In Sapphire’s novel “Push,” we follow the trials and tribulations of Claireece Precious Jones, an overweight, illiterate African-American teenage girl as she attempts to overcome her circumstances. Sapphire creates many different symbols to represent Precious’ mindset and coping mechanisms, as well as the issues that the novel raises. The book shines a light on rape, incest and poverty, and the overall message is encapsulated in one line that Ms. Rain says to Precious in her class: “I know you are [tired], but you can’t stop now Precious, you gotta push.” (Push, p. 66) Sapphire attempts to use this book to inspire people to keep ‘pushing’ to succeed in life, even in spite of the most extreme adversity.
At the beginning of the book, sixteen-year-old Precious already has her fair share of problems to deal with. At 12, he gave birth to one autistic child, and there is another on the way, both the product of incest on the part of her absentee father. Her mother is a broken shell of a woman who relies on welfare and is extremely resentful towards Precious, constantly beating her and putting her down. As a result of the incest and her mother’s perpetual antagonism, Precious has absolutely no sense of self-worth, and has no positive environment in which to thrive. The traditional school system is failing her, as she cannot even muster up the courage to speak in class.
All of that starts to change when she takes classes as part of the Each One Teach One program, becoming a part of a community of girls who take the class with her. She finds kinship with them and her teacher Ms. Rain, learning to read and actually speaking out loud in class. Very gradually, she begins to change her perspective on herself, her family, and the world around her. She gains more confidence and courage, enough to break away from her domineering mother and move to a halfway house. She then is able to learn to read and write, and begin to make something of herself.
There are an array of symbols used to depict Precious’ world and the horror she was going through. However, most of these representations are through the characters themselves, as opposed to recurring objects or things that depict an abstract idea. Precious herself is the primary symbol of the novel; she is a living, breathing representation of a wide variety of disenfranchised demographics. She is poor, African-American, obese, a teenage mother, a victim of rape and incest, illiterate and, as we learn later, HIV-positive. Her struggles throughout the book are meant to represent the often futile and desperate efforts by impoverished minorities (as well as victims of abuse) to make a better life for themselves.
The other main characters represent the positive and negative forces in the lives of a person that help shape what they do and how they feel about themselves. Mary, Precious’ mother, is a look into her future if she continues on this path of poverty and despair. Mary has given up, especially after her boyfriend (Precious’ father) begins to rape Precious in lieu of having sex with Mary. Mary resents Precious for “fucking [her] husband,” calling her a “nasty little slut” among other names and holding her responsible for Carl going away. (Push, p.19) She has no prospects, and all of her effort is placed upon staying on welfare so that she does not have to work. Throughout the book, she is heavily grooming Precious to take the same fate, showing resentment when Precious tries to better herself.
On the other hand, there is Ms. Rain, who is the positive force in Precious’ life, and represents the optimism that lies within all of us to improve ourselves and better our circumstances. Despite Precious being resistant at first to the class, Ms. Rain never gives up on her, endlessly encouraging her to keep “pushing” and gaining ground in her education and her life.
Rivers are another symbol that is used throughout the book, being used to represent life. Getting through life is so difficult, Precious compares it to a “giant river I never cross in front me now.” Precious tells Ms. Rain “[she is] drownin’ in [the] river” to which Ms. Rain replies, “If you just sit there, there river gonna rise up and drown you!” (Push, p. 97) A lesbian student in her class, Jermaine, asks Ms. Rain if “a river is wrong” when asked why people think being gay is wrong. Again, a river, like life, is natural, and as being a lesbian is part of Jermaine’s life, she does not think it could be wrong.
The overall message to take from Push is that, no matter the troubles that beset you on the river called life, you have to push forward and persevere. Do anything and everything you can to succeed and get past your troubles, or else you will swim in despair like Mary does. The most important thing Precious learns is that she is not alone in being a victim of incest and rape, and that it did not happen because she was unworthy, or fat or ugly: it can happen to anyone. As a result, you cannot let those horrible events shape your views of yourself, and you need to go on with your life as best you can.
We never learn of Precious’ eventual fate, but by the end of the novel, we see that she has taken immense strides in improving herself. Whether she actually escapes her circumstances or if the system ends up failing her, we never find out. However, that’s not the point of Push, either as a novel or as a concept; you have to try, even when you do not know how it will work out.