Presentation and Analysis of Ann Petry’s ‘Like a Winding Sheet’ – ‘Presentation and Analysis of the main character’s, Johnson’s, portrait – Depiction of his emotional and physical reactions and outburst and interpretation of the causes provoking them – How justifiable are his actions?
[The author’s name]
This paper will present you with an analysis of a man’s portrait and psychological profile. This man is called Johnson and he is the main leading character in Ann Petry’s short story ‘Like a winding sheet’. The essay will depict the emotional and physical reactions of Johnson as performed during the plot and progress of the story’s events and will try to focus on possible interpretations as far as the reactions by Johnson are concerned. There is an argument which has generated lots of heated debate in multi-cultural societies. How justifiable can actions of violence be considered when racism is their underlying cause? This essay will focus on justifying Johnson’s violent behavior. It is not a behavior freely chosen and applied on his behalf but it is on the contrary the natural outcome of all incidents taking place in front of him. It seems that Johnson is victimized and has been victimized long before he results in behaving violently himself. It is the violence he has accepted as a victim of a society facing racism which by virtue ends in making him violent as well without his being able to act otherwise or escape his becoming such an inferior personality in terms of behavior. Ann Petry wrote this story in the 1980s, during a period when she personally had realized that racism still existed in the United States and no matter the reality of people being provided with equal chances in the fields of education and work and other social fields, Ann Petry seemed to believe that racism not only existed and was experienced by black people in her society, but most important it was the reason why black people as a group of people faced a great deal of problems in their own personal lives, in the marital lives, in their everyday life. The story ‘Like a winding sheet’ is a story through which Ann Petry emphasizes on what psychological violence caused by experiencing racism can cause to people, even the calmest ones. The essay will focus on Johnson, the leading character, and how the racism he experienced during a day, led him to reacting violently, reaching the point of no return where he even faced the danger of beating his wife to death.
Key words: racism, physical violence, psychological violence
Presentation and Analysis of Ann Petry’s ‘Like a Winding Sheet’ – ‘Presentation and Analysis of the main character’s, Johnson’s, portrait – Depiction of his emotional and physical reactions and outburst and interpretation of the causes provoking them
The short story of Ann Petry, ‘Like a winding sheet’ opens on one Friday morning at Johnson’s house. Johnson appears to be a calm man, married to Mae, a woman who likes teasing him, since she teases him, giggling upon his difficulty to get out of bed. Johnson appears to have great difficulty in getting up ‘He Knew he ought to get up but instead he put his arms across his forehead to shut the afternoon sunlight out of his eyes, pulled his legs up close to his body, testing them to see if the ache was still in them.’ (Ann Petry, Like a Winding Sheet, lines 5-7). When Mae finishes her bathroom she tells him ‘You look like a huckleberry – in a winding sheet’ (Ann Petry, Like a Winding sheet, lines 20-21) giggling at the way he looks and the difficulty he has in getting up. Johnson seems used to her silly giggles and pays no real attention to her teasing. The only reaction he shows is verbal which expresses slightly his disappointment in her comments ‘That’s no way to talk. Early in the day like this’ (Ann Petry, Like a winding sheet, line 22). That’s all he does along with his emphasis on the fact that his wife, Mae ought to go to work because it is Friday the 13th and this day is usually the pay day.
Nevertheless it is apparent from the beginning of the story that Johnson is not the kind of man who likes fighting or arguing in tense with his wife. On the contrary although he is convinced that what his wife is thinking is wrong, he puts no real pressure on her. He only sticks to explaining to her why she ought to go to work. As Ann Petry writes in her story, Johnson knows that he hates fighting and he hates tension. One of Johnson’s principles that the reader learns instantly from the very beginning of the story is that Johnson has a kind of increased sensitivity in his interpersonal relationships. This sensitivity is even more vivid when it comes to women. He seems to believe that it is unethical to argue in tense with a woman, especially if this woman is his wife.
