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“Like a Winding Sheet” a Short Story by Ann Petry Essay (Critical Writing)

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Updated: Jul 14th, 2020

Biographical information

Ann Petry was born in 1911 in Connecticut to a middle-class family. She started her writing career in her late teens and proceeded to work as an apprentice to two journalism firms. The short story, Like a winding sheet in 1946 was one of her best selling collections. She died in 1997 aged 86 years old.

Literary analysis

In the short story, Like a Winding Sheet, the author describes the life of Johnson and Mae, an African American couple working as casual laborers for white employers. The story starts when the couple wakes up in preparation for their night shift. The author portrays Johnson as a peaceful and loving husband. He had planned to surprise his wife by preparing breakfast but he was too tired, he overslept. Despite his calm character, he was having problems with his legs because of prolonged standing periods at work. Additionally, the author claims that Johnson had established a personal code of never hitting a woman. He considered women weaker and unable to fight back. Mae was a loving wife. She always teased her husband and restored happiness in the family.

The author introduces literary elements that include figures of speech, tone, and imagery. For example, the author uses the white sheets to contrast with the color of Johnson’s skin, which is black. Additionally, Mae uses a simile when she refers to her husband as huckleberry in a winding sheet. Whereas the statement was meant to describe Johnson’s body in the twisted sheets, he protested. Winding sheets are used to wrap a corpse. Additionally, the huckleberry is a shrub that grows in the northern part of the country. The author used these words to describe Johnson’s status in society. Whereas slavery had ended, the blacks were still considered inferior to the whites. The twisted white sheets represented the dominance of the whites over the blacks.

The tone of the story is filled with pain, anger and a quest for vengeance. Johnson portrays physical pain when he complains relentlessly about his legs. When he wakes up, he finds the pain unbearable to stand. Additionally, when Mrs. Scott confronts Johnson for arriving late, he blames the pain in his legs for slowing him down. However, the author shows an emotional pain within Johnson. The pain is evident whenever anybody introduces a racist comment. The author illustrates the level of intolerance among the blacks using the tone. Additionally, the tone is used to introduce the concepts of gender-based violence. When the couple was leaving the house, the author stated that Johnson “couldn’t bring himself to talk to her roughly or threaten to strike her like a lot of men might have done” (Petry 1499). The statement showed the prevalence of gender-based violence in society.

When Mrs. Scott called the African Americans niggers, Johnson’s emotional pain mixes with anger and a quest for retaliation. His fists clench, and it takes a high degree of self-control to refrain himself. He argued that the pain of being called a nigger created a disconnection between his mental and physical interests because the body yearned for revenge while the mind evoked the promise of not attacking women. Although Johnson did not attack Mrs. Scott, the anger within him created irrational thoughts. At the coffee shop, the girl at the counter informed him “no more coffee for a while” (Petry 1502). However, Johnson interpreted the gesture as inspired by racism. He looked at her red lips, and the thoughts of Mrs. Scott came back to mind. The pain of languishing under the heartless whites was slowly bursting and creating irrational thoughts in Johnson. He considered everybody who was doing contrary to his expectations as a racist. The author demonstrates the consequences of slavery among African Americans by focusing on the tones of anguish, vengeance, and anger. Eventually, the anger and quest for vengeance were directed to his wife after she jokingly used the word nigger to refer to Johnson. The author leaves the readers in suspense because she did not say what happened to Mae, who was receiving blows from Johnson for calling him a nigger.

Relationship to today’s society

The post-slavery period was characterized by extreme cases of discrimination and racism. Additionally, the author showed the prevalence of gender-based violence in the period. Racial discrimination and gender-based violence are some of the common cases in contemporary society. According to Mayhew and Chappell, work-related stress is one of the leading causes of gender-based violence (330). Most of the stressed workers transfer the anger and frustrations to their partners. Racism and work-based discriminations are some of the leading causes of stress (Western 23). Contemporary society has not solved the issues of inequality in job placements and promotions. These factors are creating dissatisfaction, frustrations, and anger.

According to Mayhew et al., stressed workers are more likely to engage in gender-based violence with their partners (332). Some organizations have realized the importance of work-based counseling to reduce the possibilities of transferring work-based stresses to families.

Personal evaluation

The story shows the consequences of slavery to African Americans. Although most of the blacks tried to forget the atrocities, slight provocations elicited violence and quests for vengeance. Additionally, the psychological pain among the blacks created emotional outbursts that culminated in gender-based violence. Although racism has reduced significantly, it is still experienced in some organizations. Gender-based violence is very common in marriages and workplaces. Effective strategies are required to address racism and gender conflicts in the workplace.


Coaxing note in her voice means a persuading voice

Friday the thirteenth is considered an unlucky day

A huckleberry is a heath bush that produces blue-black berries

A shroud is a piece of cloth that wraps a corpse

A nigger is a word used to refer to the black slaves

Scarlet lipstick means a bright red lipstick with a slight tinge of orange

Arms silhouetted against the white of the sheets means that his arms were casting a dark image against the sheets.

Light-colored slacks she wore means she wore light-colored pants.

The coffee urn is a large container for preparing and holding coffee

A winding-sheet is a piece of cloth that is used to wrap a corpse in preparation for burial

Works Cited

Mayhew, Claire, and Duncan Chappell. “Workplace violence: an overview of patterns of risk and the emotional/stress consequences on targets.” International journal of law and psychiatry 30.4 (2007): 327-339. Print.

Petry Ann. “Like a Winding Sheet.” The Best American Short Stories, 1946: And the Yearbook of the American Short Story. Ed. Martha Foley. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1949. 1946-1504. Print.

Western, Deborah. Gender-based Violence and Depression in Women: A Feminist Group Work Response. London, United Kingdom: Springer Science & Business Media, 2013. Print.

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""Like a Winding Sheet" a Short Story by Ann Petry." IvyPanda, 14 July 2020, ivypanda.com/essays/like-a-winding-sheet-a-short-story-by-ann-petry/.

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IvyPanda. 2020. ""Like a Winding Sheet" a Short Story by Ann Petry." July 14, 2020. https://ivypanda.com/essays/like-a-winding-sheet-a-short-story-by-ann-petry/.


IvyPanda. (2020) '"Like a Winding Sheet" a Short Story by Ann Petry'. 14 July.

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