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Viewed as a Naturalist novel, with its realistic prose, indifferent environment, and an aesthetic network built around motifs, the narrative of Ann Petry’s The Street reads like a mid-century black version of Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie: a woman (Carrie is single; Lutie Johnson is saddled by a child) and her relationships with a series of men (using them in Sister Carrie; being used by them in The Street) either propels her up the social ladder (Dreiser) or knocks the rungs out below her (Petry). Petry’s blatant protest against societal restrictions placed on women, especially black women, is underscored by a subtler portrayal of the omnipresent claustrophobia that physically confines Lutie. The various cramped spaces she occupies her unsuitable apartment, crowded buses, massed sidewalks, the packed Junto define her social immobility and bodily objectification. She seeks a spacious apartment that never arrives, so throughout the novel she settles for finding alternate ways to expand her spatial presence. However, the constant threat of masculine sexual assault and power, aided by the use of objects, reduces these expansions and imprisons Lutie, who is unwilling to capitalize on her only object of value her own body.
The titular antagonist of the novel is, of course, the greatest enemy Lutie faces and, as do Jones, Junto, and Boots, it treats her and everyone else as objects, amalgamating and de-individuating them: “It was any city where they set up a line and say black folks stay on this side and white folks on this side, so that the black folks were crammed on top of each other jammed and packed and forced into the smallest possible space” (206). The line here, segregation recurs in The Street as that which spatially separates the safe from the dangerous, agency from passivity, selfhood from anonymity. The destruction of lines removes the harmful effects of crowds and makes them joyous, as the busy streets of Harlem are a sudden relief from the jammed subway: “Escaped from the openly appraising looks of the white men whose eyes seemed to go through her clothing to her long brown legs” (57). Even the white men are objectified; while their “open” looks may defy the constrictive space around them, they are reduced to “eyes,” just as Lutie is defined by her legs and her clothing her one object of defense becomes useless. Nevertheless, sight, as we will later see, is the most powerful sense in The Street; it opens up space for males, often as an illusion, while women are cornered in, as is Lutie here.
Interestingly, in a novel whose every action is directed towards acquiring private space, Petry often sings the praises of crowds, so long as they provide individual movement within the anonymous block. The streets of Harlem are a welcome change from the subway, and although the homogeneity of race would seemingly further compromise individuality, the opposite is true, as pedestrians ironically accrue differences when placed in an environment of supposed similarity: “Up here they are no longer creatures labeled simply ‘colored’ and therefore all alike. She noticed that once the crowd walked the length of the platform and started up the stairs toward the street, it expanded in size” (57). It is this metamorphosis “The same people who had made themselves small on the train, even on the platform, suddenly grew so large they could hardly get up the stairs to the street together” (58) that defies objectified labels, and the competition for street space is based upon personal largeness rather than on the shrinking of the public sphere. The metamorphosis comes about through immersion in the new, larger space, but for women, it is clearly a dependent reaction. They require the helping hand of the space and cannot create largeness on their own:
Young women coming home from work dirty, tired, depressed looked forward to the moment when they would change their clothes and head toward the gracious spaciousness of the Junto. They dressed hurriedly in their small dark hall bedrooms, so impatient for the soft lights and music and the fun that awaited them that they fumbled in their haste. (144)
The Junto’s “gracious spaciousness” is not merely an opportunity for rhyming though the space itself suggests a harmonic environment but emphasizes the Junto itself as the women’s date; they prepare for the night out as if they were trying to impress a man whose own stature heightens theirs.
These “small dark hall bedrooms” are everywhere, and while the women may not like them, for Jones they represent the feminine spaces he is unable to invade as he toils away in his own small dark space, the cellar. The compartmentalization of apartments is correlated to mailboxes, as a building holds many apartments and a mailman’s master key opens all mailboxes at once: “The postman opened all the letter boxes at once, using a key that he had suspended on a long, stout chain. The sagging leather pouch that was swung over his shoulder bulged with mail. He thrust letters into the open boxes, used the key again to lock them and was gone” (290-1). Petry writes this as an episode of virtual intercourse; the postman’s key (a traditional phallic signifier for its ability to penetrate a lock; cf. “Rape of the Lock” which, while without a key, pun on this through its castration themes), on a “long, stout chain,” is able to open up all boxes simultaneously the masculine fantasy of sexual omnipotence and omnipresence “thrust[s]” its missives inside, and is able to lock them away from anyone else’s touch before he exits the scene.
Cellar-dweller Jones can only dream of such spatial conquest, the ability to control the analogous small bedrooms from one place of command. His assault of Lutie, “dragging her toward the cellar door” (235), is an attempt to close off her mobility, as is the locking of the mailboxes:
She grabbed the balustrade. His fingers pried her hands loose. She writhed and twisted in his arms, bracing her feet, clawing at his face with her nails. He ignored her frantic effort to get away from him and pulled her nearer and nearer to the cellar door. She kicked at him and the long skirt twisted about her legs so that she stumbled closer to him.
