Ann Petry (1908-1997)
Contributing Editor: Hilary Holladay
Classroom Issues and Strategies
So much is going on in Petry's novels and short stories that you may wonder where to begin a classroom discussion. For a discussion of "The Witness," racial conflicts, power plays between men and women, and problems within the community of Wheeling are all equally valid starting points. Petry rarely dwells exclusively on one social problem, though students particularly sensitive to one or another issue (racism, for instance) may not recognize the range of her concerns on a first reading. Therefore, asking students to discuss the connections between matters of race and gender in "The Witness" may help them grasp this story. Once they see how entwined the social issues are in "The Witness," they will be well on their way to understanding the scope of Petry's vision.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Prejudice is a central concern in Petry's writing. In almost all of her works, complex relationships develop among individuals prejudiced against each other for reasons of race or gender. But her fiction contains few characters who are solely victims or solely oppressors. Never one to make snap judgments, she imbues even her most objectionable characters with humanity. The would-be rapist Boots Smith in The Street, for example, has been a victim of racial prejudice. While Petry does not excuse his behavior, she does acknowledge the pathos of his life. Likewise, in "The Witness," she provides the delinquent boys with a social context: They are intelligent young men, stifled by both church and school, who have no positive outlet for their myriad frustrations.
In addition to exploring the intersections of racism and sexism, Petry chronicles the ways in which people chase after the American dream only to find that it is illusory. Petry's characters typically experience a profound disillusionment in their quests for success and/or peace of mind. This disillusionment drives them toward a drastic act that has significant implications for the whole community as well as the individual protagonist. This is true of "The Witness" as well as of Petry's novels.
In their emphasis on troubled communities and individual journeys toward freedom, Petry's works contain echoes of nineteenth-century slave narratives. The Street 's Lutie Johnson is a prime example of an oppressed character whose life devolves into a series of desperate escapes. The endings of Petry's works, however, depart from those of prototypical slave narratives: neither Lutie Johnson nor Charles Woodruff achieves a meaningful victory merely by escaping an intolerable situation.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Although Petry's writing is clear and simply stated (reflecting her journalistic background), her frequently discursive style finds its full power in novels and long stories. Since her fiction focuses on relationships and communities, she often uses multiple points of view, flashbacks, and other devices that enable her to portray whole towns as well as individuals. Throughout her career, she has skillfully employed realism and naturalism (in her novels), stream-of-consciousness (notably in The Narrows ), and indirect discourse (in her novels and many of her stories).
Her experiments with varied techniques and voices (male and female, black and white) underscore Petry's fascination with multiple perspectives. In "Has Anybody Seen Miss Dora Dean?" and Country Place, she explores the complementary roles that narrators and listeners play in a story's creation. "The Witness" contains a related theme: As readers, we "witness" Woodruff's tale, just as he witnesses a crime. At the end of "The Witness," we are in a position quite similar to Woodruff's. Our personal perspective influences our understanding of his tale. Given our individual circumstances, will we repeat his tale? Or will we try to keep the story, and all its difficulties, as a troubling secret?
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Petry defies easy categorization, partly because she is contemporary with writers as far removed from each other in time and aesthetics as Richard Wright and Toni Morrison. But Petry can be productively compared and contrasted with authors representing several different strands of American literature.
As an African-American woman, she fits in a historical continuum including Harriet Wilson and Harriet Jacobs in the nineteenth century; Nella Larsen, Zora Neale Hurston, and Gwendolyn Brooks in the first half of the twentieth century; and Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Gloria Naylor, and Terry McMillan (among others) today. The beginning of her career in the mid-1940s also suggests a natural grouping with Wright as well as with Ralph Ellison and Chester Himes. As a writer preoccupied with communities and the social problems they harbor, Petry invites comparison with William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. And her fictional explorations of New England put her in the company of writers as diverse as Henry David Thoreau, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and Sarah Orne Jewett.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Students reading "The Witness" will have several natural points of identification: their experience as teenagers, their contact with teachers/authority figures, and their perceptions of race relations and sexual politics. But because "The Witness" invites us to transcend individual perspectives, I use study questions that probe the story's intriguing ambiguities: How does this story complicate conventional perceptions of protagonist versus adversary? Identify the characteristics that prevent Charles Woodruff and Dr. Shipley, the Congregational minister, from being wholly "good" characters. Are the boys who attack Nellie entirely "evil"? Explain your opinion. How are these boys different from the students Woodruff describes as the "Willing Workers of America"? How do the boys' violent acts reflect on the town of Wheeling? How might Woodruff's relationship with his wife (encapsulated in his memories) affect his decision to leave Wheeling? How might we as readers, and potential critics, identify with Woodruff's plight at the end of the story?
2. Critical essays might address the following topics: the theme of "witnessing" in both its religious and secular senses; the double standard Woodruff endures as a black male authority figure; and the story's connections between racism and sexism (a recurring theme in Petry's work). For longer papers, students might compare "The Witness" to one of the other Wheeling stories in Miss Muriel and Other Stories, or compare Woodruff with The Street 's Lutie Johnson.
Petry criticism is appearing with increasing regularity in mainstream journals. Hazel Arnett Ervin's Ann Petry: A Bio-Bibliography (1993) provides a useful introduction to the criticism and includes interviews with Petry as well. Also see Hilary Holladay's Ann Petry, Twayne 1996..