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Why, You Reckon?

A short story by Langston Hughes
by

Francesca Cook

on 2 February 2013

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Transcript of Why, You Reckon?

Why, You Reckon? A short story by Langston Hughes Question Two Question Three Is the setting vague or precise? Is the setting mimetic or symbolic? Does the setting seem realistic? What details describe the time and place of the story? What details of time and place are described directly? What can you surmise indirectly, for instance through speech or dress? How does the author establish setting? When and where does the story take place? Is the setting shown through description or action? How does this affect the story? Question One The story takes place at night in Harlem in the 1930's Harlem was a predominantly African-American community in the 1930's. Racism was still at large, as was segregation, and African-Americans were considered inferior to whites. This already put them lower economically compared to whites. Because the Depression was also simultaneously occurring, African-Americans in Harlem were hit particularly hard. The story also occurs at night, and archaically, night is a symbol for dark behavior, or evil action (such as robbing and stripping a man). The setting is mostly shown through description. Hughes establishes setting through direct description, description of his characters and of objects from the short story, writing in accented English, and the use of slang from the period in which he writes, which is the 1930's. These factors work to give his work versimilitude. Hughes refers to the city of Harlem and the time period of the Depression unambiguously. He also describes the period of time as being "times before the war plants opened us and money got to circulating again and that Second World War had busted out." A few streets and places within Harlem are also mentioned, like 133rd Street, Lenox Street, and Dixie Bar, but there is no other physical description of Harlem. The furnace in which the narrator and the "other fellow" rob the white guy is really the only location which Hughes describes in detail Much of the slang Hughes uses is specific to the period of the 1930's. The overt slang words are "colored fellow", a word for African-Americans which is now considered an offensive term, "jack", or money, "speakeasies", or unlicensed bars which nevertheless sold alcohol, "janes", or girlfriends, and "stung", which is the word the narrator uses to describe how he feels when the other fellow makes off with everything they had stolen from the white guy and broken his promise to share with the narrator.

Hughes also writes with accented American English. Words ending with the suffix "-ing" end instead with the suffix "-in' ". Characters from Harlem use double negatives. The narrator also refers to being "hongry", instead of hungry.

All the objects owned by the rich are named, suggesting that the narrator covets these items (ex. watches, fur coats, etc.) "It were just midnight" describes the time of day. It is dark outside. The furnace, where the narrator and the other fellow rob the white man, is described as a space with not much light, save for the pilot light and very dusty because it is also full of coal and coal dust. The setting is rather vaguely described. The only items that Hughes takes great care in mentioning are those of the rich, because those are the types of objects that the narrator values. What we know is that it's dark out, it's a poor part of town, and the furnace is a very dirty place. Harlem is and was a real place, exactly as Hughes described it in his work. However, it is also a symbolic setting. The people living in Harlem in the '30s were the poorest of a country full of poverty. The poorest of people make for the most desperate people, willing to do more than perhaps others who are better off economically because they have far less to lose.

