Lost in the City: An Exploration of Edward P. Jones's Short Fiction

Section 3: A Literary Analysis of Lost in the City

By Lauren Phelps & Mohammed Ali H Sumili

A Fragmented Community & Identity

Geographical location becomes an identity marker that determines a character's identity group and controls movement within neighborhoods. Accordingly, identity is framed by interactions and attachment to other community members, which builds into a shared living experience. Jones's stories can be read as attempts to preserve a geographical identity of the Black DC in which he grew up.

Lost in the City begins with the instability experienced by inhabitants of DC in “The Girl Who Raised Pigeons” when the railroad is expected to displace the residents of Myrtle Street. The community speculates about whom the railroad, and by extension DC’s push for progress, will force out. Jones adopts this narrative maneuver to establish a map of the city prior to gentrification. The children in this story are especially aware of this impending transition and soon begin to use it as an insult designed to tease and even offend each other. The children’s uncertainty shapes their understanding of the world around them and forces them to loosen any attachment they might have to their homes as part of their identity or risk being deeply wounded by the threat that they would be the one who’s “gotta go” (Jones, Lost 16).

The characters’ connections to their neighborhoods determine their sense of belonging, such as in “The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed.” Neighborhoods operate as designated territories determining the insiders and outsiders within the larger Black community. Similarly, “The Store” illustrates the role neighborhoods play in governing behavior and identity. An incident with a policeman makes the narrator vow that he will avoid White neighborhoods, while working in the store has expanded his sense of neighborhood. However, working in the store expands his community; he has been asked to be a godfather of many babies in the new neighborhood, which indicates a connection to a larger collective Black identity.   

Pearl and Joyce in “The Night Rhonda Ferguson was Killed” also form new attachments, attempting to build their own community in which they will raise their boys. Not only does this physical move signal their transition from girlhood to motherhood, but it also marks their transition to a new community of friends and neighbors separate from their parents’ people. The evolution of this new community is solidified in “His Mother’s House,” as Joyce’s son buys her a house less than a block away from the apartment she and Pearl moved into as teenagers. The unifying factor for each of these stories is the way in which the characters’ identities are not dictated by their physical homes so much as their transition from one to another. By understanding the link between the self and the physical location of the home, or lack thereof, Jones clearly uses spaces and communities to enhance the development of the characters which continues throughout the collection while also speaking to the development of Chocolate City from which he is drawing.

Generational Conflicts

Lost in the City features main characters of a wide range of ages, and one of the most interesting aspects of Jones’s collection is his organization of the stories by beginning with the youngest character and ending with the oldest. Three of the fourteen stories, or roughly 20% of the collection, feature children as the main character, and almost 25% of all the characters in the collection are children. Jones is allowing the traditionally marginalized or discredited groups of both the very young and very old to have a voice in Lost in the City. The stories portray a generational conflict through the young characters' indifference to older southern traditions. 

In the story “Marie,” Marie Delaveaux Wilson's experience best exemplifies the gulf that is happening. The story juxtaposes the old values by showing the reality of life in DC with that which Marie records for George Carter. The new generation is no longer respectful of the old values, showing disrespect for the elderly. Marie's experiences leave her hurt and vulnerable. She resorts to violence as a form of asserting her presence in the city.

The family is crucial in instilling the young members with respectful manners. The city, however, has altered family dynamics. This is translated in the behavior of the young generation. Two stories illustrate the young generation's detachment from the older one. Caesar in “Young Lions” is kicked out of his father's house and gradually enters the world of crime. Elain Cunningham in “A New Man” abandons her family home and drifts into the notorious life of the city. As a result, these two characters show no reverence to older people or traditions.

A notable generational rift exists in the stories. A young Black generation grows unattached to the old southern values and traditions of the older Black community. The gap is intensified by a gradual White encroachment that takes place through gentrification. Black citizens are forced to leave their own neighborhoods and relocate. Consequently, communal and familial ties are severed by a displacement which widens the gulf between the young generations and their attachment to their past.

This page has paths:

Contents of this tag:

This page references: