Often times in literature, it is common for people to view different articles, novels, and short stories in a perspective that is common to us. What we sometimes fail to do in this analysis of literature is look at issues going on in the story, characters, or the major theme from a different perspective or angle in order to fully understand how many different groups would view the same literature being analyzed.
By expanding our thought process and entertaining these different viewpoints, our own contentions, opinions, and ideals will be enhanced with a more worldly view and we can also begin to understand and tolerate the ideals of others who may think differently than our own viewpoints. One short story that has many different levels and can be viewed from many different perspectives is Ann Petry’s “Like A Winding Sheet” which tells the short tale of an unnamed African American man and his stressful life on a day that is particularly overwhelming.
Many themes and perspectives can be overlooked and viewed through this story but if you can view this story from both an economist viewpoint and the viewpoint of a feminist it can further our understanding of what Johnson’s life could have been like, also it is important to note the effect of stress, frustration, and anger are all intertwined. From the very beginning of “Like a winding sheet” we can tell that the economy and finances will be a repetitive theme throughout the story. The short story takes place in is set in a 1940’s Harlem ghetto where Johnson, the main character is overworked and more than likely underpaid.
Johnson earns his family’s living with his hands and feet at a factory where he is often late and tired do to the strenuous and sporadic hours he is allotted to work. “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. ” Obviously Johnson works his rear end off day in and day out to provide for his family enough that he has to briskly prepare for the day ahead and test out his legs to see if he can muster up enough strength to go out and make the ends meet for his families sake.
He is under heavy stress at his job and it may feel like he never gets enough credit or slack seeing as he uses his God given appendages to make his living doing blue-collar work. He even dreams of different jobs he’d rather be doing. “… This job that forced him to walk ten hours a night, pushing this little cart, well he’d turn it to a sitting- down job. One of those little trucks they used around railroad stations would be good for a job like this. ” He dreads the strain that his line of work puts on him and it eats away at him all shift.
It is also important to keep in mind though that Johnson is a bit of a slacker seeing as it was difficult for him to get out of bed in the morning early when he plans on doing so, he is normally late and in the words of his boss “…the worst of them. ” Not to mention it is his job to arrive on time for work. It was said that half of the employees are late for work which means that the people who work there full shift have it a lot worse than Johnson who casually strolls in half way through his shift.
While the story may be read from the third person point of view, the narrator seems a bit biased and compassionate for Johnson but when all is considered, Johnson seems like a bit of a slacker seeing as his co workers must put in the same and more than likely more effort than he would. Nonetheless his job doesn’t sound pleasant but in American culture, money controls a lot of life’s decision and is the driving force behind what it is that people choose to do in their daily lives.
It is something that possesses us into believing we have to sell ourselves in order to just get by even if that means walking with a cart and sacrificing ones legs day in and day out just to survive on s miniscule paycheck just to do the same thing the next week. In regards to Johnson’s attitude towards women, his attitude varies over the course of the story. In the beginning of the story we can see what appears to be a genuine, loving relationship between Mae and Johnson. Mae is very loving and wakes him up to a meal ready for him to eat before going off to work.
Johnson also talks about planning to prepare breakfast for his wife but fails to do so. His temper begins to flare, however, when his wife makes a joking remark, which is a foreshadowing of the violence yet to come. In the workplace, Johnson has a problem with the forewoman being the one in charge. He finds it funny and has a difficult time with her being in power. In the 1940’s this factory is a very progressive workplace given the social climate of the time. Johnson’s aggression is highlighted in his thoughts on beating his boss, “He felt a curious tingling in his fingers and he looked
down at his hands. They were clenched tight, hard, ready to smash some of those small veins in her face. ” When the narrator describes the beating, it’s a very shocking visual and he gets some sort of pleasure or relief by thinking about striking a woman but he pulls himself back in this instance only to keep in his frustrations and lash out eventually on the woman he loves, often the case in domestic disputes. Since domestic violence is another main theme throughout the short story it is important to analyze this very important and pressing issue.
Throughout the short story Johnson deals with three different women and these are (to our knowledge) the only people he came into contact with throughout the story. The first woman was his loving wife Mae. As the novel goes along, it is easy to see right away Johnson and his wife Mae seem to be a happy black couple. He tries to get up before his wife Mae, and he wants to “surprise her by fixing breakfast”. This divulges a romantic side of Johnson to the reader however, instead of actually fixing her breakfast he goes back to bed on account of his legs being sore and just being stressed out because of work.
Another sign of Johnson’s “love” for Mae is when they were arguing about being late for work and “he couldn’t bring himself to talk to her roughly or threaten to strike her like a lot of men might have done”. Although this seems like a good thing Johnson really just bottles this emotion up and ultimately releases his rage and beats his wife intentionally. In no instance is domestic violence admissible and all of Johnson’s suppressed rage from works, his loving wife, and the person he deals with on a daily basis is let out when he strikes his wife.
It’s easy to see that Johnson is a bit of a misogynist and doesn’t respect women the way he should. The ultimate goal of feminism is to reach equality not to find any unfair advantages or upper hands in the business world. When ignorant people, like Johnson see women in power they often times become jealous and don’t respect those in power. One clear example of this is Johnson’s run in with the forelady. He envisions hitting her once she calls him a racial slur and depicts for the reader what he would like to do because of her racist attitude but refrains because she is a woman.
This pent up rage ultimately collapses and is the downfall of the one woman who loves and cares for him which is often the case. Johnson just sees who it is that is disciplining him and is instantly turned off by the thought of a woman telling him what to do or upsetting him. A man like Johnson needed to release his frustrations and anger and he did it the only way he knew how. What he really needs is an outlet to let out his stress and ultimately calm down. This aggressive and negative behavior will only keep him down in the long run, and will ultimately be his downfall.