old son Bub. In addition to wanting to shelter her son from a life of poverty and violence, Lutie seeks to protect Bub from the influence of Lil, her father’s current girlfriend, a promiscuous woman who gives Bub alcohol and has him light her cigarettes for her. At first Lutie thinks that anything would be better than continuing on with her father and Lil. But as she inspects the poverty-stricken street in Harlem, the dilapidated building, and the apartment itself, she is not so sure. In addition to the depressing state of the building and the proximity to domestic violence and alcoholic men, moving to this apartment would mean living under the management of William Jones, the ‘‘super’’ (building supervisor), who eyes Lutie lustily as she inspects the apartment. Despite her reservations, Lutie decides that she will take the apartment. Two other important characters appear in the opening chapter. As she weighs her options, Lutie reflects on the advice of her deceased grandmother, Granny, whose ‘‘nonsense’’ Lutie often dismisses but also uses to guide herself. The first person Lutie meets at the apartment building, which will eventually become her home, is Mrs. Hedges, a woman who is revealed to be the madam of a prostitution operation that takes advantage of impoverished women and depressed men looking for an escape from the dark reality of life in the ghetto.
The next chapter takes readers back in time to the events that led up to Lutie’s separation from her husband, Jim. Wanting to provide for her family, Lutie takes a job working as a live-in maid and nanny for a white family, the Chandlers, in Lyme, Connecticut. While she initially takes it out of desperation—Jim is unemployed and this is the only job she can get—she ends up staying for two years. Among her many responsibilities, Lutie is the primary caregiver for the Chandler’s son, who is the same age as Bub. During her stay at the Chandlers, she endures constant discrimination and racism because she is black. On Christmas Eve, Mr. Chandler’s brother, Jonathan Chandler, commits suicide in front of the whole family—an event that the Chandlers pass off as an accident to the public. Lutie receives a message from her father informing her that her husband is now living with another woman, and this prompts Lutie to quit her job and return home. Enraged, she kicks the other woman out of the house, takes Bub, and moves in with her father. Years go by and Lutie works menial jobs while studying for civil-service examinations. Eventually she gets a position as a file clerk. Chapter 2 ends with Lutie resolving never to stop fighting against the negative forces of the street.
Lutie walks down the street worrying about money and Bub. She has an encounter with a white butcher that causes her to reflect on her struggle to gain power. After buying groceries, she returns home to find Bub shining shoes for money. Angered because she feels the work is conditioning Bub to accept a low status in society, Lutie slaps him across the face, bewildering him. She tries to explain why she is angry and then reflects on the ways in which African Americans are trapped in the ghetto of Harlem. Determined not to stay trapped herself, Lutie resolves to fight her way out. After reflecting on how poverty and racism affected her father and husband, Lutie heads out for a drink at a local bar, owned by Mr. Junto, a white man.
Here, the narrative perspective shifts from Lutie’s to that of William Jones, the supervisor of her apartment building. Jones sees Lutie going out all dressed up and he feels lonely: ‘‘It was a loneliness born of years of living in basements and sleeping on mattresses in boiler rooms.’’ He feels an attraction to Lutie and schemes about how to possess her. Readers learn that it was his idea for Bub to shine shoes—the first of many attempts to get to Lutie by manipulating her son. The super’s newfound attraction to Lutie disrupts the stability of his living situation with Min, a woman he resents for her helplessness. While pondering his previous interactions with Lutie, the super reveals that he was fantasizing about raping her while she was inspecting the apartment, thus confirming Lutie’s intuition about his predatory intentions. While Lutie is out, the super visits her apartment, plays cards with Bub and goes through Lutie’s personal belongings, even going so far as to steal her lipstick for his sexual gratification. The super plans to throw Min out as soon as possible.
