The University of Iowa College of Liberal Arts & Sciences Department of English

Langston Hughes, Not Without Laughter

Chapter 1, "Storm"

Why may the incident of a tornado have been chosen as the opening scene of the novel?

What do we learn from the first two paragraphs? About the other characters and their situations from the remainder of the chapter?

What do we learn here and later about the physical circumstances in which the family lives? (oil lamp, no running water, etc.)

How would you describe Langston Hughes's style in this section? From whose perspective are events told?

What are some important features of language?

Chapter 2: "Conversation"

What do we learn from the details of the two old women's conversation? (details of their work and lives, Harriet's desire to quite school, 36, Tempe's assimilation, 37, failure to help her mother)

What issues of religion and class are raised? (37) What attitudes seem expressed by the narrative voice? (mild satire on all sides, 39)

What is the significance of the discovery that Harriet has lied about not coming into town?

What do you make of the fact that persons are frequently characterized according to skin color? Was this necessary for realism? An attempt to capture the psychology of the time?

Chapter 3: Jimboy's Letter

When does this novel occur? What events and historical context are suggested by the date?

What are we to make of Jimboy's letter? What brings him home?

What different views towards his presence and behavior are expressed in the chapter?

What connotations and associations are carried by the different types of music favored in black culture?

What are some features of Jimboy and Annjelica's relationship?

How does his wife view him? What are her own aspirations? (desires to travel, 47)

Chapter 4: "Thursday afternoon"

What do we learn about Hagar's worklife? (49, 52ff.)

Why does Harriet quit her employment? Does she have grounds?

About what do Harriet and her mother quarrel? (she wants to work in hotel) What are we to think of the reasonableness of each? (mother authoritarian, daughter attacks Tempe's and mother's religion, shout and leaves, 55)

Could this painful scene have been prevented? What split between generations does it seem to reflect?

Chapter 5: "Guitar"

What form of knowledge is Jimboy shown to possess? What does the reader learn from hearing these songs?

What do we learn about contemporary African-American music from Jimboy and Harriet's singing?

May some of these songs be Hughes's invention? (mingling of tradition and innovation)

Chapter 6: "Work"

What seems the relationship between father and son?

What view of women and family relations does Jimboy convey to his son? ("Don't let no one woman worry you," 72)

What are some unhappy features of Annjelica's employment situation, as witnessed by her son? (nagging, verbal sharpness, late hours)

What pleasures does she have? (evenings with Jimboy, brings food to him, attendance at Lodge)

What seem to be Sandy's loyalties in the conflicting family attitudes toward "sin," religion, pleasure, duty, etc.?

Chapter 7: "White Folks"

What views do Harriet and Hager respectively express on the nature of "white folks" and how one should respond to them? Is this a temperamental or generational difference, or perhaps one of age?

Why do you think Hughes includes diametrically opposite views?

What past history does Sister Johnson contribute? (86) Is her story based on an actual event? (race riot in Oklahoma)

What information do we learn about the treatment of black laborers by the union (87), payment for labor (88), and segregation in movie houses (89)?

Chapter 8: "Dance"

What means does Hager use to attempt to persuade her daughter to spend her evenings at home? Are they effective?

What combination of events enables Harriet to escape?

From what vantage point does Sandy observe the dance? How is he treated by Harriet, her boyfriend Mingo and the other participants?

What do we learn about an African-American dance from the chapter's descriptions? (different voices, interperts music, 103, expression of sadness 104)

How would you describe Hughes's style? What features of these dances does he find admirable?

Chapter 9: "Carnival"

With whom does Sandy attend the carnival, and whom does he see there? (Harriet dancing)

Why doesn't he later mention this fact to his grandmother or mother? (loves all, 115)

Under what circumstances does Harriet leave home? (leaves with carnival, bids Sandy goodbye)

How would you characterize the novel's arrangment of chapters? (each short and dramatic, capturing a different feature of African-American life and culture)

Chapter 10: "Punishment"

For what is Sandy punished? (for stealing collection money and lying) What justification for this is given by his father?

Why do you think this scene was included? (stern discipline, 127, sense of honor)

Chapter 11: "School"

How is Sandy prepared for school?

What unpleasant circumstances occurs to the black children on their arrival at fifth grade?

What do we learn is Sandy's real name? (named after his father, 132) Why do you think we weren't told this earlier?

What is Sandy's response to his new books?

Under what circumstances does Jimboy leave?

Chapter 12: "Hard Winter"

What are some reasons this winter is hard? (Anjee sick)

What are some issues raised in the conversation between Sister Johnson and Hager? (domestic violence, 142) What function in the tale is served by their friendship?

What ambitions does Hager have for her grandson? (for him to be educated and "help the race," 141)

Into what emergency has Harriet fallen, and what has caused this? Why are the family unable to help her?

At this point, what direction do you think the story may take? What do we know about Sandy's character? (not too carefully delineated, observant, responsive to all)

Chapter 13: "Christmas"

What is indicated by the family's attempt to provide Sandy with the sled he desires? (touching account of women's efforts, helped by their friend)

Why does Sandy reject Tempe's gifts? (brief, cold visit) What is Hager's reaction? Does the narrative voice approve?

