Wright’s short story “Bright and Morning Star” is filled with rain. From the first line, in which the protagonist Sue is said to be standing “six inches from the moist windowpane” as she wonders, “would it ever stop raining,” Wright uses rain as a metaphor of gloom and sorrow. Sue is worried about her son Johnny-Boy’s return. Although Wright does not show Sue crying, the moisture on the window so close to her face represents her tears, while her concern that the sun may never return addresses her apprehension that she has little hope that her life will ever improve. Thus, in the story’s first sentence, Wright has set the tone for the entire story, and this mood will prevail to the end, with the rain, as Sue feared, never ending.
Wright uses rain not only as a metaphor; he takes the image of rain and wraps it around other symbols such as in the opening paragraph when he mentions “a bright shaft of yellow that swung from the airplane beacon in far off Memphis.” It is because the night is so clustered in dark clouds and the sky is so saturated with rain that this yellow beacon is unmistakably visible. The shaft of light, in contrast to its practical status of signaling a safe harbor, cuts “through the rainy dark” like a “gleaming sword” above Sue’s head. The rain not only emphasizes this image, it lends its sheets of water as symbolic material through which the beam cuts. If the rain were not present, the light would be diffused, its edges feathered, and therefore the image would be softened. With the presence of the rain, Wright has created a dark background through which the light takes on the menacing form of a weapon. With the “gleaming sword” hanging over Sue, Wright exposes Sue’s fear as well as foreshadowing her death.
Sue is anxious about the well-being of her son. At first, readers might surmise that her anxiety is solely based on her concern that Johnny-Boy is caught in the rainstorm. He has “been trampin in this slop all day wid no decent shoes on his feet.” Readers might assume that Sue is merely worried that Johnny-Boy might catch a cold. However, this is not the level of apprehension that Wright wants, so he raises tension by enlarging on Sue’s thoughts as well as broadening the effects of the rainstorm. Not only is it raining, but it has been raining for too long. There is more rain than the ground can soak up. As Sue looks at the rain puddles that are forming in her yard, she observes that rain can be both good and bad. Rain can feed the earth and make plants flourish, but it can also “bog things down lika watah-soaked coffin.” With this reflection, Sue again brings the element of death into the story. Wright, through Sue, is portraying rain as an image of sorrow that can help create a strong character in people, just as the rain can feed the earth. Grief can help people to learn to appreciate the benefits of life, but too much heartache and anguish can eventually kill the spirit.
Rain pervades this initial setting, as even the inside of Sue’s house is saturated with moisture and images of water. There is the “filmy veil of sweat” on Sue’s forehead, the “throaty bubble” from a pot of boiling water, and the “pile of damp clothes” that Sue must iron. As she irons, she reminisces about both of her sons as “a gust of wind dashed rain against the window.” Sue’s life appears inundated with sorrow. As she unconsciously completes her chores, her hands follow “a lifelong ritual of toil” while her mind follows the suffering she has endured in the loss of her husband, in the suffering of her son Sug, and finally in her worries about Johnny-Boy’s late return. Sue’s trials in life have left her in a state of constant fear, which Wright further describes as an “intense brooding” that she held so closely to her “that she could feel their grain, like letting cold water run over her hand from a faucet on a winter morning.” Water also figures in Sue’s attempts to help support her sons. She washes clothes for white people. She mentions walking across a wet field with a load of wet clothes upon her head. This load did not weigh her down until the day that she found out that Sug had been taken to jail and beaten. Ever since,”things were becoming heavier. The tubs of water and the wet clothes were “becoming harder to lift.”
The rain continues as Sue hears footsteps “sucking in the mud of the back yard.” Sue is overpowered by the sound of these footsteps as she continues to anticipate her son’s arrival.”With all the rain and fear” in the air, Sue’s eyes fill with tears. Wright has created so much rain that the earth becomes soggy and grabs at the feet of those who are trying to make their passage home. This is a different type of weight than the water-laden clothes that Sue has carried on her head. With this image, the soaked earth makes footsteps heavy by “sucking” on the feet of those who pass by. It is hard to move, hard to progress when rain falls so heavily. Wright also incorporates more than sorrow into the rain. He now also links the rain with fear, and Sue has temporarily lost her ability to distract herself as she breaks down into tears.
