A most profound problem in the exegesis of most mid-century novels of black authorship is the determination of the degree to which race and censorship cast its pall over the entire enterprise. To what extent was the author compelled to accommodate in their art the oppressive exigencies of race and class of that time and place?
That task becomes very difficult indeed with respect to Ann Petry’s The Narrows, whose characters, black and white, are both rendered with such complexity and nuance that the faults and dignities of character initially supplant attention to overt race and class considerations. If any reader would need the satisfaction of a stock character, he would have to look hard, and perhaps think he has found one in the three year old, foul-mouthed JC Powther, the minstrelsy man-infant upset with his “bastid” older siblings, and who intrudes on neighbor Abbie Crunch for food because “Mamie’s out” and won’t give him “the pretty-pretty.” Mamie, by the way, is his mother.
But JC, like the clown in a Shakespearean drama, sees a lot too, including the evenings when the white “printhcess” visits Link. It is all the more remarkable that this central interracial love story between Camilla Treadwell and Link Williams manages to keep racism’s ugly head from rearing for nearly the entire story, set in 1950s New England, and only until such time when a tragedy of Shakespearean dimensions precipitates ruptures along psychic and societal fault lines. Petry seems to be challenging us to see beyond race and class, for as long as possible, until the story must become about race and class.
The Narrows possibly dramatizes I believe the purest representation of a white woman’s deep and unadulterated love for a black man. Even if the married Camilla Treadwell had had previous infidelities, that kind of behavior is belied by her uncharacteristically insecure, vulnerable, even anguished, interactions with Link. Speaking of her thwarted academic aspirations, “..don’t laugh at me. I would have been good at it. I would have been somebody in my own right and instead—instead—…”(p.95). Perhaps what she could not bring herself to say is “–instead –I am a kept woman , who now wants to become who I really want to be!” In the end, her belief that Link transfers his love for her to someone else is particularly devastating to such a character already debilitated by the cosseted life. Her impulse to destroy is the impulse of the weak when deeply and psychically wounded.
Ironically, as in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, her anguish is precipitated by a tragedy of errors and misunderstandings, the kind that mislead unwitting human subjects to act with commitment upon facts which they wholeheartedly believe to be true, but which in fact are not true. In this romantic appeal to the role of fate, Petry also diminishes the personal agency of these characters. They neither truly initiate their affair, nor do they truly initiate its end.
Camilla’s intent to destroy Link was most certainly not an intent unto his death, though one wonders to where she has disappeared at this point in the story. But, in any case, racist and class formations immediately compel a defense of both the Treadwell business and the public reputation and honor of the Treadwell family. “I just tried to write a love story, ” Petry seems to be saying. But in the provocative context Petry designed, the consequences of the disintegration of that love inexorably become bound to the exigencies of race and class.