Chapter 14: "Return"

Why does Harriet return, and what form of welcome does she receive? (joyful)

What disappointments does her return bring? (stays with Maudel, seems to have become a prostitute, "a job," 166)

What seems to be her state of health? Why won't she eat with her family?

Chapter 15: "One by One"

What new circumstances are revealed by Jimboy's letter?

What dangerous act has Buster committed? (gives a white girl flowers, 171)

Why does Annjelica decide to leave, and what are we to think of her decision to leave her son behind?

What does Hager believe has happened to her family? Are her evaluations at least partly correct? Are these limitations the result of her parenting, or of other circumstances?

What goals does she retain for Sandy? (wishes to "raise [Sandy] right," 173)

Chapter 16: "Nothing but Love"

How do Hager and Sandy spend their time with the others gone? (she tells him stories) What do we learn about her past life and experience with white people?

To what does the chapter title refer? (her doctrine of acceptance and love, 183, must accept evil as well as good)

In the context of the entire novel, what value are we to place on Hager's ethic?

Throughout the novel, how are chapter titles used?

Chapter 17: "Barber Shop"

What new experiences does Sandy have in the barber shop? How is this new environment useful to him? (learns to defend self verbally)

What debate do the men have about whether to attend a segregaged theater?

What mention of Harriet does he hear there?

What newspaper is mentioned, and what was this? (Chicago Defender)

Chapter 18: "Children's Day"

What disappointment do the black children suffer on "Children's Day"?

Why do you think Hughes included this incident?

What do we learn from Annjelica's letter? (she's been gone a year, life in Detroit expensive for them, has no plans to send for son)

How does the grandmother respond to the account of the family's problems? (sings, 201)

Chapter 19: "Ten Dollars and Costs"

Why doesn't Hager want her grandson to work at the hotel? What motivates him to do so?

To what does the title refer? How does Aunt Hager learn of her daughter's arrest, and how does she respond to the news?

What is Sandy's reaction? (misses her, wishes for her welfare, 207)

Chapter 20: "Hey, Boy!"

Which aspects of his job at the hotel are relatively bearable for Sandy? (likes clean spittoons) Which aspects of his job are repellent or frightening? (site for prostitues and seedy travellers)

What scene does he witness involuntarily when asked to serve liquor? Why does this alarm him?

Why does Harriet give him her address but not invite him to visit?

Under what circumstances is he attacked, and by whom? (by drunken white man from Mississippi, who wants him to dance)

What is his response, and what are the consequences? (throws box of shoeshine materials and flees (216)

How is the reader expected to evaluate his action? (a rebellion against injustice; the job at the hotel is no great loss)

Chapter 21: "Note to Harriett"

How are "the Bottoms" described? (218) What are features of the house in which Harriet lives? Her new lifestyle? (rises late, house messy, wears expensive clothing)

What news is conveyed in the letter which Sandy bears?

At home, in what condition does Sandy find his mother? What level of medical help does she receive? (folk remedies, doctor called in much later)

Why can't Annjelica be reached? Who comes to visit the house? (Tempe, many friends, Lodge members, white families whom she has nursed, old Mr. Logan)

What effect does all this have on her grandson?

Chapter 22: "Beyond the Jordan"

Who is present at Aunt Hager's deathbed? (Harriet and Sandy)

What does Hager say to each? (tries to return watch to Harriet, asks Sandy how he is)

What seems offensive about the obituary for Hager published in the local (white) paper?

How does Sandy react to the funeral? How do Tempe and Harriet react to her death? (Does Harriet keep her promise to visit the grave daily?)

What does Annjelica's letter convey, and how does Tempe respond? (232-33)

Is Sandy pleased by the prospect of living with his aunt?

Chapter 23: "Tempe's House"

What new features of the home of Tempe and her husband does Sandy note? (running water, a private room for him)

For what does his aunt reprove him? (grammar, associations)

What has been Tempe's past history, and what accounts for her relative prosperity and education? (her former employer a white reformer, though condescending, leaves her a house, 237)

What are some of Tempe's attitudes on issues of race and class? (wants to imitate white people, 238) On education? African-American culture? (subscribes to the Crisis, attends clubs, but dislikes Negro spirituals and blues, 239)

What is Tempe's attitude toward her family origins? (represses these, 239)

What kind of discrimination do prosperous black people such as Tempe and her husband face? (can't enter hospital from front door; Hager had not been permitted to enter the hospital door wearing an apron, 240)

Does Tempe wish Sandy to live with her? (yes, has no children of her own) What is the tone of her letter to Annje? (catty, 236)

Chapter 24: "A Shelf of Books"

What range of books does Sandy read? What examples of black literature does he discover?

What is symbolic about Tempe's respect for W. E. Du Bois in contrast to her mother's for Booker T. Washington?

