The Piano Lesson unfolds different aspects, views and ideas of the African American society. Writer, August Wilson, encompasses different views of the African American heritage and possible aspects of how they try to deal with painful memories of the past while approaching an unknown future. Through employment of characters, such as Berniece, Boy Willie and Doaker, Wilson gives us an opportunity to discover how the past intertwines with the present, influencing decisions they make. He applies different sub-themes to echo his main theme. In the play, the writer connects the theme of the past with different sub-themes such as magic, superstition and religion, gender roles, and the American dream.
Throughout the play, the depiction of the past is a constant theme line, which can be seen in the way the writer links magic, superstition and religion to the main idea. The characters in the play show great belief in superstition and magic; for example, when Berniece sees the ghost of Sutter. Although Boy Willie thinks what Bernice saw is part of her imagination, their uncle Doaker does not share the same idea. Doaker, Boy Willie and Berniece present different views of the challenge to get rid of past customs and welcome new ones.
Doaker accepts superstition as part of his heritage, past practices and beliefs he is comfortable with; he neither disagrees with Berniece nor he thinks she is crazy or irrational. In fact, he also acknowledges seeing the ghost, “…Berniece don’t know, but I seen Sutter before she did” (Act two scene 1, 57). Doaker is in harmony with the past, future and present. This character seems to have an idea of different changes around him, yet he is not worried about it. He probably represents the older generation of African Americans who learn to deal with their painful past by living in the present, not allowing their memories to steal from their current life, as well as not permitting the present to erase their past.
On the other hand, it seems that Boy Willie does not want to be associated with elements that tie him to his past. He leaves the past behind by accepting new ideas. Thus, he states that Berniece was dreaming instead of acknowledging the idea of a ghost haunting the house. However, his disbelief in the ghost of Sutter is interesting because he refuses to accept its existence, yet he believes in the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog. “The Ghosts of the Yellow Dog got Sutter” (Act one scene 1, 4). This can support the idea that he wanted to have no connection to elements of the past, but also refused to let Sutter continue to enslave them, even after his death.
Bernice expresses an internal conflict with accepting the past since she seems to want to run away from it, but does not have enough determination to abandon her cultural heritage. Perhaps, this is the reason why she calls Avery to help her to get rid of the ghost instead of using traditional methods. What is interesting, she does not dismiss the idea of seeing Sutter’s ghost, yet she refuses to believe in the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog, “I don’t want to hear that nonsense. Somebody down there pushing them people in their wells…” (Act one scene one, 5). It further shows her conflict with the past since she both rejects and clings to traditions.
At the end of the play, Bernice makes peace with the past, “She crosses to the piano. She begins to play” (Act two scene 5, 106). Her playing the piano suggests that she has finally learned how to accept the past and deal with it.
Another thought the writer expresses reveals the theme of gender roles. Boy Willie portrays typical masculine characteristics, which can be disclosed in the way he handles issues. This man seems to have dealt with former hardships by showing no emotional connection to things from the past. As a result, Boy Willie readily decides to sell the piano that his sister Berniece refuses to give away; he simply says, “All that’s in the past….” (Act one scene 2, 47).
Boy Willie also shows masculine qualities, not willing to hold onto the past, but instead trying to benefit from the present. In his opinion, the idea of a brighter future is greater than the memory of a painful past.
Furthermore, the fact that Boy Willie, but not Doaker, or Wining Boy wanted to sell the piano could suggest that the younger generations of African Americans seem not to understand the pain associated with the past. Thus, they are able to make peace with the past and start a new life much easier.
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Unlike Boy Willie, Berniece is not ready to sell the piano, “You ain’t taking that piano out of my house…” (Act one scene 2, 53). The memories related to the piano are important to her; she shows an emotional connection to it, refusing to part with it. She displays typical feminine behavior not only in her unwillingness to get rid of things that have meaning to the family, but also in her struggle to forget all the hardships and continue to live as easily as Boy Willie.
Her refusal to give her precious instrument away, as well as failure to play it mean that Berniece values the past despite the difficulties, and does not want to leave it behind. It is also evident in the way she still recalls about Crawley’s death, “If it wasn’t for you Crawley would still be alive” (Act one scene one, 15).
The writer intentionally wanted to show that gender plays a significant role and reveals how African Americans deal with the past. Since women are more emotional, it is not a surprise that Berniece’s struggle to get rid of the past is more complicated than Boy Willie’s attitude to it. In addition, the past hardships seem to affect women more deeply than men; for instance, it becomes difficult for Berniece to remarry even after her husband Crawley has been dead for three years. She constantly mentions about him and blames people for what happened, which shows her profound emotional attachment to that memory. On the other hand, Men seem not to show as much emotion, not concentrating much on the memories of the past. Thus, the idea to sell the piano does not seem to bother any one of them as much, even though they know the history that makes the piano special.
In addition to gender roles, the American dream is indirectly connected to the main theme. Each character in the play strives for their idea of the American dream. The achievement of their American dream will compensate for the former sufferings, which is probably the most efficient way to deal with their painful past. For example, Boy Willie’s dream is to own land, and not just any land, but the same estate that was owned by the man who his family worked for as slaves, “…to get me some money so I can buy Sutter’s land” (Act one scene 2, 50).
Throughout the play, the reader gets the impression that Boy Willie has dealt with the past, or rather has changed his life, but his desire to buy the land that Sutter owned unravels the opposite situation. Ironically, he builds his American dream on his “American nightmare”. It seems as if his way of dealing with the past is transforming bad memories into the good future, which elucidates the interest to buy Sutter’s land and make it his own. After reading the play, we comprehend that Berniece’s refusal to sell the piano suggests that she has not transformed her consciousness and continued to adhere to the past. However, in-depth speculation exposes that Boy Willie’s desire to buy the land suggests the same thing.
Berniece’s dream is to manage as a single mother and provide for her daughter. Furthermore, despite her inner struggle and hesitations, she does not want to have any attachments to the past. It elucidates the reason why she does not stay in the South. Living in the North is a new beginning for the woman and a chance for her daughter not to be connected to their long-suffering history. This can also be the reason why she has not told her daughter about the carvings on the piano.
The other characters in the play are also willing to escape a painful past and achieve their own American dreams. For instance, Lymon wants to settle in the North, probably choosing to leave the memories behind, “Lymon say he staying. As soon as we sell them” (Act one scene 1, 7). Perhaps, the idea to settle in the North makes his dreams easier to achieve and paints a brighter future, erasing a painful history of African Americans.
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Avery is a preacher, who escaped from traditional African religions, refusing to be associated with some elements of the past. He settles in the North as well, showing the same desire to start a new life with no attachments to the past.
Doaker also settles in the North, while Wining Boy travels around. It may suggest that any connection to the past can hinder them from reaching their dream, or that the dream is not achieved unless it has no connection to the past.
Their ideas of the American dream are different from each other, but the center of it is the same. They all want to get rid of the past and build a better future. It is interesting that the amount of money in their pockets is what they use to determine how close they approached their dream.
In conclusion, the writer uses imagery and symbols to emphasize the points of view he tries to express through his themes. The past, being the theme that connects all other themes, appears to be not only the central idea, but also the motive, which prevails in the lives of African Americans. Moreover, the writer uses the ghost of Sutter probably to show the effect the past has on every generation. It means that somehow things previous generations went through still haunt upcoming generations even if they did not share the experience. The themes August Wilson brings out in the play demonstrate that, even when personifying a separate idea, the past is still connected to each aspect of African American consciousness. It becomes apparent that some of the things they do (Boy Willie) and the behaviors they display (Berniece) are just an attempt to forget the doleful past.