Chapter 5 is told from Min’s perspective. Ever since Lutie moved in, William Jones has treated her like he treats the dog, kicking and verbally abusing her when he is angry. She no longer feels safe in the apartment, so she goes to Mrs. Hedges to ask if she knows where she can find a root doctor (a person who uses traditional and supposedly magical plant preparations to help others). Following the advice of Mrs. Hedges, Min consults with the Prophet David, who treats her like a human being. The consultation is significant because it is the first time Min has acted in defiance of the men in her life. The Prophet gives Min a cross, some candles, and small vial of red liquid. Min declares that her interaction with the Prophet was the most satisfying experience of her life.
After letting Bub go to the movies, Lutie visits Mr. Junto’s bar, where many people go to escape the problems that plague their lives in the ghetto. While she is there drinking beer, she sings along to the music from the jukebox and everyone stops to listens to her. One of the wealthier black men at the bar, Boots Smith, hears her and asks her to sing in his band with him. Boots and Lutie go for a night drive outside the city, prompting Lutie to contemplate the relationship between money and power.
Lutie and Boots return to the city because Boots is late for work. They are pulled over for speeding by a white policeman and Lutie is afraid because the man’s face changes when he sees they are black. Boots gives him money with his driver’s license and the policeman lets them go without a ticket. In her mind, Lutie compares Boots unfavorably with her husband, who had always struggled to have enough money. Unlike Boots, her husband had warm, open eyes. She begins to feel like Jim’s cheating on her was partly her fault. Lutie reflects on the events that led to her taking work away from the family, including a brutal fight where Jim slapped her across the face and she broke a chair.
Lutie returns home thinking about life on the street. When she enters her apartment, she notices that the ashtray has been used. Bub tells her that the super had come by and played cards with him. Lutie falls asleep that night thinking of the super as less than human and has terrible nightmares. The next day Lutie reflects on the horrible things she has seen while living in Harlem and resolves once again to keep fighting the pressures of life on the street. Inside she feels rage and hatred, but Lutie forces negative thoughts out of her mind because they do not lead anywhere. As she goes to her closet to pick out her clothes, she notices a blouse has been crumpled. After questioning Bub, she realizes that the super was in her bedroom fondling her clothing.
The first part of chapter 9 is told from Bub’s perspective. When Lutie goes out to sing with Boots’s band, Bub is afraid to stay at home alone. He is lonely when she is away and in the dark the furniture turns into monstrous shapes. Bub hears couples fighting, women being beaten up, and people crying through the thin walls. Bub falls asleep. The narration then shifts to Lutie’s perspective as she enters the dance hall at the Casino where Boots’s band is playing. Lutie performs very well and receives a standing ovation from the orchestra. Boots tells Lutie that she won’t have to worry about money anymore. Lutie is glad because she believes that 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.
William Jones continues to lust after Lutie, while also becoming increasingly disgusted with the presence of Min in his apartment. He wants to throw her out, but he cannot because the Prophet David’s tricks have worked. When Lutie returns home from singing at the Casino, Jones apprehends her in the hallway and tries to drag her to the cellar to rape her. He is interrupted by Mrs. Hedges, who rescues Lutie and brings her back to her apartment to recover from the traumatic experience. The narration shifts to Mrs. Hedges’s perspective, revealing the painful events of her past and the details of her longstanding relationship with Mr. Junto. Readers are given a window into the function of prostitution on the street and the threat it poses to Lutie and her son.
After being summoned by Mr. Junto, Boots assumes, incorrectly, that someone found out how Mr. Junto helped Boots avoid being drafted into the army. Boots recalls his conversation with Mr. Junto about his deep-seated hatred for white folks and his feelings about the war. Instead of talking with him about the war, Mr. Junto tells Boots not to pursue Lutie Johnson romantically because he wants her for himself. Boots weighs the benefits of pursuing Lutie against the risk of losing Mr. Junto’s power and influence; he decides Lutie is not worth it. He remembers the time he caught his partner, Jubilee, sleeping with a white man. He beat her up and she cut him across the face with a knife, leaving a prominent scar. Boots agrees to Mr. Junto’s request and Mr. Junto tells Boots not to pay Lutie for her work singing in the band.