Despite his being disappointed from his wife’s behavior even slightly, Johnson gets up and gets ready for work. The first reaction of Johnson towards his first being annoyed by another person, that is his wife and her giggling at him, seems to have been dealt on his behalf with great calmness.
Unfortunately the moments of Johnson finding himself face to face with external stimulation causing great annoyance to him do not stop at this point. Johnson finds himself to be reprimanded at the labor plant in which he usually works the night shift by his boss. His boss is white and his boss is a woman. His boss, Mrs. Scott tells him that everybody has excuses whenever they are late and she has been sick of their excuses. ‘‘ ‘Excuses. You guys always got excuses’. Her anger grew and spread. ‘Every guy comes in here late always has an excuse. His wife’s sick or his grandmother died or somebody in the family had to go to the hospital’ she paused, drew a deep breath. ‘And the niggers are the worst. I don’t care what’s wrong you’re your legs. You get in here on time. I’m sick of you niggers-’. (Ann Petry’s Like a Winding Sheet. lines 99-103). These are the words by Mrs. Smith. But Johnson finds the strength not to point his fist towards his boss. Mrs. Smith has these two traits which are important to be taken into account since Johnson finds the strength not to react violently. He feels such annoyance and the writer describes him thinking of hitting or at least expressing his complaint towards his boss. But as funny as it may seem the image of the red lipstick on his boss’ lips is powerful enough to stop him and prevent him from reacting violently. Johnson knows that he hates hitting women. He knows that this is a woman and the red lipstick reminds him of his wife so he suddenly pulls himself together and goes on with doing his work without letting this incident of feeling offended to affect him.
The third incident in row which comes in the progress of the story causing even greater disappointment and anger to Johnson is the incident coming after his finishing his work. he goes to the café to have a cup of coffee. He is waiting patiently in the queue but when his turn comes he is told by the waitress who once more appears to be a woman and appears to be white that there is no more coffee at the moment. Johnson is furious. But his increasing anger is kept imprisoned in himself. The reason is that he does not want to argue with women. He hates fighting and he hates fighting against women even more.
The problem is that when he reaches home and before he can be given some time to take off all this dress of anger he has worn against his will, his wife once more is laughing at him. And Mae is laughing at him because she has no idea of the psychological violence her husband has been through during his being away from home.
This is the highlight of this short story. This is the turning point of the hero’s metamorphosis. Johnson is not Johnson anymore. He is the man who has been victimized by violence. He treats his wife violently and starts beating her to death because all this suppressed violence he experienced cannot be restrained any more. He has had enough and his soul is ready to explode.
So, the argument existing within those witnessing violent behavior by people and trying to explain it, to rationalize it or interpret it, comes in the front stage with this short story. Violence exists and unfortunately there have been more than once cases of calm people like Johnson who have become extremely violent harming themselves and others. Is there any justification for their actions? Is violent behavior to be charged as an inexcusable behavior on their behalf and are they to be condemned in punishment as the only ones being responsible for this kind of violence? Or is it a series of events whose responsibility of taking place lies in the hands of society which cause violence?
This short story addresses its audience with the question ‘How justifiable can actions of violence be considered when racism is their underlying cause?’ It is clear that Johnson’s behavior and reaction is presented as justified since he himself seems unable to control the explosion of all his surpassed anger which was directly caused by his being treated violently.
The magnitude of Petry’s writing style lies exactly to the fact that this psychological explosion is not an explosion coming out of nowhere. There has been a climax of feelings. Like a volcano the soul of Johnson is pushed to exploding by all this pressure he has accepted and he has experienced. He is a human being who has been treated like a stranded, unprotected animal, with lack of concern, with contempt and with injustice. Johnson appears to have moved within the borders of a ‘human jungle’ which is a kind of environment that kills all human instincts and awakes behaviors reminding those of animals.
Petry, Ann ‘Like a winding Sheet’, retrieved from http://www.gobookee.org/like-a-winding-sheet-ann-petry/