Imagery in Expressing Societal Problems

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The narrative is a description of two brothers and their life asthey grow up in a city ghetto. They encounter the daily challengesfaced by people living in deprived urban environments. These includeviolence, drug addiction, temptations to join the ‘ghetto’ lifeand the struggle to find their identity. Unfortunately, thenarrator’s brother, Robby, becomes a drug addict and is eventuallyapprehended and incarcerated for stealing and murder. The authornarrates the events that happen before Robby, becomes addicted todrugs and is arrested, to what follows after his arrest. In doing soWideman embellishes his narrative with imagery.

In the following discussion, the essay explores a few images used in“Our Time” and the purpose for incorporating them in the story.In specific, the images make it possible for the reader to understandthe society the characters live in and the challenges apparent inthat society.

Wideman’s writing Style

The title of the story is itself a form of imagery because itsymbolizes something. The reader of the story from the onsetquestions what time is being discussed and who is involved in thetime. It is apparent that the title “Our Time” refers to specificcharacters that live during a specific period. As the reader readsthe story, they already have the image in mind of a specific place.Also, the reader envisions how the characters in the narrative areinfluenced by the time period.

Wideman uses Garth’s sickness to highlight the first challenge inthe story, which is loss of friends. When Robby and the narratorvisit him, they are shocked at how much he has changed. Wideman notesthat “White hospital sheets pulled to his chest. Garth’s headalways looked small as a tennis ball way up there on his shoulders,now it’s a yellow, shrunken skull” (Wideman 753). The loss isapparent in the narrator’s description of Garth. He is already warethat the friend will pass away by making it clear that Garth’shealth has deteriorated and he looks like a totally different person.It is amusing that Garth’s head is compared to the size of a tennisball, considering how small a tennis ball is, it is impossible forsomeone’s head to be that small. However, it seems Wideman aims atdemonstrating the seriousness of his condition. Although Garth’shead was small prior to his illness, it has now become much smaller.

To further demonstrate the critical condition of Garth, the authorexplains how Robby felt about his friend lying in hospital. “IfRobby tried to raise that arm it would come off in his hand. The armwould disintegrate, like a long ash off the end of a cigarette”(Wideman 753). The author compares an arm to long ash. Knowing thatash is light, the purpose of the imagery is to demonstrate thecritical situation. Garth has become very weak. However, the imageryalso refers to Robby’s weakness. Although it is not physicallyvisible, he is falling apart thinking about his friend. First hefeels bad about how his friend looks. Second he feels bad because itis obvious that Garth will die.

Eventually Garth passes away. As good friends of his, Robby and thenarrator must attend the funeral. Robby and Garth together withanother three men formed a gang of friends, who on the day of theburial were responsible for carrying their friend’s coffin. At thispoint the narrator is explaining something extraordinary to Robby. Itis the first time that he has had to carry anyone’s coffin. Heexpects that it will not be heavy considering how lean Garth hadbecome. But Wideman (755) notes that “felt like a coffin full ofbricks”. This is in reference to the weight of the coffin. But forthe reader, it is not just the coffin’s weight. It seems that thereason for using such imagery is for the reader to envision notnecessarily the heaviness of the coffin, but the burden of having tocarry it, especially when carrying the body of a friend. Also, Robbycarries heaviness in his heart for having lost a dear friend.

Apart from the loss of friends, the narrator also uses imagery toinform about his environment. Wideman makes it possible for thereader to visualize where he comes from, or how his home environmentlooks like. After the funeral, people went into an apartment. Theplace is likened to “a typical project apartment. The kindeverybody had stayed in or visited one time or another, small,shabby, featureless” (Wideman 755). The use of this description isfor the reader to have a vision of a ghetto environment. The wordsproject apartment, are used to symbolize a specific place in thecharacter’s environment. The reader is able to visualize how lifeis in the ghetto, specifically the kind of houses that people livein. It is obvious that the objective is to inform on the kind ofurban environment the characters lived in together with theirfamilies. It becomes apparent that they are from the struggling poorneighborhood, as one of the struggles associated with poverty isliving under poor housing.

It is obvious that the death of Garth has a negative impact on thelife of Robby. As Robby narrates his reasons for stealing and murder,he says that “it all started with Gar dying” (Wideman 759). It isat that point that he started to act wild, which worried even themother. The mother says that “With Robby it’s like talking to awall” (Wideman 759). The purpose of this imagery is for the readerto understand how Garth’s death negatively affected Robby. However,the imagery has been used to demonstrate some of the serious problemspeople in the ghetto neighborhood face. Knowing that Garth’s deathwas avoidable highlights the poor medical attention ghetto peoplereceive. Also, by Robby becoming addicted to drugs, it is a depictionof how young people from the ghetto deal with their problems, orreact to them. Drug abuse is widespread in poor neighborhoods, andmost young people use it as an escape from what happens around them.

The narrator introduces the character of the mother and depicts heras someone who is gentle and considerate “The gentleness of myfather, like fair skin and good French hair, had been passed down tomy mother” (Wideman 761). Wideman is concerned that the mother doesnot give up in the struggle to rescue her son. It is possibly becauseshe is a good person as depicted in the imagery. However, the imageryis also a depiction of the lack of concern for the wellbeing of youngpeople in Wideman’s ghetto society. Even the narrator at some pointdisassociates himself from the brother. Thus, the reader envisions asociety where nobody cares about the other. As a result, young peoplehave resorted to becoming drug addicts and engaging in crime. It isonly the parents who care to rescue their children. The biggerpicture from this imagery is that of a society where even thegovernment does not care about them, possibly because they are blackand could be linked to racism.

Wideman uses imagery to illustrate the legal injustices during “OurTime”. When Robby is arrested, the mother expects that thepunishment will be fair. She expects that the legal system will tryto understand the reasons for her son’s involvement in crime.However, she realizes that the forces of law can never be fair. Shenotes that “their rules would be like stepping into a cage andlocking herself in” (Wideman 763). This illustrates that it is notpossible to predict what will happen to her son. It is possibly dueto the widespread unfairness of the system that makes it possible forone to expect any form of fairness. This is because the system seemsto favor some people, but is unfair to those like Robby. The biggerpicture is that African Americans are subjected to racial andeconomic prejudice, even in the justice system.


In “Our Time”, Wideman’s writing style comprises of the use ofimagery to create drama as well as ensure that the reader is engagedin the narrative. At the beginning of the story, the author usesimagery to create a dramatic image of Garth, which is achieved bydescribing his changes in appearance. However, as the story unfolds,Wideman uses symbols and imagery to engage the reader in the issueshe encounters while living in the ghetto.

Work Cited

Wideman, John E. “Our Time” is an excerpt from Ways ofReading. Boston: Bedford, 2002, 752- 790.