The story covers the lives of African Americans over a period of more than fifty years, some of those years being in the South, so it is not surprising that racism, is present as an underlying theme throughout. Racism in part causes Colonel Wordsworth Gray to disown his daughter when she becomes pregnant by a black man; racism in the form of unequal economic resources is responsible for the fact that Rose Dear and her family are thrown out of their house. Violent racism forms the background of Rose Dear’s despair: “Perhaps word had reached her about the four-day hangings in Rocky Mount: the men on Tuesday, the women two days later. Or had it been the news of the young tenor in the choir mutilated and tied to a log” (p. 101). Joe saw racism firsthand as a boy in the South when two of his step brothers were hurt badly because they were black. In 1906, Joe and Violet set off north in a train that is racially segregated until they get out of Delaware, where the dining car becomes open to everyone.
There is racism in the form of the riots in East St. Louis in 1917, in which Dorcas’s parents are killed. There is racism in Harlem in the same year, when Joe is almost killed by a white man in a riot. Race is at the heart of how white people think at the time, and they are disturbed by the mass movement of black people from the south to the north, which is known as the Great Migration: “Crackers in the South mad cause Negroes were leaving; crackers in the North mad cause they were coming” (p. 128). Alice Manfred regularly experiences a kind of casual racism on Fifth Avenue in New York City, where white people move away from her if she sits next to them on the trolley, and in other situations she hears people say things like “Don’t sit there, honey, you never know what they have” (p. 54). Black people take menial jobs and have to be subservient to white people; they must make sure they smile so as to get tips and not appear sullen or threatening. Felice’s mother steals the ring at Tiffany’s just to get back at the white sales assistant who had assumed with no justification that she was there to steal (which she had never done before; indeed, she prided herself on her scrupulous honesty). Racism extends even further, poisoning Golden Gray, who acquired a racism by being raised white, even though his father, unbeknownst to him, is black. Even the thought that he has a black father fills him with anger. Racism in various forms thus pervades the novel, and the characters have to learn to deal with it since they have few ways to combat it, other than to retain their dignity when slighted.
Broken Families and Absent Fathers
There are few intact families presented in the novel. Each is fractured in its own way, and people still have in later life the wounds they incurred from their childhoods. As the narrator puts it about Violet, for example, “the children of suicides are hard to please and quick to believe no one loves them” (p. 4).
A recurring theme is absent fathers. Violet Trace’s father abandoned the family when Violet was young; he returned occasionally with gifts, only to disappear again soon after. Joe Trace never knew his father or mother and was raised by foster parents. Dorcas lost both her parents to a race riot when she was a young child and was raised by her aunt. Her choice of a much older man, Joe, to have an affair with, is proof enough of her childhood deprivation. Vera Louise Gray’s father, Colonel Wordsworth Gray becomes in effect an absent father when he disowns his daughter because she is pregnant by a black man. Vera Louise makes a life for herself without family other than her son, Golden Gray. Golden Gray grows up with no knowledge of his father, and only learns of his father’s identity when he is eighteen. He immediately goes in search of him. Felice, although both of her parents remain in her life, is mostly raised by her grandmother. The young woman Wild has no family at all and lives entirely outside any social structure.
In all these cases, the children in these broken families are left to get on in life as best they can. In the case of the two main characters, Violet and Joe, they are in a sense always searching for and trying to feel the presence of their mothers. Violet’s mother, Rose Dear, committed suicide by jumping into a well, and Violet’s decision never to have children herself is testament to the pain she endured and observed in her family in childhood. She never forgets her mother or what happened to her, and eventually her memory is rewarded. Many years later, when she and Joe have repaired their relationship and found love together again, as she lies in bed with him her hand rests on his chest, “as though it were the sunlit rim of a well and down there somebody is gathering gifts . . . to distribute to them all” (p. 225). The image is of her mother, presented in a way that suggests Violet has rediscovered her connection with her late mother as a result of repairing her relationship with her husband. The same applies to Joe, because in that same embrace with Violet, he looks through the window and sees the “darkness taking the shape of a shoulder with a thin line of blood. Slowly, slowly it forms itself into a bird with a blade of red on the wing” (p. 225). The image of the red-winged bird is a reference to Joe’s mother, Wild. In Virginia, the legend was that when a group of red-winged birds were seen, Wild was nearby. Violet and Joe thus find in their embrace the reassuring presence of their mothers, an image of healing that offsets the damage done by the broken homes of their childhood.