William Jones is enraged because Mrs. Hedges and Min have ruined his plan to rape Lutie in the cellar. He wants to punish Mrs. Hedges by turning her over to the police for operating a whorehouse but knows that she is protected by the power of Mr. Junto, a white man. In a cloud of delusional thinking, he imagines that if he gives Lutie a present she will want to be with him. He also imagines that the only reason she does not want to be with him is that she wants Mr. Junto. Angry, he comes up with a plan to hurt Lutie through her son, Bub. He gets Min to copy a master mailbox key he has designed. He tells Bub that he will pay him to steal letters from people’s mailboxes as part of a secret operation to catch crooks. Bub does not think his mother will approve and runs away from Jones.
Back at the Casino, during an intermission in the show Lutie finds out that Boots is not going to pay her for singing in the band, at least not for several months, because Mr. Junto thinks she is not ready yet. She tells him she is not interested in singing for free. Boots gives her a pair of rhinestone earrings sent by Mr. Junto. Filled with a sense of loss and trying to control her anger, Lutie blames herself for being unrealistic with her planning. She returns home to the misery of her Harlem apartment complex and resolves once again that she will never become resigned to staying in the ghetto. She tells Bub about her financial worries but then feels badly for the way she harps on him to keep their costs low. Responding to an advertisement she had found in an African American newspaper, Lutie travels to the Crosse School for Singers to audition for a Broadway and nightclub singing job. Mr. Crosse tells her she has a good voice and that she can earn seventy five dollars a week if she pays one hundred and twenty-five dollars for this school to train her. She gets up to leave because she does not have nearly enough money to pay for the training. Mr. Crosse stops her by grabbing her arm. He tells her that if she ‘‘gets together’’ with him several times a week, the lessons will be free. Lutie picks up an inkwell and hurls ink at his face before slamming the door and rushing out of his office. On her way home, she reflects in anger on the oppression of African Americans. At home, Bub thinks Lutie is mad at him. She tells him that she is only worried about money, prompting Bub to return to the super and tell him he has changed his mind about stealing the letters for money.
Bub’s school teacher, Miss Rinner, is a white woman who has worked in Harlem for many years. She cannot stand the smell of Harlem or the children she teaches and is so ashamed of where she works that she does not tell her white friends the exact location of her job. On the weekend, Miss Rinner dreams of being transferred to a school where she can teach healthy white children who have a bright future. During the week, she travels to and from work feeling an irrational and excessive fear of black people. In reaction to her attitude, the children do not respect her and make fun of her with accusatory rhymes. One day, Bub tells Miss Rinner he needs to use the bathroom and uses his time to leave school early and beat the other children to the candy shop, where he buys his mother a pair of earrings. One of the members of a gang known as ‘‘the big six-B boys’’ sees that he has money and the boys chase Bub through the streets. Bub outruns them and feels a rush of excitement at his own daring. Feeling confident, Bub easily steals letters from an apartment block on a different street. He tells lies to the residents to explain his presence and feels a thrilling sense of success. He thinks he is playing an important part of a larger plan to catch crooks for the police. On his way home Bub gets so distracted watching some men gamble that he does not see the big six-B boys. The boys grab Bub and taunt him that his mother is a whore. Bub is rescued just in time by Mrs. Hedges, who tells the leader of the group, Charlie Moore, not to mess with Bub anymore. Bub meets the super down in the cellar and asks if they have caught any criminals yet. The super says they have not but assures him that they will soon.
