Pursuit of the American Dream
While working for the Chandlers, a white family of considerable wealth, Lutie is exposed to the idea that success and financial freedom are the guaranteed outcomes of hard work and perseverance—the American Dream. Determined to transcend her impoverished circumstances in Harlem, Lutie adopts this mentality and worries about money constantly. Her son, Bub, does not understand why Lutie is so concerned about money but wants to please her, so he tries to make money too. This leads to his imprisonment when William Jones takes advantage of his desire to earn his mother’s love and tricks him into stealing letters. Unfortunately, as Ann Petry successfully demonstrates in her novel, America was not a place of equal opportunity for African Americans or women in the 1940s. Lutie faces barriers of racial and gender discrimination as she tries to make money. Ultimately, she fails to achieve her dream of winning the fight against the street.
Racism and Discrimination against African Americans
As a single mother and African American woman, Lutie Johnson is discriminated against in every sector of her life—both personal and professional. Regarded as belonging to an inferior race, Lutie and the other African Americans in the story are unfairly denied many privileges and opportunities that are afforded to Anglo Americans. At the time Petry wrote her novel, housing in New York City was segregated by race and only certain buildings would rent apartments to black tenants—a form of institutional racism that severely limited the choices of African Americans. Like the other black residents of New York, Lutie wants desperately to get out of crowded Harlem but cannot because she lacks the financial resources to live elsewhere. The African American characters in Petry’s novel are inextricably tied to Harlem by the rampant poverty and institutional racism that existed prior to (and to a certain extent after) the civil rights movement of the 1960s. This causes them to feel anger and frustration, as they are denied the rights and privileges that are afforded to others. These sentiments are exacerbated by the expectation that African Americans should fight alongside other Americans in World War II, for freedoms that differentially benefit white Americans.
Gender Disparities and Sexism
Equally salient in Petry’s novel is the portrayal of sexism in the United States during the 1940s. In her search for a decent job, Lutie is treated as an object by men, who do not value her as a person. She feels she must hide the fact that she has a son because potential employers, like Boots, are only interested in her because of her potential as a romantic partner. As evidenced by the tragic outcome of the novel, hard work alone is not enough to transcend the barriers of race, gender, and class that exist in American society.
Sara Constantakis, Novels for Students: Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Novels, Ann Petry, Volume 33, Gale-Cengage Learning, 2010