Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, or literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

Small Displays of Power

Gaines shows how racism pervades every nook and cranny of society, grinding down black people in everyday interactions. Black people are made to feel their inferiority when they are made to wait at a white person’s leisure, forced to enter through the back door of a white person’s house, or treated shabbily by a white salesperson. When Grant must enter Pichot’s house through the back door, it is a symbolic reminder of the days of slavery, when slaves could never approach the front door. When angry, the black Reverend Ambrose wields his power over Grant by calling him “boy,” using one of the pejorative terms usually employed by racist whites when referring to grown black men. Gaines suggests that such small moments of subjugation are impossible to shake off because of their cumulative oppressive effect.

Christian Imagery

Jefferson becomes a Christ figure as the novel progresses. Unjustly tried and convicted, the simple-minded Jefferson dies a martyr. The mayor attempts to dispel some of the associations of Jefferson with Christ by setting the execution date for two weeks after Easter, but his awareness of the imagery simply reinforces its power. In trying to move Jefferson to die with dignity, the cynical Grant begins to think of him as a Christ figure—repenting in front of Jefferson and saying that he feels lost—but should Jefferson show him the way, he will find salvation, if not as a Christian then as a caring and active member of the community. Grant tells Vivian that only Jefferson can break the cycle of failed black men; at the end of the novel, Grant begs Jefferson’s forgiveness as if speaking to a savior.


Throughout the novel, different forms of music appear as a means of connecting characters to their sense of humanity. Music, as an ancient and ritualistic art form, allows individuals to express feelings that words are incapable of describing, and Gaines takes advantage of this motif in order to emphasize how desperately the Black community of Bayonne craves understanding in the wake of Jefferson’s trial. The first references to music are related to the church hymns that Tante Lou sings with the rest of the congregation on Determination Sunday, a day dedicated to singing about where they will spend eternity. Not only does the music create a sense of community within the congregation, it also serves as an emotional outlet for exploring life’s big questions. Tante Lou feels such a strong attachment to her particular “‘Termination song” that she sings it every Sunday morning as she prepares for church, a detail which suggests that the music touches her spirit and reinforces her faith. Miss Emma also relies on music for comfort amidst the challenges that Jefferson’s poor condition poses to her faith in both him and God. She hums a ‘Termination song to herself as she sets the table for their visit with Jefferson in the dayroom, finding relief in the sense of normalcy that the music brings her. Music proves to have the most significant impact, however, on Jefferson. Although the music he listens to on the radio from Grant is not religious, the mere ability to hear the voices of others and share in their emotions reawakens his sense of humanity. Grant’s most significant breakthroughs with Jefferson occur after music becomes a part of his daily life, and this shift highlights the unique power that music has over words alone.