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Sounder

  • Study Guide
Main Ideas

Themes

Main Ideas Themes

The Obscuring and Dissolving of Identity

Armstrong begins addressing the issue of identity with the title of the book. "Sounder" is the only name that ever appears throughout the entire text, and it is ironic that the only being with a name is not human, but a dog. Armstrong suggests that Sounder has more of an identity than the rest of the people in the book, and it is precisely these unnamed characters that gave the dog his name in the first place—to them, "Sounder" means something. To the rest of the world, the boy and his family mean nothing.

The defining characteristic of the boy's family is that it is a poor one, and when the boy walks around the town he constantly looks in the homes of important people, sometimes even those homes in which his mother works to earn money. All of these people have identity and importance. Even people such as the jail guard have identities, since he has a title based on his profession, despite the fact that Armstrong does not give him a name. The boy has no such title, nor does his mother. His father has no name either, yet he earns the title of convict or thief—titles that relegate him to the lowest of the low, regardless of what and whom he really is. The lack of identity underscores the intense hardships involved in the lives of black sharecroppers, and how difficult it is for them to achieve, even if only in the achievement of a name.

Loss of Innocence

Even though the boy is referred to as "the boy" despite growing up significantly, it is clear that he has aged emotionally beyond his years. Life was difficult for him before his father was taken away, but, until that time, at least he had some claim to being a child. He looked up to his father and waited anxiously for the time when he would be old enough to have some of the same responsibilities. When the boy's father is taken away, he is suddenly thrust from his childhood into a position where he must tend his younger siblings, watch over his mother, and labor for food. At one point in the novel, the boy reflects that he does not know how old he is, but he knows he has lived for a long, long time. He is weary and old in spirit, even while young in age.

Bible Stories As a Context For Real Life

The single comforting source in the boy's life is the Bible, particularly the stories in which he can find parallels to his life. The boy dreams of floods that unite the town in water, thinks of David and Goliath, and thinks of the way characters in the Bible are able to confront and prevail over their fears. He yearns for respite from the real world and notices the differences between stories in the Bible and stories in the newspaper. While he knows that the real world is not as fair and wonderful as the Biblical world, he still reads the Bible for hope, particularly when faced with the challenge of seeking his father. The fact that many characters in the Bible went on long journeys and found those things for which they were looking, serves as motivation for the boy in his search for his father.

Things Left Behind

The book resonates with the theme of who and what is left behind. First, both Sounder and the father leave behind the boy and his family. The boy's father left behind Sounder as well. Being left behind also carries along with it new responsibilities: the boy is left behind to care for his siblings, while his mother is left behind to earn money for the family and tend to all of the shelter, food, and clothing needs. When the boy comes to visit his father in jail, his father in a sense leaves him behind again, by requesting that the boy never come back. Later in the text the boy finds a book that was left behind, and then he leaves his own family behind to live and study with the teacher. Sounder and his father leave them all behind again when they die. Armstrong illustrates these life-changing movements, tracing and crossing the lines between together and apart.