The Street

Ann Petry


Welcome to our friendly dive into “The Street” by Ann Petry 📚! Published in 1946, this novel holds a special place in the American literary canon. It’s a powerful exploration of race, class, and gender in the United States, set against the backdrop of World War II era Harlem. Ann Petry, the author, was a trailblazer in her own right. Not only did she bring to life the struggles of the African American community during this time, but she also became the first African American woman to sell over a million copies of a book.

“The Street” is a work of fiction that falls under the genre of social realism. Through its detailed portrayal of life in Harlem, the novel offers readers an unflinching look at the systemic challenges faced by its protagonist, Lutie Johnson, and many like her. Petry’s masterful storytelling brings to light the complexities of striving for the American Dream in a society riddled with inequality.

Let’s embark on this journey through the gritty streets of Harlem, as we uncover the layers of Ann Petry’s seminal work. 🌆

Plot Summary

“The Street” tells the poignant story of Lutie Johnson—a young, single African American mother striving for a better life for herself and her son, Bub, in 1940s Harlem. The novel is a vivid portrayal of Lutie’s relentless fight against poverty, racism, and sexism, set against the backdrop of a cold and indifferent New York City. Here’s how the story unfolds:

Exposition — Lutie and Bub move into a small, dilapidated apartment on 116th Street in Harlem, seeking independence and a fresh start. Lutie believes in the American Dream and is determined to achieve it through hard work and perseverance.

Rising Action — As Lutie navigates the challenges of her environment, she encounters various characters that represent the systemic obstacles in her path. These include the super of her building, Mr. Jones, who harbors a dangerous obsession with her; Mrs. Hedges, a brothel owner who proposes a shortcut to wealth; and Junto, a powerful white businessman who controls much of the neighborhood’s economy.

Climax — The climax occurs when Lutie’s hopes and efforts are crushed by the combined forces of the corrupt individuals around her and the systemic racism of society. In a moment of desperation, Lutie commits a violent act against Boots Smith, a charming but manipulative nightclub manager who had promised her a singing career as a means to exploit her.

Falling Action — Following this act of violence, Lutie’s life spirals out of control. She is forced to flee, leaving her son behind, as she becomes a fugitive from the law.

Resolution — The novel concludes with Lutie escaping Harlem, but at a significant cost. Her dreams are shattered, and her son, Bub, is left to face the juvenile justice system alone. The resolution leaves readers with a powerful message about the relentless grip of systemic oppression on individuals seeking to rise above their circumstances.

Through Lutie’s journey, Ann Petry intricately weaves a narrative that exposes the harsh realities of the American Dream, especially for African Americans in mid-20th century urban settings.

Character Analysis

Ann Petry’s “The Street” features a cast of complex characters whose lives intricately intertwine to reveal the depths of human struggle, resilience, and the impact of societal structures. Here’s a look at the main characters:

  • Lutie Johnson — Lutie is a determined and hardworking single mother. She possesses a strong belief in the American Dream and strives tirelessly to achieve a better life for herself and her son, Bub. Throughout the novel, her character undergoes significant development, transitioning from hopeful optimism to disillusionment as she confronts the harsh realities of racial and gender discrimination.
  • Bub Johnson — Bub is Lutie’s young son, who becomes a victim of his environment and his mother’s circumstances. His innocent involvement in a mail fraud scheme, orchestrated by Jones to get closer to Lutie, highlights the vulnerability of children in impoverished settings.
  • Jones — The superintendent of Lutie and Bub’s apartment building. Obsessed with Lutie, Jones is depicted as manipulative and controlling. His actions are driven by his desire for Lutie, ultimately contributing to the downfall of both Lutie and Bub.
  • Mrs. Hedges — A madam who runs a brothel from her apartment, Mrs. Hedges represents the corruption within Harlem. She offers Lutie a way out of poverty through exploitation, showcasing the limited and morally compromising options available to women in Lutie’s position.
  • Boots Smith — A charming nightclub manager who deceives Lutie with promises of a singing career. His manipulation represents the false hopes given to those striving to escape their socioeconomic status, only to exploit them further.
  • Junto — A wealthy white businessman with considerable influence in Harlem. Junto’s character symbolizes the systemic racial and economic oppression prevalent in society. He is indirectly involved in the exploitation and downfall of several characters, including Lutie.