To what conclusion does Sandy himself come? (both were great men)

What new job is Sandy given, and what advantages does he gain from his? (able to read modern novels and poetry)

Who is his first girlfriend, and what is their relationship?

Chapter 25: "Pool Hall"

What prompts Sandy to start to frequent the local pool hall? (no other entertainment; blacks can't join YMCA)

What types of stories does he hear there?

How do the others respond to Uncle Dan, and what tales does he tell of his past? Which parts of the stories may be true, and if so, what do they reveal?

In what context is the phrase "not without laughter" used? (249)

Chapter 26: "The Doors of Life"

To what does this title refer? (book on the perils of sex) What objections does Sandy (and the author) have to the ways in which young people are forced to learn about sex? (no sex education, 258)

What offense, in particular, is committed by books such as that given to him by his Aunt Tempe?

What are Tempe's views of the outcome for black men of the First World War? (255) Would history confirm her hopes? Do all the other characters share her views?

What has happened to Jimboy? (enlisted, sent to France)

What subjects preoccupy Sandy's mind? (war, 257; value of education for blacks, 259, job discrimination, 260, purpose of religion, 260)

Chapter 27: "Beware of Women"

To what does the chapter title refer? (statements by others, including Mr. Smiles)

On what grounds does Tempe disapprove of Sandy's relationship with Pansetta? (on class gorunds, 263) What does she predict?

How does Sandy react to her suspicions? (finds them mean, 262) What is their relationship, and why does he refuse her invitations to accompany her home?

What prompts him to cease accompanying her part way home? What prompts Pansetta to take up with his friend Jimmy Lane? (267)

What disillusioning experience occurs to Sandy when he visits Pansetta to apologize for his behavior? (271)

What information does he learn from Jimmie? What do you think would have been his reaction? (hurt, disillusionment, desire to leave situation)

Chapter 28: "Chicago"

What is the date of his mother's letter? How many years have elapsed since Jimboy's first letter recorded in chapter 3?

What motivates his mother to ask Sandy to join her in Chicago?(273, to help her, gets job for him) How long has it been since he has seen her? (5 years, 274)

What are we to think of her priorities as wife and mother? (obsessively devoted to husband, doesn't seem to think much of son)

What prompts Sandy to leave Stanton instead of staying with his aunt?

To what places does he wish to bid farewell before leaving? (his old home, 276, home of Sister Johnson)

In spite of Tempe's moralistic temperament, do you think Sandy has gained anything by his period of residence in her house?

Why does his high school permit him to finish the year without taking final exams?

What is Tempe's reaction to his departure? (weeps, 276)

What changes does he notice in his mother when they meet? (278)

What conditions does he find on his arrival in Chicago? (city ugly rather than magnificent, 278; elevated trains noisy and distruptive; Annjelica lives near tracks, they have to share a bed, when he walks out is accosted by men and women, 284)

Chapter 29: "Elevator"

At what job is he forced to work? Under what conditions does Annjie think he should complete high school?

What is his attitude toward his job? (dislikes monotony, wants something different) His father? (wishes variety for a different reason, 289)

What effect do his memories of his grandmother's wishes have on him? (wants to make something of himself, 290)

Chapter 30: "Princess of the Blues"

How are Harriet's dress and act described? (293) What kinds of songs does she sing? (293, remakes old songs)

Why do you think Sandy objects to hearing "Over There"? (294)

What do we learn about her present situation? Her health? (voice hoarse from smoking and drinking, 295)

What are her views on the war? (295) On Jimboy? To what does she attribute her recent success? (relative lack of prejudice of Jewish managers, 296)

What news do the women share? (she tells Annjelica of Hager's death and funeral, 296)

On what topic do the women differ? (she favors Sandy's education, 296) What economic arguments does she advance for his continuing his education? (296)

Why does Annjee at first not agree? (she wants his money, 297)

Does her offer to support him come as a surprise? (296) Does it seem consistent with her earlier life?

What symbolism surrounds the final song overheard as the book closes? Whose memory does it evoke?

What seems the tone at the ending of the book? What do we predict for Sandy? (hope that Sandy will continue his schooling and follow a path of life beyond the narrow jobs he has thus far been forced to assume)

Have some of the book's tensions and conflicts been resolved by the ending? (between Harriet and her mother)


Do you find the ending plausible? Artistically satisfying? A satisfactory resolution of differences?

Is this novel a bildungsroman? Would you say that it had a highly structured plot? An episodic organization?

Is Sandy a sharply delineated character? What are his values?

How does his portrayal affect the structure and cohesion of the novel? (he appreciates opposites; the changes in his life permit a view of many aspects of African-American life)

What are some of the important themes and meanings of this novel? (problems of negotiating a meaningful life amid racism; unity and cohesion amid generational and ideological differences)

If you have read other Hughes's works such as The Ways of White Folks and The Big Sea, what parallels do you find? What portions of this novel may have been autobiographical?

Page numbers from the Scribner paperback edition, 1995.


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  Page updated: September 3, 2010 22:56