“Like a Winding Sheet” is a short story written by Ann Petry. It is centered around an African-American man, Johnson, in racism. In this story, Ann Petry not only describes the racism towards African-American men but the placement of the African-American woman also. It begins with the man in bed with his wife. Their relationship is described through dialogue and metaphors. It seems as if they have a healthy, loving relationship. As the day goes by, the man is constantly verbally abused by white women. His boss is a white woman who talks to him like he is trash and the woman at the coffee shop refuses to serve him after a long day of work. His frustration builds throughout the story. The greatest metaphor used in this story is in its title, a winding sheet. The winding sheet describes his emotions and the buildup of anger over time—winding and winding until it was time to release it all. The phrase “and he couldn’t bring himself to hit a woman” (Petry) is repeated throughout when he enters a racist situation with the white women. It is a belief that has been imprinted on him, and he tries to remind himself of it and who he is a person. Every time he is disrespected, he clutches his fists tighter and tighter until they cannot anymore. “They were clenched tight, hard, into fists” (Petry).
There were some aspects of the story that stood out to me. Petry frames the story in a way and has great character development. The story has a swift but steady pace. The structure shows how Johnson’s attitude and emotions were in the beginning and how they were in the end, which is a huge difference. Petry uses many forms of symbolization and the setting contributes to the plot of the story. This story relies heavily on the characters’ actions. Some examples of symbolism used are lipstick and a winding sheet. Some themes that this piece possesses is love, failure, femininity, patience, imprisonment, and racism. There is plenty of foreshadowing in the story that hints at the terrible ending. In a way, the encounters create misogyny in the main characters. Not necessarily a major presence of it but to some extent, his frustration with women grows more and more. By the end of the day, he has become fed up with his surroundings and lashes out.
Ultimately, this story’s core theme is racism. Ann Petry examines the effect on African-American men and women, specifically spouses. It makes me wonder if she has observed this in marriages or if she has experienced it herself. Overall, this story was a good read. The ending is upsetting but extremely thought-provoking. Through numerous metaphors and actions, Petry successfully develops round and vulnerable characters. While reading this the second time, I discovered the underlying message of freedom and loss of identity. The conflict is so complicated that I do not know how to feel about Johnson’s ending character. I definitely recommend this story, click here to read it.