Johnny-Boy finally makes it home. Sue feeds him and lets him “get dry” before she tells him that he has to go out into the rain again. She wants to give her son a moment of peace. As best as she can, she allows him to enjoy a short period of time when he still believes that hope is alive. In allowing him to dry off, Sue is temporarily lifting the weight of sorrow from his shoulders. Although she senses the fate that is soon to come down on him, she wants to give him the gift of motherly love. Then she says, without turning to look at him: “Yuh almos dry.” This statement signifies to Johnny-Boy that “more was coming.” In other words, having enjoyed his short respite, Johnny-Boy must once again return to the rain. When Johnny-Boy leaves, Sue watches the “rain take him.” Then she goes to bed and listens to the rain, her feelings coursing “with the rhythm of the rain: Hes gone! Lawd, Ah know hes gone!”
In part 3 of the story, the sheriff and a group of his men come to Sue’s house. During this whole section, there is no mention of rain. The dialog and action are hot and angry. Sorrow and fear have been put aside. In their place comes violence and blood. The rain remains absent when Booker, another white man associated with the sheriff, appears. Although fear is mentioned, it has become a white mountain of fear. It is different from the anxiety that Sue experiences when she thinks about her children. It is not the same fear as represented by rain. Not until Reva, a young white woman who is in love with Johnny-Boy, arrives on the scene is the rain made visible again.
As Sue ponders what she has to do to stop Booker from giving the sheriff the names of all the members of the Communist Party that Johnny-Boy has signed up, she notices that”the yellow beacon continued to flit past the window and the rain still drummed.” She finds herself “mired … between two abandoned worlds, living, but dying without the strength of the grace that either gave.” Then she feels something well up from deep inside of her and simultaneously senses that she is”naked against the night, the rain, the world.” It is at that moment that she knows she must “wade the creek” and get to Booker before Booker reveals the names. The watery images that Wright uses at this point convey a variety of messages. With the yellow beacon and the rain still imposed, Wright reminds readers that that gleaming sword still hangs over Sue’s head. Sue senses her own death. Standing in the darkness, Sue is “mired” in a place that is neither here nor there. She is not truly living because she is in a state of shock. Yet, she is not truly dead because she has not completed her fateful task. She accepts her fate, knowing that the things of this world are no longer significant. Naked, she will cross the creek, a symbol of crossing into the afterlife.
Walking toward the creek, Sue leans “her body against the wind and the driving rain.” Although the wind and rain are pushing her back, she uses them to lean on, driving herself forward into it. When she reaches the creek, she studies it, looking for a low point. She steps into the water but does not feel it until the water rises halfway up her body. She gasps at the unexpected coldness, a coldness that soon will be repeated in the last lines of the story as she lies dying in the rain.
Sue arrives at the place where the sheriff is holding Johnny-Boy. Wright does not describe the scene in terms of rain. It is not mentioned that the men are wet from standing in the storm. Not until the sheriff takes Sue to see Johnny-Boy does Wright once again mention rain. ‘ “They led her to a muddy clearing. The rain streamed down through the ghostly glare of the flashlights.” In a pool of black rainwater lies Sue’s son.
Through the section of the story during which the sheriff and his men torture Johnny-Boy, Wright again does not mention rain. Only after Sue has killed Booker and after she has been pushed down into the mud does the rain reappear. “She lay without struggling, looking upward through the rain…. And she was suddenly at peace.” It is then that Sue hears three shots fired, two at her son; the third shot she feels as a “streak of fire that tore its way through her chest [and] forced her to live again, intensely.” Then she feels her flesh turning cold, “cold as the rain that fell from the invisible sky upon the doomed living and the dead that never dies.” In death, Wright implies, Sue has found life. She has died a good death. The rain that once bothered her, that made her cold and bound her life in sorrow, is over. She has nothing more to fear. The rain, although it continues to fall, is meant for other people now.
Carol Ullmann (Editor) Short Stories for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, Volume 15, Richard Wright, Published by Gale, 2002.
Joyce Hart, Critical Essay on “Bright and Morning Star,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.