Petry Ann’s 1945 short story “Like a Winding Sheet” presents the psychological aspect and manifestations of different ordeals which one goes through in life. The challenges that a person faces in society can cause damage to themselves or even to other innocent individuals as evident in Petry’s work. Johnson, the main character, is an exact representation of the suffering, racial discrimination, and subsequent stigma that African Americans were facing in the U.S. during and before the 1940s when the author wrote the story. He sees everything that happens to him in society as a sign of discrimination against blacks. Therefore, in the short story “Like a Winding Sheet,” Ann Petry uses naturalism to justify Johnson’s transformation to demonstrate why public experiences of racism damage personal relationships.
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Johnson’s collapse of character and identity exemplifies the fact that societal pressures, including racism, have the potential to erase individuality. As mentioned in the short story, Johnson realizes that he has kicked Mae in the mouth making her dark-red make-up blowout over her chops, nose, and her chin when she screams (Petry 1504). Understandably, the author presents an argument that racism can make people act weirdly and in an unconscious way, not knowing what they are doing at that particular moment. The external forces and what they undergo naturally dictate their behavioral actions. Johnson’s racial discrimination stress pushes him to slap his wife severally without ceasing since it is his social experiences that make him do so and not his conscience. Reflectively, Johnson loves his wife and fantasizes about playing, cooking, and listening to the radio with her once he arrives at home (Petry 1501). It is impossible that Johnson could have hit his wife, considering that he promises himself to never hit a woman despite the level of disappointment that the woman causes to him. Connectedly, it is evident that public racism scenarios hurt a person’s life.
Additionally, racism ordeals in society destroy the initial personal relationships. The author presents a picture regarding how Mrs. Scott shouts to Johnson that she is sick of niggers coming late to work (Petry 1499). It is at this moment that the personal relationship between Mrs. Scott, who is the forewoman, and Johnson is dented. He does not like the way that the forewoman denotes to him as a nigger since he comprehends that Mrs. Scott’s reference is a sign of racial discrimination. Johnson becomes angry at what his boss tells him, hence deciding to hit her, but his consciousness tells him that a man does not hit or quarrel with a woman. Mrs. Scott’s language is a clear indication of the public experiences that the short story’s main character goes through in life, losing hope and caring less regarding being sacked from his job. Literally, an employee is expected to respect their boss, a trait that Johnson has despite finding it hard to imagine how a woman can be his boss. Thus, through Johnson and Mrs. Scott’s engagements, it is worth noting that public racism scenarios destroy individual relationships.
Besides, the relationship between Johnson and the white waitress vividly exemplifies the idea that community experiences increase racial stereotyping among individuals. When the girl who serves coffee genuinely tells Johnson that there is no more coffee for a while, Johnson gets angry and leans towards the woman, wanting to punch her (Petry 1502). Immediately, he relates the incident to an act of racial discrimination because the girl serving the coffee is white. Johnson is sure that the girl is lying and does not want to help him because he is black. The short story presents the audience with a genuine understanding that, indeed, there was no coffee left because all the customers in the queue walked away, waiting for another round. Interpretatively, Johnson relates the cafeteria incident and finds some traces of racism in everything that a white person does because of the regular racism ordeals that he faces daily. Despite the girl telling Johnson the truth, he perceives it to be an act of racism, hence leading to conflict with the lady. Therefore, Johnson’s transformations are critical illustrations about why public experiences increase ordeals of racial stereotyping among people.
Moreover, Johnson relates the actions of Mae to what he sees in public, hence becoming angry and unintentionally beating her. In the short story, the main character observes the girl serving coffee putting hands up to her head and mildly enlivening her hair far from the back of the neck (Petry 1502). The girl does this while saying that there is no coffee for a while, a statement that Johnson misunderstands to mean that ‘there is no coffee for black people.’ Similarly, Mae tosses her head back and moves the hair the same way as the girl at the coffee point, an action that irritates Johnson (Petry 1503). Arguably, Johnson hates racial discrimination, and what Mae does reminds him of the torment. When Mae engages in the same action of lifting her hair, it arouses Johnson’s feelings, kicking her and breaking the bond. The lifting of the hair and the minor couple arguments that Johnson develops with his wife make him punch Mae’s face. Johnson relates what his wife does to what he had experienced in the cafeteria, hence getting irritated easily since Mae’s actions remind him of racism incidences.
Furthermore, Johnson goes through different incidences of discrimination that make him damage the personal affection that he has with those around him. Johnson develops an attitude of wanting to beat women, including the girl working in the restaurant and Mrs. Scott, until the time that he finds himself kicking his wife. When the girl tells him casually that there is no more coffee left, the story elaborates to the audience that another violent fantasy came to his mind (Petry 1502). Psychologically, the author develops a comprehension that it is the racial discrimination instances Johnson encounters daily which make him aggressive. Previously, he could never imagine a woman despite the mistakes, but due to segregation, he has no other option. Also, Johnson knows that he cannot hit a lady because they do not have the energy and strength to beat a man back (Petry 1499). It is the societal experiences that trigger his mind, making him aggressive and quick to beat anyone that ridicules him because of his skin color. Thus, the story leads to a summation that Johnson is forced by the external forces of racism to react and punch a woman, for instance, Mae, hence destroying the existing relationship.
Noteworthy, public racism experiences destroy the daily routine that families are used to, subsequently deteriorating their intimate relationships. On ordinary occasions, as presented in the short story, Johnson and his wife, Mae, would catch a few hours of sleeping after getting home from work. They routinely fooled around cooking, eating, and listening to music in the living room’s big chair (Petry 1501). The couple could make jokes to one another until five or six in the morning before sleeping for a while and then commencing their daily tasks at eight o’clock. However, it is after Johnson faces the criticisms from his boss, which are racism-related, and after the girl says that there is no coffee left that he acts strange once he returns home. In spite of Mae greeting him as usual when he is at home from work that evening, he does not reply and moves straight to the door jamb and leans against it (Petry 1503). The giggles from his wife, which previously made him laugh, are no longer attractive. Hence, public experiences of racism can affect the character transformation of a person leading to relationship mutilation.
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In conclusion, in Ann Petry’s “Like a Winding Sheet” story, the author uses the aspect of naturalism to validate the transformation of Johnson to demonstrate why public experiences of racism damage personal relationships. Psychologically, it is prudent to note that the environment plays a massive role in determining people’s behavior. The society around the main character in the text transforms him from a humble person who respects ladies to a man that is aggressive and ready to beat women any time when he feels offended. The argument between Johnson and his boss, Mrs. Scott, the girl working at the restaurant, and his wife, Mae, critically illustrate the idea that the public racism experiences can cause significant damage to individuals’ relationships.
Petry, Ann. “Like a Winding Sheet.” Miss Muriel and Other Stories. 1945, pp. 1480-1504.