The darkness of the furnace is symbolic; Hughes writes, "There wasn't much light back there, just the raw gas comin' out of a jet, kind of blue-like, blinkin' in the coal dust. Took a few minutes before we could see what [the white fellow] looked like." This description of the furnace is part symbolism and part foreshadowing. The darkness of the room represents uncertainty. The narrator does not know the motives or character of the fellow he is working with. Just as it takes him a few minutes to use the gas and see what the white fellow looks like, it takes him time to realize the other fellow's character (sudden realizations are often represented by light). He also comes to the realization that despite the white fellow's wealth, he is not happy. The foreshadowing with the gas in the furnace can also foreshadow of the realization of the theme, people are never satisfied with what they have. I do believe Hughes' setting is realistic. One, because he was writing about a place and social/economic condition that he knew. Two, because he took such care in the details. He writes with the slang of the period, he gives his characters the accents they would have if they were flesh-and-blood people on the streets of 1930's Harlem. He pays attention to the things a person from Harlem would pay attention to. Does it remind you of another place? Though there isn't a place today that's exactly like Harlem of the 1930's, there are still groups of impoverished people living in communities in the city. To different extents, the slums of Chicago, Detroit, and Los Angeles are at least similar to the old Harlem. Question Four How does the setting contribute to character? Due to the time period (the Depression) and lower economic status of the community, the characters in the literary work are impoverished people. They are even denied food from charities because there isn't enough food for everyone who needs it. Because of these factors, the main character and the other fellow are more desperate and willing to do more for food and money than they would be if they did not live in this particular setting. What is the relationship between the characters and the setting, the incidents and the setting? Question Five Question Seven Question Six Because of the setting and the relatively high rate of poverty of the people who live in it, the characters who live in this setting are also poor and willing to do things they normally wouldn't for food and money. Therefore, the incident that occurred, two African-Americans from Harlem robbing a rich, white person, is a believable incident in regard to the setting in which it occurs. Before the Civil Rights Movement, blacks as a group tended to be poorer than whites due to segregation, job inequality, and limited opportunities. Since Harlem was a community with a high population of African-Americans and the times were already economically tough, the characters and incidents that occurred both fit the setting. How does the setting contribute to plot? Is the time and place important to the plot of the story? How or why? How does the setting contribute to theme? How does the setting reinforce the theme? What atmosphere does the setting create? What techniques (details, imagery) does the author use to develop setting? Do the details of the setting tell us anything about the author's ideas about the world in general? How much time does the author spend on the description of the setting? What does that tell you about its importance? The plot of the short story is that two African-American men from Harlem rob a rich, white man in the 1930's. Because of the impoverished setting, the plot is very believable. Hughes develops the characters to make it seem realistic that they would do what they did in the plot. The time and the place are essential to the story. The short story is set in Harlem, New York during the Depression. Because of the time period, we know that the country is already in economic downfall, and because Harlem is a largely African-American community, it is already a disadvantaged community. This makes the plot of the story realistic. From my understanding of the story, I have concluded that the theme of the story is that people mis-see what they want. Choosing Harlem was perfect because it allowed Hughes to use people from polar opposite sides of the social economic spectrum: the haves and the have-nots, and show us how both representatives of the groups misinterpret their wants. Harlem of the 1930's was a great choice of setting in regard to the theme. In this time period, Harlem contained both very wealthy and very poor people. The very poor lived in Harlem, the very wealthy went there seeking a thrill. Hughes lets us see the wants of the characters using this setting. We see that the narrator thinks he wants the fancy objects that the rich people have, and the rich white fellow thinks he wants to be mugged to get excited. Rich white people in the 1930's apparently went to Harlem to seek a thrill, but really they want something to feel passionate about. The narrator thinks he wants fancy things, but really he wants to be prosperous, at least prosperous enough to afford to eat regularly. The main events of the plot occur at night, in a dark furnace. This creates an atmosphere of uncertainty, where sketchy events occur. The coal pile in the furnace also leads the reader to imagine everything as being dirty. At the time, many people also associated poverty with dirt, like the phrase "dirt poor", coined during this time period. Darkness is also archaically associated with evil, people committing unjust actions. This is the perfect atmosphere for a robbery. "Don't you know it's more'n we colored folks can do to get a black fur coat, let alone a white one?...Don't you know...that I been walkin' up and down Lenox Avenue for three or four months tryin' to find some way to earn extra money to get my shoes half-soled?" -The other fellow, "Why, You Reckon?" Hughes develops his setting with both details and imagery. The details come from specific place names in Harlem: Hundred Thirty-Third Street, Lenox Street, Dixie bar. He uses definitive words to describe the surroundings outside of the furnace, for instance, saying that it's nighttime, saying that it's snowing. Then, with imagery, he describes the setting. He states flat-out that it is snowing, then describes how the rich white fellow was "just a-tippin' so as not to slip up and fall on the snow". The colored fellow tells the white boy that if he sits in the coal long enough, the boy will end up "as black as me [him]". Most of the important details are not just stated, they're shown. Hughes doesn't write that it's dark, he writes that the only light was "the raw gas comin' out of a jet, kind of blue-like, blinkin' in the coal dust", that they couldn't even make the white boy's features out immediately. He uses strong imagery selectively, which indicates when some aspect of the setting is important. Hughes published "Why, You Reckon" on March 17th, 1934, in the heart of the Great Depression. This evidence points to this short story being social commentary. On the first page of this story, the other fellow says to the narrator, "Man, ain't you hongry? Didn't I see you down there at the charities today, not gettin' nothin'--like me? You didn't get a thing, did you? Hell no!" The theme of this story was that people mis-see what they truly want, but there is also simultaneously an underlying message, an attempt to spread awareness of just how hard the Depression was hitting people. Reading that people at the time were not getting food from charities was really eye-opening, and was at the time of publication also very much so. Showing that some the destitute were resorting to criminal activity, robbing people, just to make ends meet was a challenge to improve conditions. The open-ended question at the end of the story is also aimed at those making ends meet: "Why you reckon [rich white folks] ain't happy?" Why aren't you, the ones who are feeding yourselves and kids, not happy? Hughes spends about three or four paragraphs in total on setting. In others, he mentions times and places which give the reader a pretty good idea of what the setting is, given that the reader knows 1) where Harlem is, 2) when the Great Depression was, and 3) when World War Two started. The rest of the description is fairly limited. Because there's only a relative few number of paragraphs describing setting, the reader can gather that the selective descriptions indicate the most important details of the setting, which are often symbolic. He describes the darkness; the darkness represents the shady actions of the narrator and other fellow and shady intentions of the other fellow. He describes the cold; the cold represents the other fellow's blatant disregard for the well-being of the narrator.
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