The Narrows, Ann Petry – Charlene Obernauer

By on March 26th, 2018 in Blog Posts


In Ann Petry’s The Novel, the scene between media executive Peter Bullock and the photographer Jubine brilliantly showcases the class and cultural conflict between an executive and a worker – a free thinker and a corporate manager. When Jubine is summoned to meet with Bullock because of Bullock’s respect (much to his chagrin) of his work and desire to hire him, Jubine laughs at Bullock’s attempt to buy him. First, he denies that Bullock would pay him more than he currently is earning, and when Bullock asks him why he doesn’t embrace material indicators of success, Jubine laughs and retorts, “I am free. But you, dear Bullock, are a slave, to custom, to a house, to a car.”

Jubine challenges Bullock’s belief system and questions the impact advertising dollars have on the actual published content and the two then begin an ideological debate that so flusters Bullock that when he comes home to his wife, he is still agitated. His wife is reading a magazine that features one of Jubine’s beautiful shots, which sends Bullock off again.

“He’s a goddamn Communist,” Bullock states, “[…] because he’s against wealth. Every chance he gets he takes a potshot at the wealthy,” (Petry, 47). In prior scenes, nothing would allude to Jubine’s communist ideology, but Petry writes this scene to showcase that in that time, anyone who displayed countercultural beliefs or who challenged cultural norms was demonized as a communist. A man who makes beautiful art, who simply depicts life as it is, to Bullock and to many other mainstream Americans at that time period, were considered communists.

Bullock’s wife’s disagreement with her husband is also significant, in that she is able to see beyond simplistic analyses of his art. “It’s the way he arranges things, or waits for hours until they arrange themselves, to fit the pattern of his thinking,” Bullock argues (Petry, 49). When his wife retorts that poor people may actually have dignity, Bullock argues again that this line of thinking is also communism and that he won’t buy anymore of his pictures.

And then, just like that, their debate ends. Bullock does not want to be in the dog house for arguing with his wife, and he seems to realize the unimportance of the debate. So he changes the subject, and they lie in bed together, and he asks her who thought of the idea to put a kingsize bed in their room. Petry does not let the subject and argument die and does not let the husband end the conversation with sex. Without missing a beat, Bullock’s wife teases, “Stalin thought it up – part of the Communist plot to hasten the downfall of the capitalist class,” (Petry, 50).

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  1. Hi Charlene, This is so thoughtful. I also love the way, near the end of The Narrows, Petry reverses this so now we go inside Bullock’s head and he both analyzes Jubine–and his wife. If she chides his morality, he blames his actions on her acquisitiveness. She wanted the fancy Danish modern house in the best part of town, not the old family home he inherited along with the family paper. He has to pay her bills; she has no children and yet many servants whereas his family had many children and only one servant–a miniature analysis of escalating class demands and, I bet Petry would note, a factor in income inequality. If “things” cost a lot–including a good school district or a private school–then one has to earn more money, have a different relation to the corporate ruling class, and therefore also a different relation to influence, power, policing, justice, all that. Her analysis of gender, love, lust, marriage, and capital is one of the most persuasive I have seen in all of literature. Thanks for these insights. If you are casting about for a final paper, this blog post could easily be the basis for a great paper. Wonderful thinking and close reading, Charlene! –Cathy Davidson

  2. Hi Charlene–I agree with Cathy: this post can inspire a really compelling paper. What will a person do for money? And, given Bullock’s power to control the news, and thus access to reliable information, I wonder what is he willing to trade in exchange for his class status? As I think about Jubine’s function as a character in the novel, I think about art’s undeniable influence (Petry herself makes the case for art and its ethical influence in her “The Novel as Social Protest” (1950)). Jubine’s photos shape public opinion, and it exposes The Chronicle for its lack of journalistic ethics, most notably its willingness to pander to rich investors like the Treadways. And, given Jubine’s ease with black people, poor people, etc. his work claims a value beyond money–it not only offers counternarratives to racist, establishment thinking, but it also disregards social hierarchy to invite alternative ways of seeing and thinking. Consider this moment late in the novel, when Jubine’s photos accompany a story in a New York paper and not in The Chronicle: “Jubine had tried the case, handed in a verdict, with his goddam pictures” (365). Now even the Judge who is a friend of the Treadways “managed to express doubt of Camilo’s innocence” (369). For me, all this suggests the power of art as a form of dissent.

  3. This is an interesting post. You write, “A man who makes beautiful art, who simply depicts life as it is, to Bullock and to many other mainstream Americans at that time period, were considered communists.” While we can see how insidious that type of thinking was at that time, I believe that it is also prevalent today with embattled American journalists. When they dare to depict life as it is in politics, especially within the White House, they are demonized. Though they are not called Communists, they work is treated with the dreaded phrase “Fake News”. It makes you wonder how far we have truly come as a “democratic” society.

  4. Charlene,
    I appreciate your close reading of just one brief scene and yet from this one brief scene capture not only many nuances of character revealed in the scene, but also many possible authorial intentions (e.g. who is free and who is not, who really sees reality?) and many possible revelations of the contextual zeitgeist of that time too (e.g. that anything challenging cultural norms, or that anything anticapitalist, was affiliated with communism, reflexively).

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