Table of Contents | Message Board | Printable Version | Barron's Booknotes
KEY LITERARY ELEMENTS
The novel is set in the South and the North of the United States of America. The first part of the novel, as the title "Southern Nights" suggests, is set in the American South in Memphis, Tennessee and Jackson, Mississippi. Richardís early childhood is spent in Memphis. Here he lives in "a one-story brick tenement." His father works as a "night porter in a Beale Street drugstore." Their secure life however experiences tremors, when his father leaves home to live with another woman.
At the age of seventeen, Richard returns back to Memphis "on a cold November Sunday morning, in 1925." He now lives in a Beale street house as a paying guest and works in an Optical company. The first time Richard visits Jackson, it is at the age of seven.
On their way to Arkansas, they stop here to meet Granny. In comparison to his dingy apartment in Memphis, the house here was like a mansion. After their motherís illness, they return back to Jackson. Richard is now an adolescent and he finds the atmosphere in the house stifling. A part of his childhood and adolescence is spent in West Helena with Aunt Maggie. As a child, he finds the surroundings of the place conducive. Chicago, Illinois is the setting of the second part of the novel and his adult life.
When he arrives at the place "Chicago seemed an unreal city whose mythical houses were built of slabs of black coal wreathed in palls of gray smoke, houses whose foundation were sinking slowly into the dark prairie." Chicago thus tests the endurance of Richard and makes him a force to reckon with.
LIST OF CHARACTERS
Richard is the only major character in the book as it his autobiography, his life that, the book traces. He is intelligent, talented, self-willed and sensitive. He struggles hard in life in order to achieve his goal. Through his writings, he desires to arouse the world against injustice.
Richardís mother who is a positive influence in his life. She is the only one in the novel who understands his feelings and gives him emotional support. She is a strong-willed, righteous and God-fearing woman. After her husband deserts her, she works as a cook to support her family. However, fate plays a cruel joke on her and she becomes a victim of paralysis.
Richardís grandmother, she is a dominating old lady. Intensely religious, she imposes rigid discipline on every one in the house. She forces Richard to attend church services and recite prayers regularly. In her enthusiasm to create a religious atmosphere at home, she stifles the individuality of Richard.
Richardís aunt, she lives in Arkansas before her husbandís demise. Along with Richardís mother, she works as a cook in the homes of white people to support herself. Later, she goes away to Detroit with a professor. She is fond of Richard and accompanies him to Chicago later in life.
Aunt Maggieís husband, he is kind and generous. He runs a saloon and leads a comfortable life. Richard is in awe of him. Later, a white man kills him out of rivalry.
Richardís father, he is crude and short-tempered. He works as a night porter in a medical store. Later, he deserts his family to live with another woman. Richard hates him because he restricts his independence as a child and fails to fulfil his responsibilities as a father.
She is grannyís daughter and Richardís aunt. A true daughter of her mother, she is a rigid conformist and a religious fanatic. She forces Richard to join the Seventh-day Adventist religious school where she is a teacher. She bears a grudge against Richard because he dares to raise his voice against her cruel punishments.
Another daughter of Granny, she lives in a dingy quarters in Chicago, all by herself, after her husband deserts her. She strives hard to make a living. Later, she moves in with Richardís family in Chicago.
Grannyís son, he is the one who has bought the house for his mother, where she presently lives. He lives in Greenwood with his wife. After Mrs. Wright falls ill, he takes Richard to live with him. He is too strict for Richardís liking.
Another son of Granny, he takes Mrs. Wright to Clarksdale for an operation. He is caring and understanding.
He is grannyís son, who lives on the outskirts of Jackson. He is short-tempered and rude. He comes to live with Granny after Grandpaís death.
Grannyís husband and Richardís grandfather. He is a retired army man who had fought during the Civil war and got wounded. He applies for disability pension but doesnít get anything due to mistaken identity.
He is Richardís classmate. His brother Bob, who was working in a hotel, is killed by a white man, who suspects him of flirting with a White prostitute in the hotel.
Richardís classmate, who is a practical and down-to-earth person. He teaches Richard the rules of survival in a White world. On his recommendation, Richard gets a job in an Optical company.
Reynolds and Peas
These two men, working in the Optical Company, pick a fight with Richard and make the boy resign from his job.
The proprietor of the Optical company in Jackson, where Richard works. He is kind and considerate and understands Richardís plight.
She is Richardís landlady at Beale Street in Memphis. She is a simple woman endowed with a generous heart. She takes a liking to Richard and desires to have him as her son-in-law.
The charming teenaged daughter of Mrs. Moss, she is frank in nature but crude in her manners. She expresses her love for Richard and persuades him to marry her.
The short and fat elevator operator at the Optical company in Memphis. A southern Negro, he has the complexion of Chinese. He plays cheap pranks to acquire a few cents from the White officers.
The white foreman at the Optical Company who creates a misunderstanding between Richard and Harrison and forces them to face each other in boxing ring.
A black youth like Richard, he works in a rival Optical company. Mr. Olin creates suspicion in his mind against Richard.
The white officer in the Optical company, he lends his library card to Richard to enable him to read books. He is kind and understanding.
Mrs. & Mr. Hoffman
The Jewish owners of the delicatessen in Chicago where Richard first seeks employment. They are a kind and large- hearted couple.
The elderly Finnish cook at the North Side Café, she prepares delicious meals. However, Richard observes her spitting in the cooking pot and reports the matter to the owner of the Café.
Brand and Cooke
The two elderly Negro workers at the Medical research center. They keep fighting with each other even on small issues and cause problem for others.
The black cleaner at the Medical Research center. He is as old as Richard is. However, he is illiterate and ignorant in the affairs of the world.
The communist member of the John Reed club, he persuades Richard to attend the meetings of the club. One of the stories written by him gets published in a journal brought by the club.
A rebellious youth, he joins the John reed club after claiming to be the member of the Communist party. He is a dedicated worker and a talented artist. However, he denounces Swann, an artist-member of the club and creates a controversy.
A good artist and a disciplined worker of the club, he comes under attack by Young. He protests against the accusations and later, gets exonerated of all the charges.
A staunch communist, he believes in violence to display his loyalty to the party. He denounces the attitude of Richard and calls him a Trotskyite.
A black communist leader, he tries to influence Richard towards his ideologies and persuades him to write against the prevailing high prices.
A young Negro member of the Communist party, he is tried by the jury of the party on charges of rebellion. He allows Richard to write his biographical sketch.
A talented artist, he is appointed by Richard to direct the actors of the Theatrical company to stage meaningful plays. However, the actors oppose his views and he resigns from the company.