Here’s a summary table for quick reference:

Lutie JohnsonDetermined, optimistic, eventually disillusionedAchieve the American Dream for herself and BubMoves from optimism to disillusionment due to systemic barriers
Bub JohnsonInnocent, vulnerableSeeks approval and love, especially from his motherBecomes a victim of his environment and his mother’s circumstances
JonesObsessive, manipulativeDesires Lutie, willing to go to great lengths to obtain her affectionBecomes increasingly controlling and destructive
Mrs. HedgesCynical, pragmaticProfit from her business, offer Lutie a way out at a moral costRemains a symbol of moral compromise and corruption
Boots SmithCharismatic, deceitfulExploit Lutie and others for his own gainExposed as a manipulator, contributing to Lutie’s downfall
JuntoPowerful, indifferentMaintain his control and wealth at the expense of othersEmbodies systemic oppression, remains largely unchanged

Through these characters, Petry paints a vivid picture of the intersecting challenges of race, class, and gender, showcasing their profound impact on the quest for personal and economic freedom.

Themes and Symbols

“The Street” by Ann Petry is rich with themes and symbols that contribute to the depth of its narrative, offering a poignant exploration of societal issues and personal struggles. Here’s a breakdown of the major themes and symbols:


  • The Elusiveness of the American Dream — The central theme revolves around the pursuit of the American Dream, which Petry portrays as nearly impossible for African Americans living in Harlem during the 1940s. Despite Lutie Johnson’s hard work and determination, systemic racism and gender discrimination thwart her efforts at every turn.
  • Systemic Racism and Economic Oppression — The novel delves into the ways in which systemic racism and economic oppression dictate the lives of its characters. These forces are omnipresent, shaping their destinies and limiting their opportunities for advancement.
  • Gender Inequality and Exploitation — Petry highlights the additional layer of struggle faced by women through Lutie’s experiences with sexual harassment, objectification, and the limited avenues available to her as a woman trying to secure a stable future for herself and her son.
  • The Impact of Environment on Individuals — “The Street” examines how one’s environment influences their opportunities and outcomes. The harsh, impoverished setting of Harlem acts almost as a character itself, contributing to the characters’ feelings of entrapment and despair.


  • The Street — The titular street in Harlem symbolizes the harsh realities and challenges faced by those living in impoverished urban environments. It represents both the physical and metaphorical obstacles that Lutie and other characters must navigate in their pursuit of a better life.
  • The Wind — Throughout the novel, the cold, biting wind serves as a symbol of the adversities and societal forces that buffet Lutie and other characters. It’s a constant reminder of the harsh world outside, seeking to penetrate and affect the lives of those in Harlem.
  • Music — Music symbolizes the hopes and dreams of the characters, as well as the ultimate inaccessibility of those dreams. Lutie’s pursuit of a singing career embodies her desire for freedom and escape, yet the exploitative nature of the music industry reflects broader themes of manipulation and control.

These themes and symbols intertwine to paint a vivid picture of the struggle for dignity and autonomy in the face of overwhelming societal constraints. Ann Petry’s “The Street” remains a powerful commentary on the complexities of race, class, and gender in America, as relevant today as it was at the time of its publication.

Writing Style and Tone

Ann Petry’s “The Street” is renowned for its compelling writing style and tone, which play crucial roles in bringing the story’s mood and atmosphere to life. Here’s an exploration of how Petry’s writing enhances the narrative:

  • Realism and Detail — Petry employs a realistic and highly detailed writing style, immersing readers in the world of 1940s Harlem. Her descriptions of the physical and social environment are vivid, painting a stark picture of the challenges faced by her characters. This attention to detail helps to create a palpable sense of place that grounds the story in reality.
  • Atmospheric Tension — The tone of “The Street” is often tense and foreboding, reflecting the constant struggle of its protagonist, Lutie Johnson. Petry masterfully uses atmospheric details, such as the cold, invasive wind, to symbolize the societal pressures and obstacles Lutie faces, enhancing the emotional weight of the narrative.
  • Sympathetic Narration — Petry’s narrator is sympathetic to the plights of the characters, often delving into their inner thoughts and feelings. This sympathetic perspective allows readers to connect deeply with the characters, understanding their motivations and the depth of their struggles.
  • Socio-Political Commentary — The writing is imbued with sharp socio-political commentary, critiquing the systemic inequalities of race, class, and gender. Petry doesn’t shy away from depicting the harsh realities of her characters’ lives, using her narrative to highlight the broader implications of their personal struggles.
  • Use of Symbolism and Imagery — Petry skillfully employs symbolism and imagery to add layers of meaning to the narrative. Elements like the wind and the street itself are used to represent the external forces shaping the characters’ lives, enriching the story’s thematic depth.
  • Evolving Tone — The tone of the novel evolves alongside the plot, shifting from hopeful and determined as Lutie fights for a better life, to disillusioned and somber as the realities of her situation set in. This evolution mirrors the protagonist’s journey, engaging the reader in her emotional and psychological transformation.

Ann Petry’s writing style and tone in “The Street” are integral to its impact, effectively conveying the intensity of the characters’ struggles while offering insightful commentary on the society in which they live. The novel’s richly descriptive prose and empathetic narrative voice invite readers into a deeply felt exploration of life in mid-20th century Harlem, making it a powerful and enduring piece of American literature.