Feeling unbearably uncomfortable living with William Jones and his hostility, Min decides that it is time to move. She loads her belongings, including her bird Dickie Boy and an ornately carved table given to her by a previous white employer, into a hired pushcart and sets off in search of a new place to live. Before she leaves the apartment, Min notices several stolen letters on the desk and knows Jones has been doing something crooked. She knows she can never return to Jones because she will never be safe with him. Knowing that a single black woman cannot live alone without being exploited by her landlord, Min wonders if she would have a chance with the pushcart man—indicating that she intends to continue her pattern of moving from man to man in order to protect herself.
Jones learns from Mrs. Hedges that Min is gone. When he goes upstairs to confirm this for himself, he notices the stolen letters that Min had seen. He looks around the apartment to see if Min has taken any of his things. When Jones looks at the bed, he thinks he sees the cross that Min brought home from the Prophet, only to find out shortly later that the cross he had seen was only an outline of dust where the cross had hung. Jones feels trapped and worries about not knowing what is real and what is imaginary. He fantasizes about quitting his job and feels free. Two post-office investigators, both white, come looking for the supervisor of Lutie’s building because it is the only one in the area where people have not made complaints about letters being stolen. Jones happily points them to Bub, who is caught red-handed bringing stolen letters back to Jones. In turn, Jones is gratified by thoughts of hurting Lutie. Lutie returns home and the investigators, who assume negative things about her character, are waiting for her. They give her paperwork and explain that Bub has been taken to the children’s shelter and will appear in Children’s Court. Lutie cries and blames herself for what has happened to Bub. She sets out in search of a lawyer, who tells her it will take two hundred dollars to free Bub.
Desperate to save Bub, Lutie wonders where she can find two hundred dollars. After dismissing several options, she phones Boots Smith and asks to see him right away. While visiting Boots at his expensive apartment, Lutie explains what has happened to Bub and asks to borrow the money. He is surprised to learn she has a son but quickly agrees to give her the money. Lutie leaves and goes home, where she reflects on growing up with Granny. The next day, Lutie visits Bub at the Children’s Shelter. She knows that she has pushed him away with her anger, resentment, and hate. Lutie goes home and cleans her apartment, trying to get through the day until she will go collect the money from Boots. Looking for an escape from her thoughts, Lutie goes to a movie but leaves partway through the picture. Next, she goes to the beauty parlor but it is unusually quiet. Lutie senses an inescapable stillness near her.
On her way out to see Boots, Lutie speaks briefly to Mrs. Hedges, who hints that Lutie can earn the money she needs by prostituting herself to Mr. Junto. Lutie turns away from her before she is finished, perplexing Mrs. Hedges. Lutie realizes that the inescapable stillness that has provoked her fear is actually Mr. Junto. Even when he is not around, she can feel his presence. When Lutie arrives at Boots’s apartment, Mr. Junto is there waiting to meet her. Boots takes Lutie into the bedroom and tells her to ‘‘be nice ’’ to Mr. Junto (in other word, to sleep with him) so that Mr. Junto will give her the money. Sensing that if she accepts this deal she will be completely trapped, Lutie demands that Boots get Mr. Junto out of the apartment. Boots complies and then decides that he will let Mr. Junto have sex with Lutie but he will have her first, thereby getting revenge against Mr. Junto for pushing him so hard about Lutie. Boots locks the door behind Mr. Junto and puts the key in his pocket. After pouring two drinks, one for Lutie and one for himself, Boots makes advances to Lutie. Sensing the danger she is in, Lutie tries to leave, but Boots protests. While looking at the scar on Boots’s face, Lutie sees everything she abhors about life on the streets of Harlem. Boots has come to represent all the traps she has been trying desperately to avoid. Boots kisses her and Lutie feels a surge of rage. She realizes that he has trapped her with the lure of money. Lutie yells at Boots and he slaps her across the face, triggering an explosion of suppressed rage. She grabs an iron candlestick from the mantel and murders Boots. Afterward, realizing what she has done, Lutie decides to buy a one-way train ticket for Chicago so that Bub will never know that his mother is a murderer.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Ann Petry, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010