Saturday, July 09, 2005

On the Road - Langston Hughes - Discriminating Interpretation

On The Road Essay: Discriminating Interpretation Our personal experiences, good or bad, tend to have a great effect upon our personal beliefs in terms of what famed British author Douglas Adams designates as “Life, the Universe, and Everything”. In his short story “On the Road”, Langston Hughes presents his views on god and religion as seen through the lens of his personal experiences, which are largely ones filled with racial discrimination. The author craftily robs the clerics of his day of their shroud of piety and successfully uses the protagonist and a theme of racism and close-mindedness as a tool to present god as an inept and virtually powerless sovereign. He then goes on to suggest via his character Sergeant that we can’t expect help from above and we must rely on our own strength to break down what Hughes categorizes as “closed doors”. Finally, Hughes uses a potent mixture of direct and indirect character presentation to force us to see things from his perspective.The story opens up by introducing the first and only character in this story to be presented directly, forcing the reader into the shoes and point of view of a large negro named Sergeant. At the outset, it is quickly known that Sergeant is a cold, tired, and starving man stepping off a cargo train searching for a solution to said problems. He quickly encounters Reverend Dorset who refuses him entry into his rectory, presumably on grounds of racial bias. Being a Christian and being Christ like should go hand in hand, but Dorset’s actions prove that this is not always the case. The practices and teachings of Dorset’s supposed exemplar Jesus Christ, clearly spell out a spirit of unconditional love and charity for neighbor as well as a disdain for racial lines. No doubt, Dorset should have been well acquainted with Jesus damning exposition of racism facilitated by the clergy of his day when he told a parable chronicling a Jew who was robbed, left to die on the side of the road and was ignored by a priest and a Levite. (According to the Bible, Levites had a special position before God that granted special privileges and responsibilities in addition to requiring a higher standard of morality.) This victim was ultimately helped by a Samaritan, someone the Pharisees and other prominent Jews would likely have considered to be far beneath them. Hughes’s scenario of Sergeant being rejected by a member of the clergy is a powerful way of asking the reader “Is he acting mercifully towards his neighbor?” This question successfully reveals the clergy of his day as anything other than Christ like. Furthermore, Hughes makes certain to point out that Dorset “[has] a door to shut.” This is important because it sets a trend of things being closed off to hero and protagonist of the story, Sergeant. The name Dorset is also reminiscent of the phrase “door-set” and strongly builds upon the theme of lines being drawn and doors being closed off to Sergeant. After his discouraging encounter with Reverend Dorset Sergeant spots a church that ignites a spark of hope in him. Hughes once again makes note of the doors, only this one has two, suggesting an even more powerful road block between Sergeant and his goals than Dorset and his one door presented. As Sergeant walks up to the doors he starts to become gradually more aware of his own feelings of hunger, the cold, and so on. Noticeably, this is the first time Sergeant “sees the snow.” This adds to a feeling of increasing self awareness and strength. When he reaches the doors he discovers that these too are closed to him, but he decides he will not be prevented from getting in because he is, as is repeatedly iterated, cold, tired, and hungry. The scene climaxes with Sergeant breaking down the doors while being attacked by two white police officers and leads to the most interesting point in the story, Jesus being freed from his cross. The most significant line in this story is said by Jesus: “You had to pull the church down to get me off the cross.” Jesus is depicted as someone who has in essence been kidnapped by religious groups and forced into a form of slavery in which he is forced to serve as a cause and provide justification for the things they say and courses of action they take. It is also evident that Jesus lacks a sense of direction in terms of how he is going to deal with the situations around him. One would expect a “lord of lords and king of kings” to address these problems, but he doesn’t. As a matter of fact, the exchanges between Jesus and Sergeant reveal somebody not the least bit capable of dealing with problems of the magnitude presented in the story. Sergeant asks Jesus “where you goin?” and Jesus replies back “God knows.” The question Sergeant poses is far more reaching than a simple matter of destination, what Sergeant is really asking is “what are you going to do about this?” Jesus reply is quite unnerving, “God knows…but I’m leaving here.” With these few words, Hughes presents Jesus as someone who doesn’t have the answers, doesn’t have a high degree of mental fortitude, and doesn’t inspire much hope in Sergeant. It is clear that in Hughes’s point of view Jesus is weak and feeble. This view is even more powerful when it is taken into consideration that a traditional Trinitarian upbringing is a typical identifying mark of artists emerging from the Harlem Renaissance. Making this assumption allows one to substitute the name Jesus for the word God in this story. This notion is strongly supported when Hughes other works are cross-referenced. For instance, in his poem “Goodbye Christ” Hughes outright writes “Christ Jesus Lord God Jehova”.Lastly, Hughes makes the comment that God isn’t going to help you reach your goals or give you strength and that everything you do is by your own power. The author uses his tool Sergeant skillfully in this regard. First of all and most important is the fact that Jesus was not able to free himself on his own accord. It was Sergeant and Sergeant alone who freed Jesus. Critical to understanding this story are Sergeants words after Jesus tells him he has been around, “but that was a long time ago.” Here we see evidence of Sergeants awareness of the world around him. Unlike Jesus, Sergeant maintains an accurate perception of the world around him as well as the problems that plague it. After his victory over the church, Sergeant has a renewed sense of vigor. As he is walking he shows a strong sense of direction and tells Jesus firmly where he is going. “I can go there and sleep…That Place ain’t got no doors.” In contrast, Jesus responds to Sergeant with a childlike “really?” Finally, Hughes ends his story with Sergeant in jail, Sergeant had likely only dreamed that he broke down doors, met Jesus, and went to a shanty town. By giving the idea that this is something that only happened in Sergeants head Hughes is able to make a strong call to action to use our strength. Some of Sergeants final words are “I'm gonna break down this door, too”. By the time Sergeant realizes he is in jail and has been beaten senseless he is so inspired by what he doesn’t know to be a dream that he is determined to break down the doors in his way, including the one keeping him in jail.Langston Hughes delivers an intriguing insight into life by producing the main character Sergeant as a filter by which we see a view of his personal experiences with religion, racism. He effectively displayed the hypocrisy of organized religion in his day with the actions of the Reverend Dorset who keeps doors closed for Sergeant on grounds of racial bias. Furthermore, he presents his ideas as to the nature of humans and god through conversation between Sergeant and Jesus, who is, in Hughes mind, God. Sergeant is let down by a largely na├»ve universal sovereign that is incapable of dealing with the problems that plague Sergeants life. In this story, God requires the help of a human to free himself from his cross, marking the beginning of Hughes next point, don’t rely on the help of God and that humans have the ability and strength to help themselves. By making Sergeant the sole developing character and contrasting that with a story full of static characters Hughes is able to further emphasize his point that the world in and of itself is not going to change and open the doors in your way, and that responsibility lies upon the shoulders of the individual to forcefully open these doors by their own strength and dare I say it, God given abilities.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

great

Anonymous said...

great, i thought you hit it on the money.. good job

Anonymous said...

I thought this was very interesting to read. Great thoughts.

Anonymous said...

Jackpot baby, very insightful, it makes me want to shout, throw my hands up and shout, amen brotha

Anonymous said...

Very nice and insightful ! Good Job