She tried to scream, and when she opened her mouth no sound came out; and she thought this was worse than any nightmare, for there was no sound anywhere in this. There was only his face close to hers a frightening, contorted face, the eyes gleaming, the mouth open and his straining, sweating body kept forcing her ever nearer the partly open cellar door. (236)
The subjects, grammatically or to the reader’s eyes, of the choppy sentences are usually body parts his fingers, his arms, her feet, her nails, and the final demonic image of Jones’s face as both assaulter and victim again are objectified, as on the subway. Yet Jones still has the upper hand as the environment betrays Lutie. The balustrade does not offer protection, and her clothing once again proves useless in defense. Her silent scream recalls Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” in which the overflowing lines suggest the subject’s immersion in a hostile environment that the observer of the mute painting cannot comprehend. Likewise, Jones’s open mouth pairs with the gaping cellar door, the approaching threat of rape, and Lutie’s silence makes the reader just as powerless as she is.
Yet Lutie does find her voice, and this is the one instrument that seems to offer a way out of street and out of the cellar: “She screamed until she could hear her own voice insanely shrieking up the stairs, pausing on the landings, turning the corners, going down the halls, gaining in volume as it started again to climb the stairs” (236). Her voice, as part of herself that emanates outward in waves and echoes, can expand beyond her personal space. The female voice’s musicality is a provider of agency throughout the novel; Mrs. Hedges thwarts two different assaults, Jones’s and that of a pack of boys on Bub. She tells Lutie to “‘Shut up?You want the whole place woke up?'” (237) and Petry describes the swelling power of her voice: “Her rich, pleasant voice filled the hallway, and at the sound of it the dog slunk away, his tail between his legs” (237). Her “rich, pleasant voice,” here performing a sort of castration on the dog, returns twice during Bub’s assault: “‘You heard me, you little bastards,’ she said in her rich, pleasant voice. ‘You go on outta this block, Charlie Moore.’ Mrs. Hedges’ rich, pleasant voice carried well beyond the curb” (347-8).
Of course, Lutie hopes that her own pleasant voice literally translates into riches. Her singing temporarily obscures her social and spatial station: “The music swelled in back of her and she began to sing, faintly at first and then her voice grew stronger, clearer, for she gradually forgot the men in the orchestra, forgot even that she was there in the Casino and why she was there” (222). The repeated word “there” is crucial; the sentence does not require the first instance, but its superfluous entry makes presence and its provisional obliteration the focus of Lutie’s singing, just as when Lutie sings a note so low and sustained that “it was impossible to tell where it left off” (148), rather than when it left off. The note is defined in spatial, not tonal, terms.
Lutie’s musical escape is temporary because of the absence of objects for her to manipulate; she, not a physical instrument, is the manipulated object, the “lute.” Her attempts to make money off singing are constantly derailed by men who use objects to their own advantage, and try to take advantage of Lutie as an object. She waits in a singing school’s “small waiting room” (318) and enters a room whose inventory runs non-stop for nine lines (319). Like Junto, portly Mr. Crosse, the owner of the school, dominates the room not just through his obesity but by making himself visible without objectifying himself to the social gaze: “She was quite close to the desk before she was able to see what the man sitting behind it looked like, for his feet obstructed her view” (319). Junto is far more powerful since he magnifies his presence with an inversion of the traditional trope for the masculine gaze; Lutie always stares at him through reflected mirrors, rather than the other way around, yet he transcends objectification: “She looked at him again and again, for his reflection in the mirror fascinated her. Somehow even at this distance his squat figure managed to dominate the whole room” (146). Mirrors, which make “the Junto an enormous room” (146), create an illusion of expanded space that Boots later capitalizes on in his bedroom: “there were too many mirrors so that she saw him reflected on each of the walls – his legs stretched out, his expression completely indifferent” (420). Boots’s indifference to the synecdochic stand-in of his legs suggests an imperviousness to Lutie’s gaze that only bolsters his omnipresence.
As a musician, not a singer, Boots is deft with objects and can move via objects, as his name suggests. His car, and his resourcefulness in finding gasoline, affords him a spatial independence whose noises carry not just from their source, as Lutie’s voice does, but moves with the source: “It was like playing god and commanding everything within hearing to awaken and listen to him. The people sleeping in the white farmhouses were at the mercy of the sound of his engine roaring past in the night – before any of them could analyze the sound that had alarmed them, he was gone” (157). His greatest fear is that Junto will ban him from playing and he will have to return to his previous job as a porter on a train, where is subject not only to the demands of others but has no choice in the vehicle’s movement. Lutie ends up on a train in defeat, and the air of resignation the novel concludes with parallels the passenger’s passivity; both destination and route are unalterable and fated.
Preceding Lutie’s total loss of object-manipulation is the climactic action of murdering Boots. Lutie bludgeons him with a “heavy iron candlestick” (429), perhaps an unsubtle Freudian allusion by Petry to a phallic-holder without a phallus, and turns him into a “thing on a sofa” (431). Unlike the dead man Lutie once saw on the sidewalk, whose shoes “she had never been able to forget” (196), Boots’s metamorphosis into a virtual pair of boots does not humanize him; Lutie infects him with the same strain of objectification she has dealt with through the novel, and she assumes a masculine space with her murder. The scar on Boots’s face, a “souvenir” (271) from a girlfriend, is described as a “thin, narrow line” (272). One page earlier, Petry uses the same wording to describe murder: “He never realized before what a thin line you had to cross to do a murder. A thin, small, narrow line” (271). Lutie crosses this line, but only after she has been scarred and imprisoned in a much more narrow space the street.
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