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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Nature of Kinship

Throughout The Land, Paul struggles with the meaning of family and, even more pointedly, the meaning of brother. In Paul's world, kinship and heritage play a major role in understanding one's past, one's social situation, what one can expect from life, and upon whom one can depend. Initially race- blind, Paul sees his white brother Robert as his mirror image, closest friend, and most reliable ally. As Paul comes of age, however, he grows to see that race overrides the tie of brotherhood that unites the two boys. Shortly after his break with Robert, Paul adopts Mitchell as a brother: their shared racial heritage and their shared struggles forge a bond between the two that is stronger than the bond that had connected Paul and Robert. Paul and Mitchell trust and depend upon each other because they must—neither could have escaped particular dangerous situations without the other. When Paul asks Mitchell to work the land with him, even their everyday lives become inextricably entwined. Mitchell replaces Robert in Paul's childhood dream of working the land with his brother.

Passive Methods of Fighting Oppression

Early in the book, Paul's father admonishes him to "fight with his head, not his fists," since Paul is a small child not skilled at fighting. As Paul grows older, this message grows more urgent, as he finds he is socially less powerful than the men who engage him in battle. Lashing out physically or even verbally will bring about a swift and violent reaction, such as lynching or imprisonment. Paul internalizes this lesson and employs it throughout the book: he obeys his spiteful boss Jessup and works on Sunday, only to hatch a plan to run away from the camp. And he bears the cruel words of Hollenbeck and Granger. He refocuses his anger and devotes his passion to his dream of obtaining land. The times that Paul resists more directly—when he chastises Robert and the Waverly boys for abusing the Appaloos, or when he convinces a band of drunken whites to leave him and Mitchell alone—lead to trouble. Paul possesses a heartfelt understanding of the injustices inherent in the social structures surrounding him, but he also understands that he only has so much freedom to resist these injustices without exacerbating them. By applying steady pressure and using his energy constructively, Paul obtains the land he desires. Paul's passive, calculated means of resisting oppression are echoed in the civil rights movement's use of peaceable protest.

The Intersection of Class and Racial Oppression

Time and again, Paul feels the financial and social consequences of being a black man in a racist society. Paul cannot inherit his father's land because he is black, Sutcliffe can neglect to pay him because he is black, his boss can force him to work without pay because he is black, and banks can refuse to grant him loans because he is black. Slavery's deepest roots lie in white people's desire to exploit blacks for monetary gain, and racism, or the belief in the inherent superiority of one race over another, acts as a justification or explanation for this economic exploitation. After slavery was abolished, white landowners still wanted to exploit the resources of black labor. This exploitation and racism fed off each other in a hateful cycle, in which blacks were systematically denied access to economic resources on the basis of their race, thus confirming and maintaining their racial inferiority. Blacks like Paul, who desired to become property owners, threatened such a cycle.



Paul regards loyalties with great reverence, and throughout the novel, loyalties are tested and either broken or strengthened. Paul establishes his loyalty to Mitchell by taking the punishment for riding Ghost Wind, and Robert revokes the loyalty between him and Paul by succumbing to peer pressure. Mitchell demonstrates his loyalty to Paul by taking the money Sutcliffe owes him, and Paul reciprocates by helping Mitchell escape from the consequences of this theft. Loyalty is crucial among postbellum southern blacks partly because of their disenfranchisement and partly because they cannot trust or accept help from whites. As a substitute for the social, legal, and political structures that sustain white power, blacks call on a more informal network of friends and family who make extreme sacrifices for one another. For example, Mitchell agrees to tie his life to Paul's by helping him clear and later farm Granger's land, and Cassie sends Paul every cent she has to help Paul secure the land he wants. Since they cannot rely on social structures to protect and help them, Paul and his family have learned to rely upon each other.


