The Street Summary and Study Guide
SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 47-page guide for “The Street” by Ann Petry includes detailed chapter summaries and analysis covering 18 chapters, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 25 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Powerlessness in the Face of Structural Racism and The Objectification of African-Americans.
The Street, written by Ann Petry and published in 1946, follows Lutie Johnson, a single mother of a young boy named Bub, who moves into a new apartment in Harlem during the 1940s. Despite the squalid conditions of the apartment, and the strange and even threatening behavior of the building’s superintendent, Jones, Lutie takes the apartment because she knows she has few other options within her price range. She tells herself it will only be temporary, and that soon she and Bub will be able to move to a safer neighborhood. Lutie’s life begins to unravel as she becomes tangled in the machinations of other characters from 116th Street, who seek to exploit her out of greed or lust.
Lutie’s husband, Jim, is unable to find a job, a situation that forces their family to live with Lutie’s father, Pops, who is a bootlegger and alcoholic. Lutie eventually takes work in the home of a white family in Connecticut, rarely returning home. Though the job is steady, the pay decent, and her employers treat her amiably, Lutie still feels a wall between herself and the white family, understanding early on that they view her as inferior, despite their pleasant behavior.
When Lutie receives a letter from Pops informing her that Jim is having an affair, Lutie leaves Connecticut and returns to New York. Finding that Jim is indeed living with another woman, Lutie leaves him to find a new home for herself and Bub. Though their new apartment in Harlem is cramped, dirty, and has thin walls, at least she can afford it.
The building is filled with colorful characters, such as Mrs. Hedges, who runs a brothel out of her apartment, and Jones, the lecherous super who lives with a woman, Min, he can barely stand. Jones is immediately attracted to Lutie, and befriends Bub in an attempt to grow close to her.
As Lutie trudges through her days, she occasionally grabs a drink at a bar down the street, the Junto, named after the white man who owns property throughout Harlem. One night she strikes up a conversation with Boots Smith, a prominent local musician, who offers her a chance to sing with his band. Lutie sees this as a potential way out of her dead-end life, though she intuitively knows Boots is probably not a person to be trusted, based on his association with Junto.
When she succeeds at the audition, she envisions a new life for herself, one in which she can pursue her passions and make enough to provide a good life for her and Bub. This parallels the ideal of the American Dream Lutie absorbed while working with the white family in Connecticut, though in reality she’s begun to understand that the rules are different for African-Americans. Junto, who’s been attracted to Lutie since first seeing her, has plans to keep Lutie in desperate need of his financial assistance, and orders Boots to refuse to pay her for her singing. Lutie immediately quits, understanding all too well that the American Dream will never be her reality. Though her neighbor, Mrs. Hedges, continually offers Lutie work in her brothel, Lutie vows never to become desperate enough to do this work.
Meanwhile, Jones concocts a plan to punish Lutie for her continued refusal of his advances. He engages Bub to break into mailboxes throughout the neighborhood, taking advantage of the boy’s innocence. When the police inevitably begin to investigate, he informs on Bub, who gets arrested and sent to juvenile hall.
Blaming herself and her constant absence for Bub’s trouble, Lutie has to come up with $200 in order to pay a lawyer, who promises to help free Bub. She asks Boots, who in turn contacts Junto. When Lutie arrives at Boots’ apartment for the money, she discovers that Junto will give it to her only if she sleeps with him. She refuses, and after Junto leaves, Boots tries to force himself on her. She fights him off, and in the process beats him to death with a candlestick.
Fleeing the building, Lutie knows that she must leave New York immediately to avoid arrest. She boards a train to Chicago, telling herself that Bub will be better off without her. As she leaves, she blames the street itself for limiting her options and eventually destroying her life.
The Street was the first novel by an African-American woman to sell more than a million copies.