Literary Devices Used in The Street

Ann Petry’s use of literary devices in “The Street” enhances the novel’s thematic depth and emotional resonance. Here are the top 10 literary devices Petry employs, each adding a layer of meaning to her narrative:

  1. Symbolism — The street itself, along with the pervasive wind, symbolizes the obstacles and adversities faced by the protagonist, Lutie Johnson. These symbols are central to understanding the external pressures that shape the characters’ lives.
  2. Imagery — Petry uses vivid imagery to paint a picture of Harlem in the 1940s, from the dilapidated buildings to the bustling streets. This imagery immerses readers in the setting and underscores the harsh realities of Lutie’s world.
  3. Foreshadowing — Through subtle hints and ominous details, Petry foreshadows the challenges and tragedies that Lutie will face. This device keeps readers engaged, creating a sense of anticipation and dread.
  4. Metaphor — The novel is rich in metaphors, such as comparing the cold wind to societal indifference and racism. These metaphors enhance the narrative by highlighting the intangible forces impacting the characters.
  5. Personification — Petry personifies elements like the wind, giving them human qualities to emphasize their influence on the characters and their environment. This technique brings the setting to life and underscores its significance in the story.
  6. Irony — The tragic irony of Lutie’s situation, where her efforts to escape poverty only lead her deeper into despair, serves as a critique of the American Dream. This irony underscores the novel’s themes of systemic inequality and disillusionment.
  7. Allusion — References to real historical events and figures place the story within a broader socio-political context, adding depth and authenticity to the narrative.
  8. Flashback — Through flashbacks, Petry explores the backgrounds of her characters, revealing their motivations and the experiences that have shaped them. This device provides depth to the characters and their decisions.
  9. Simile — Petry’s use of similes, such as comparing Lutie’s hope to a thin flame, effectively conveys the fragility of her protagonist’s dreams and aspirations, enriching the emotional texture of the narrative.
  10. Dialogue — The realistic dialogue captures the voices of Harlem’s residents, reflecting their diverse experiences and perspectives. This device adds authenticity to the narrative and helps to develop the characters’ personalities and relationships.

These literary devices are instrumental in crafting “The Street’s” layered and impactful narrative, allowing Petry to explore complex themes and emotions with nuance and power.

Literary Devices Examples

Let’s delve into examples and explanations for each of the top 10 literary devices used in “The Street” by Ann Petry, providing a deeper understanding of how these devices enhance the novel’s narrative and thematic depth.


WindThe cold, invasive wind that constantly buffets Lutie and her son throughout the novel.Represents the societal forces and obstacles (like racism and sexism) that Lutie faces in her struggle for independence and a better life.
The StreetThe street in Harlem where Lutie lives.Symbolizes the environment and the systemic barriers that contribute to the characters’ entrapment and challenges.


Harlem SettingDetailed descriptions of Harlem’s streets, buildings, and weather.Creates a vivid picture of the setting, highlighting the harsh realities of Lutie’s life and the lives of those around her.


Lutie’s DeterminationEarly mentions of Lutie’s hope and determination to succeed.Foreshadows the challenges she will face and the eventual crumbling of her dreams due to systemic injustices.


Wind as Societal IndifferenceThe wind is often described in ways that mirror the coldness and neglect of society.Highlights the pervasive and chilling impact of racial and economic discrimination on the characters’ lives.


The WindGiving the wind human-like qualities, such as being able to sneak into and invade spaces.Emphasizes how the societal and environmental pressures are as real and influential as any character in the novel.


The American DreamLutie’s belief that hard work will lead to success, contrasted with her ultimate fate.Highlights the bitter irony of the American Dream in the context of systemic racism and poverty.


Historical ContextReferences to World War II and its impact on American society.Places the characters’ struggles within a larger historical and societal context, adding depth to their experiences.


Lutie’s PastFlashbacks to Lutie’s life before moving to Harlem.Provides background that informs her motivations and the depth of her despair and determination.


Lutie’s HopeComparisons of Lutie’s fleeting moments of hope to fragile, easily extinguished flames.Illustrates the precarious nature of hope in the face of overwhelming adversity.


Harlem’s VoicesThe diverse and authentic dialogues between characters.Captures the varied experiences and perspectives of Harlem residents, adding realism and depth to the narrative.

These examples showcase how Ann Petry skillfully uses literary devices to enrich “The Street” with complex themes, vivid imagery, and profound insights into the human condition, set against the backdrop of systemic inequality and personal struggle.

The Street – FAQs

What is the main theme of “The Street” by Ann Petry?
The main theme revolves around the elusiveness of the American Dream, particularly for African Americans during the 1940s in Harlem. The novel explores how systemic racism, economic oppression, and gender inequality impact the protagonist, Lutie Johnson, and her quest for a better life.