From a young age, Paul is attuned to the craft of haggling for goods: he observes his father's strategies when he buys Ghost Wind, and he listens intently as Luke Sawyer haggles with customers over the furniture Paul has created. Paul uses these lessons when he haggles with Sutcliffe over his jockey price, when he haggles with Granger over the forty acres, and when he haggles with Hollenbeck over his land. Paul is a skilled bargainer—he is cool and respectful, he starts bargaining at a better price than he expects to get, and he is careful to hide how dearly he wants the object in question. Paul's act of haggling is a metaphor for the larger-scale haggling he does with white society at large. He is calculating, aware of his limitations, but ready to take risks when necessary so that he can establish himself as a dignified and self- sufficient adult.

Naming, Unnaming, and Renaming

Paul, Sam Perry, and Rachel Perry have each been unnamed and/or renamed by their white social superiors. Paul cannot be called by his full name, Paul- Edward, because it would be presumptuous for Paul to take his father's name when none of his white brothers have it. Sam Perry was nicknamed Sam by his owner because of his physical strength, and Rachel Perry was unnamed by her white owner's wife, because the white woman wanted to name her own daughter Rachel. These unnamings/renamings demonstrate the scope of white power and metaphorically communicate the dominance of whites to blacks—after all, these individuals do not even have the power to identify themselves. Blacks, in response, engage in renamings: Rachel's mother calls her by her name in private, and after Emancipation she takes the name in public as well. Caroline insists on calling Paul by his full name, saying that he deserves the name. Moreover, names—not only last names—carry history and heritage. Paul and Caroline name Mitchell's baby Mitchell Thomas Logan, and Paul's own sons' names contain the names Luke, Edward, Hammond, and George, thereby encapsulating and preserving his family's history.

Reading and Writing

As Paul grows up, he spends a great deal of his time reading. His obsession with reading both signifies and causes rifts with other blacks: a gang of boys teases him when they find him reading at the river, and men at the logging camp take offense to his preoccupation with his letter writing. Paul's passion for reading and writing represent his privileged childhood and his white heritage, but they also give Paul a crucial tool. Paul leverages his literacy to befriend Mitchell, and it also provides him with good ways to spend his time so he can save virtually all his money. Symbolically, Paul's salvation comes in the form of a letter from Cassie.



Horses play a crucial role in Paul's childhood—he loves horses and is more skilled at befriending, riding, and caring for them than anyone else on his father's farm. Paul's skill with horses indicates his gentleness, his trueness, and his closeness to the natural world. All of the major turning points of his childhood center on horses: his defense of Mitchell, Robert's betrayal of him, and his rejection of his father's authority. Paul's feeling toward the horse in each situation acts as a barometer for his loyalties. When Mitchell rides Ghost Wind, he is first worried about the horse, but he puts the concern aside for Mitchell's sake. When Paul finds Robert and the Waverly boys riding the Appaloosa, his first and overriding concern is for the tired animal. At the horse fair, however, his connection to horses serves a more calculated purpose, and he uses his skill with the horse as a tool to triumph over his father's authority.


To Paul and the society in which he lives, land symbolizes power, self- sufficiency, and legacy. Paul leads a charmed childhood—he can live comfortably on his father's rich land and has the luxury of being able to tell other black children to get off of it. He fully expects to unofficially inherit the land and work it with his brother Robert in an idealized and idyllic world cut off from the rest of society. When Paul realizes that he has no claim on the land, he leaves, determined to find land on which he can raise his family and with which he can provide for them. Paul almost loses his dream land, but is saved by the sale of his mother's land. Like Paul, she bought the land understanding the wealth and opportunity it represented.

The Rocking Chair

Both Paul's mother and Miz Perry enjoy their comfortable wooden rockers. To the rest of their families, the rockers represent the hard work and sacrifice of their mothers and the comfort and ease they wish to bestow upon them. The rockers represent the family's gratitude and reverence for their mothers, evidenced both by the surge of emotion Paul experiences seeing and thinking on his mother's rocker, and the excitement with which the Perrys greet the new rocker for their mother.

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