Langston Hughes short story “On The Road” is about a black man who travels across the country on railways. The story shares similarities of motion and travel that is found in Falkner’s short story “Barn Burning.” In “On the Road” we see a character interacting with other characters through the motion of travel. In “Barn Burning” the characters appear from a crowd, through a court system, which is endeavoring to discover who is to blame for it. Then the motion in “Barn Burning” continues to a wagon that moves across the country. In both story, and in the poems, “I, Too” and “The Wary Blues” there are characters on the outside looking in on a society that they are simultaneously apart of, and excluded from. They get close to it, want to be part of it, but the same culture they are apart of keeps them from being as fully immersed and accepted in as they desire to.
The movement of travel is strong in all of the works discussed here. Motion in “On The Road” is motion that starts off as jubilant walking, it is a motion of freedom, but it moves to people who hinder the protagonist’s freedom and ultimately incarcerate him. Motion, then, connects both of these stories, as the motion moves from one oppressive pair of eyes to another. This is a common characteristic of Hughes writing, be it motion on a train or a river, and in this essay two of his other works, “I, Too” and “The Weary Blues” will be used in the comparison of “On The Road” and “Barn Burning.” There is the physical motion, of moving from one place to another, but there is also an interior motion of characters wanting to progress but being hindered. The physical motion is a result of an interior stagnation, of getting to a door but of being unable to enter. The poems and stories share a common theme in this sense, but maintain different focuses of the issue and arrive at different conclusions for how to deal with the exclusion of the individual characters.
In both “Barn Burning” and “One The Road” the protagonists are engaged in a struggle between the status quo of established powers and their individual wants and desires. In “On The Road” it is a poor black person fighting against the white status quo. In “Burning Barn” it is a poor family that is as excluded as blacks at the time. Instead of recognizing though that blacks at the time share their same plight, the characters see black as also outsiders. Psychologically speaking, the characters of “Burning Barn” are guilty of transference of the oppression they feel by treating people of color in with the same difference.
In Burning Barn the outsiders of the protagonist family are being run out of town by the status quo. Both involve black characters at a time when black in the United States were given secondary considerations and often had their rights and liberties deprived.
Literary Critic Henry Claridge in his essay on “Barn Burning” in William Falkner: Critical Assessments, mentions that the story was originally going to be the opening chapter of “The Hamlet”, in which another barn is burned. He sees the burning barn as a symbol of conflict that is found in everyday life. He terms this “the human heart in conflict with itself” (Clariage, 23). Like Hughes, Faulkner’s heros come from unlikely places in society, or rather from stations of life that the rest of society does not always attach much importance to.
The father, has every right to feel slighted by a society that he has given everything he can give to while still remaining an outsider. He fought, during the Civil War for that society and those scars remain with him, while any appreciation for it does not. “His father turned, and he followed the stuff black coat, the wiry figure walking a little stiffly from where a confederate provost’s man’s musket ball had taken him in the heel on a stolen horse thirty years ago.” (Falkner, 2). Yet despite this, people still jeer at him, calling him “Barn Burner” in much the same way that Hughes characters live under the derogatory word “Nigger” which is aimed at them with ill-intent.
This conflict is at the center of the tension in both stories. In “Barn Burning” we arrive at the smell of cheese, in the store where the justice of the Peace court is being held in the local story. This is a powerful opening symbol, since the smell of cheese is similar to a smell of decay, and comes from the same biochemical process of bacteria breaking down organic elements and changing them. This smell represents that taint in the justice, which has departed from just and fair treatment of those it claims to serve.
The justice in the case is described as “a shabby, collarless, graying man in spectacles” (Falkner, 1). The judge seems to be in a similar condition as the justice he portends to deliver. Under the “heart in conflict” paradigm, the conflict comes from outsiders. Colonel, a boy being used as a witness in the burning of the barn, but intuitively, he feels that he is on the other side of the justice system. “Enemy! Enemy!” he thinks when the justice addresses him.
The boy’s father, is likewise an outsider, who is encouraged to leave the country, a country he no longer wants to remain in since he has not found the justice and freedom he thought he would. He doesn’t “aim to stay in a country among people who” then the speaker writes that he said something vile and unprintable. The American dream for him, has become a nightmare scenario.
The stories diverge in the protagonist’s reactions to justice. In Burning Barn, there is a deep bitter resentment, which leads to the characters enacting revenge. In “One The Road” it is more of a defeated demeanor of sadness that the protagonist comes away with.
The protagonist in “On The Road” arrives by freight train and begins to look around for fold and shelter; by finding none finds himself going from door to door. This is one of the constant symbols in Hughes story, doors. Doors represent in this story the greater powers that be that prevent the speaker, Sargeant from attaining his freedoms society keeps him from having. The story was written at the time when the civil rights movement was heating up, and the doors that prevent Sargeant from entering warmth, or on a deeper level fully into the society, are represented by actual, physical doors in the story.
In this, he is in a worse condition than the family in “Burning Barn” which despite the deplorable situation of their poverty, at least have a wagon, some possession and have each other. Family is an important element of the story and the father asks his son, not as questions but as declarations, “You were fxing to tell them. You would have told them.” The father wanted his son to deliver a false account of the situation that would have implicated someone else rather than the family that was justifiably on trial for the burning of the bar.
Much of the story deals with a coming of age, and for the father growing up involves knowing where your allegiances lie, and for the father allegiances are decided by blood. “You’re getting to be a man.” He tells his son, “You got to learn. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to.” That’s all the help the father can appeal to because it’s the only relationship that he trusts not to go sour. He asks his son to think about the others in court, their being against the family, and the only refuge is for the family to stick together or else be subjected alone to the whims of the society which is not there it seems to help them through life, but rather to make their lives more difficult.
Because the protagonist in “On The Road” has no family to stick to, he goes out endeavoring to find people who will take him in and accept him. Or in the very least to help him have a place to sleep or something to eat. He finds however, that the physical doors are just as closed to him as the metaphorical doors that lead to the entrance of society that are closed to the family in “Burning Barn.”
The first door that Sargeant knocks upon is Reverent Mr. Dorset’s church house. Despite it snowing outside, and what would seem to be the duties of a Christian reverent, he shuts the door and tells Sargeant to go to a relief center, not giving Sargeant enough time to explain to him that the doors to the relief center are also closed.
Next Sargeant endeavors to try the doors of a church. “It had two doors,” the speaker says. The next paragraph goes on to describe these doors, which are “high arched with slender stone pillars.” This comes at the same time that he notices there is snow in his eyes. The symbolism of these doors represents the institution of religion, which even despite Jesus’s teaching of helping the poor and needed are still closed to Sargeant.
He tried the handle but it is locked and then tries to push against the door until it is open. Joe Benson, a critic who has analyzed this story wrote that “Although Sergeant is technically guilty of attempted breaking and entering, the Reverend Mr. Dorset is fully guilty of prejudice, racism and hypocrisy.” (Kacick, 71)
Sargeant’s crime stems from need. The Reverend denying him assistance stems from bigotry. It is not enough to merely break down the doors. After seargent has successfully gained enterance cops and others appear on the scene to drag him out. Presumably, Sergeant goes unconscious and is taken to jail, but in his dream sequence the whole church has collapses and Jesus had come down from the cross and begins walking with Sargeant.
Critic Lyndon Kacick wrote, “Christ was the only person to treat him with equality.” This is a powerful symbol. Jesus tells Sargent, “They have kept me nailed on a cross for nearly two thousand years.” Jesus is the most powerful symbol for both the religion of Christianity and also Christian ideals. What this symbolizes is that Jesus’s message is not being properly followed by a church whose leader will do nothing to help a man based on the color of his skin.
At the end of the dream sequence Sargeant returns to the railway where he can go and sleep because “That place ain’t got no doors.” It’s doors, both physical and imagined that bars Sargeant from society and represents racial discrimination. It story ends with Sargeant waking up in a jail cell. Although a door no traps him, he defiantly vows to free himself from its confines. “I’m gonna break down this door,” he hells from his cell. In this, the story depicts not only racial prejudice, but also the struggle against it to “break down the doors.”
This is similar to Hughes other work as we will explore in his poetry. In “I, Too” Hughes speaks of a much different sentiment than Faulkner does in exploring the reaction of outsiders in the face of oppression, racism and excluding. The first line he identifies himself as not part of the white status quo saying, “I am the darker brother.” The “darker brother” is sent to “eat in the kitchen.” But his reaction is that of humor at his seclusion. In the kitchen he “laughs” and “eats well” so that he can “grow strong.” (Hughes).
Like “I, Too” Hughe’s poem “The Weary Blues” is also a poem that shows the plight of a black man struggling to express his plight through playing blues on a piano. The speaker is in a dimly lit tavern and is listening to this musician in Harlem. With its uses repetition to create a lyrical poem that is akin to the music that the speaker is hearing, it evokes a mournful tone, but it is the expression of music that is his “revenge” we can call it, or at least his expression of this. A symbol here is a gas light which illuminates the tavern. Interesting, it is an oil lamp which is the symbol in “Burning Barn” which is the tool by which the bar was burned. The barn is also a flaming illumination of the situation and the end product of the reaction to exclusion and oppression. We see a much different use of this in Hughes poem. Rather than striking out violently against, it sings about and expresses through art the struggle.
This was the MO of the Harlem Reinassance, the art movement that Hughes was apart of. An art movement at the beginning of the 20th century in which black art and culture began to be recognized by white culture. It was centered in New York City’s Harlem which became a popular night spot for both blacks and whites. An example of an author who wrote and was recognized during this period was Alain Lock whose anthology “The New Negro” defined the spirit o the Harlem Renaissance through it’s collection of essays, stories, poems, and artwork.
This art is enough for the musician to drown in, “Droning a drowsy syncopated tune.” (Hughes, 1). This is an element that Faulkner’s character do not have at their disposal to deal with their struggle. They instead must deal interiorly with the struggle, and this comes out in the form of an interior.
All of the works discussed in this essay deal with the conflict of not belonging. In both of the short stories people are attempting to belong but instead find themselves be chased away from the society. Hughes poems take a different approach. While the exclusion is just as dramatic, the reaction to it is very different. The poems find a solace in not being welcomed. This is most pronounced in “I, Too” which holds onto the hope that eventually, through not giving up things will change and acceptance will be found.
Claridge, Henry. William Faulkner: Critical Assessments. Taylor and Francis US. 2000
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Hughes, Langston. “One The Road.” Print. 1934
""The Weary Blues" by Langston Hughes."Redirect to Teaching Writing with Computers. N.p., n.d. Web. 21 June 2013. <http://cai.ucdavis.edu/uccp/workingwear
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Vickery, Olga W. The Novels of William Faulkner: A Critical Interpretation.. LSU Press. 1964