Reflections on The Narrows by Damele E. Collier

By on March 28th, 2018 in Black Listed Authors, Blog Posts


In Ann Petry’s neglected 1953 novel The Narrows, she forcefully, and perhaps even poetically, grapples with the intersectionality of race, class and gender. While she explores interracial relationships, she does not present caricatures of Blacks and whites, but rather writes real people, with real passions, flaws, insecurities, and for some, evolutions. An example of this is Link, the male Black protagonist. He is a tragic character, yet admirable, as he falls in love, is deceived, and in the ultimately betrayed. He is not written as a grinning buffoon, or as a representation of a stereotype. Rather, he has depth, and is both sympathetic and optimistic. He is reluctantly offered up as a sacrifice by Petry as a lesson that those who believe that racial and class lines can be blurred, and that societal barriers can be overcome, must pay a terrible price for attempting to do so.

Link, who attended Dartmouth, is a bartender. His intellect is obviously wasted in this vocation, but he feels that there is a lack of opportunity for him due to his race. Link intervenes to save a woman from an attack, and that act of heroism, while noble, sets him on the inevitable road to destruction. Due to the cover of New England fog, he does not initially know that the woman, who introduces herself as Camilo, is a white woman, nor does she know that he is Black man. Upon entering the bar, to their shock, their ethnicities are revealed. They begin a passionate and dangerous love affair, that is both wondrous and torturous for Link. Camilo finds release from the tedium of her marriage. While I do not question that Link falls desperately in love with Camilo, I do not know that she ever truly falls in love, or allows herself to fall in love with him.

Link eventually discovers that he has been deceived, and that his lover is really Camilla Treadway Sheffield, heiress to the Treadway Munitions Company. He is not only hurt, but questions Camilo’s intentions. Was he, like Black male slaves before him, just a Black buck that a white woman had decided to have a dalliance with? His decision to break off their affair has far reaching implications for everyone in the novel. Camilla, unwilling to accept Link’s decision, impulsively accuses him of rape. This cruel act has historical connotations. The dangerous and sexually deviant Black male, preying on the fragility and innocence of a white woman, is an old and insidious myth, and one that has led many Black men to being lynched, and becoming casualties of the white mob mentality. Camila’s lie leads to Link’s murder, as he is yet another unwitting victim of what I call the “dangerous and sexually deviant Black male myth”.



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  1. Demele,
    I also appreciated the complexity of the characters in the novel, as you observed as well. As you say, there were no “grinning buffoons.” With respect to the affair, I find it interesting that we both saw that it was based in love, but you thought Link was truly in love with Camilla, and I thought that Camilla was truly in love with Link. Though it changes the motivations of several characters, in the end it did not change the eventual outcome–we both came to the same conclusion about the inescapability of the dire consequences of their breakup that would be shaped by issues of race and class.

  2. Damele,

    You wrote, “While she explores interracial relationships, she does not present caricatures of Blacks and whites, but rather writes real people, with real passions, flaws, insecurities, and for some, evolutions.”

    This was my experience as well – she writes the complexities of the characters. However, I would note that, very interestingly, we see Camilo’s identity less than Link, Powther, Mrs. Powther, Abbie, or even J.C. We see her in interaction with others, but we don’t see her thoughts as she deals with the dissolution of her affair. We watch her dissolve through other’s eyes.

    Why does Petry write Camilo this way, and what impact does it have on the reader?

  3. Hi Damele, Your post made me think again about the way Petry weaves in and out of stereotypes, almost like a chess game, where she knows exactly what each piece is, what it means, what it has means, and then she scrambles things, has the Knight move like a King, the Queen like a pawn . . . and it feels, for a little while, like a whole new game. But, to continue the metaphor, the rules haven’t really changed. When Abbie tosses Link and Camilo out, and their love affair is exposed, all the players play their standard, stereotypical, legally and culturally scripted parts again: Black man, rich white woman. And then the ending: “We loved one another.” A whole new game: Link knows that, in saying that, in repeating it, it will be his own death. Checkmate. He KNOWS that and still repeats it. It’s not just love but testifying.

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