Who is the protagonist of “The Street”?
The protagonist is Lutie Johnson, a determined and hardworking single mother who moves to Harlem with her son, Bub, in search of a better life. She embodies the struggle against systemic barriers and the pursuit of the American Dream.

How does Ann Petry depict Harlem in “The Street”?
Petry depicts Harlem as a place of both hope and despair. It’s a vibrant community facing the challenges of poverty, racism, and segregation. The setting plays a crucial role in the novel, symbolizing the systemic obstacles that residents face.

What role does the wind play in “The Street”?
The wind in “The Street” is symbolic, representing the cold and harsh realities of life that Lutie and other characters face. It’s a constant force, often personified, that mirrors the societal pressures and obstacles that hinder the characters’ progress.

How does “The Street” address the issue of gender inequality?
“The Street” addresses gender inequality through the experiences of its female characters, particularly Lutie Johnson. It highlights the additional challenges women face, such as sexual harassment, exploitation, and limited economic opportunities, on top of racial discrimination.

What is the significance of the title “The Street”?
The title signifies the physical and symbolic boundaries that define the characters’ lives. It represents both a specific location in Harlem and the broader societal constraints that shape their experiences and limit their opportunities.

Can “The Street” be considered a feminist novel?
Yes, “The Street” can be considered a feminist novel as it critically examines the intersections of race, class, and gender, particularly highlighting the struggles of African American women. It portrays their fight for autonomy, respect, and a better future in a patriarchal and racially prejudiced society.

What literary devices does Ann Petry use in “The Street”?
Petry employs various literary devices, including symbolism, imagery, foreshadowing, metaphor, personification, irony, allusion, flashback, simile, and dialogue. These devices enhance the narrative’s emotional depth, thematic complexity, and social commentary.

Is “The Street” based on a true story?
While “The Street” is a work of fiction, Ann Petry draws upon real social conditions, historical events, and her observations of Harlem to create a realistic portrayal of life in the 1940s for African Americans. The novel reflects broader truths about society and systemic inequality.


QuestionABCDCorrect Answer
What year was “The Street” by Ann Petry published?1945194619501960B
Who is the protagonist of “The Street”?JonesBubLutie JohnsonMrs. HedgesC
What symbolizes the societal obstacles faced by the protagonist?The snowThe apartmentThe windThe nightclubC
What is Lutie Johnson’s dream?To open her own businessTo move to ChicagoTo secure a stable, well-paying jobTo become a singerD
Which character is obsessed with Lutie Johnson?JuntoBoots SmithJonesBubC
What major theme does the novel explore?The joy of urban livingThe pursuit of the American DreamThe simplicity of 1940s lifeThe entertainment industry in HarlemB
How does Ann Petry depict Harlem?As a utopian communityAs a place of hope and despairAs a predominantly white neighborhoodAs a rural escapeB
What literary device is used to describe the harsh realities of life in Harlem?OnomatopoeiaPersonificationAlliterationHyperboleB
What is the significance of music in the novel?It symbolizes the cultural richness of HarlemIt represents the unattainable dreams of the charactersIt is just a background settingIt is used to highlight the characters’ talentsB
Which character represents the manipulation and exploitation within the music industry?Mrs. HedgesJonesJuntoBoots SmithD

This quiz tests comprehension of key elements in “The Street,” including its characters, themes, symbols, and plot details, offering a concise review of the novel’s significant aspects.


Identify Literary Devices in a Paragraph from “The Street”

Below is a paragraph from “The Street.” Read the paragraph carefully and identify the literary devices used. List each device next to the corresponding sentence or phrase.

“The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck so that she suddenly felt cold and exposed. It seemed to her that the wind was always blowing down these city streets, sweeping away the heat of the sun, the dust of the sidewalks, and the few scattered leaves that had dared to spring into life despite the city’s grime. She shivered, not just from the chill but from the feeling of being swept away by forces beyond her control, like the leaves.”


  1. Personification: “The wind lifted Lutie Johnson’s hair away from the back of her neck…” – The wind is given human-like abilities, enhancing the sense of its presence and impact.
  2. Imagery: “…sweeping away the heat of the sun, the dust of the sidewalks, and the few scattered leaves…” – This vivid description helps readers visualize the scene and feel the wind’s effect.
  3. Symbolism: “She shivered, not just from the chill but from the feeling of being swept away by forces beyond her control, like the leaves.” – The wind symbolizes the societal forces and obstacles Lutie faces, and her shivering reflects her vulnerability and the challenges of battling these forces.

This exercise helps students recognize and understand the use of literary devices in “The Street,” deepening their appreciation for Ann Petry’s craftsmanship in conveying themes and emotions through her writing.