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Themes in Mens Voices

Updated on April 11, 2018

What you will be seeing:

I want to talk about some of the themes I have seen in short stories by some American authors in the early twentieth century. The authors I will be mentioning today were writing works to reflect the voices of men during their time. The interesting thing is that a lot of the themes that make up the voices of the men are shared between the stories. I will also go into some detail about the differences between white mens voices and black mens voices at the time.

Stories Represented

  • To Build a Fire, Jack London
  • Hills Like White Elephants, Ernest Hemmingway
  • Rich Boy, F Scott Fitzgerald
  • Billy Budd, Herman Melville
  • Battle Royal, Ralph Ellison

Battle Royal Scene
Battle Royal Scene

Common Themes In The Stories

Each story has a few different themes that are seen in the text. Some of the following themes are seen in more than one story.

Similarities shared amongst some of the literature:

  • Masculinity
  • Alcoholism
  • Communication
  • Status
  • Wealth
  • Love
  • Identity

"The Alpha Male"

The title of "Alpha Male" belongs to quite a few of the characters in the stories we read. Not all of the men in the stories obtained the title of "Alpha Male" but most of them had some of the qualities. An Alpha Male was considered the ultimate goal because in hierarchies in the animal kingdom the leader and "best" is the alpha and it stemmed from there.

"Alpha Male"

This is a quote by Fitzgerald about "Rich Boy" Anston Hunter who is a complex character that is considered an "Alpha Male"
This is a quote by Fitzgerald about "Rich Boy" Anston Hunter who is a complex character that is considered an "Alpha Male" | Source

Qualities of an "Alpha Male"

Domination over

  • women
  • other men
  • society


  • lack of emotion
  • no voice

Some characters that have qualities of the "Alpha Male" are the main character from To Build A Fire, the man from Hills Like White Elephants, Anson from Rich Boy, and even Billy Budd and the "Invisible Man" possess some of those qualities.

Ralph Ellison
Ralph Ellison
F Scott Fitzgerald
F Scott Fitzgerald

White Mens Voices vs Black Mens Voices

While each of the short stories contain similar themes there is a vast difference in the themes in literature about white men versus the themes in literature about black men. The short stories To Build A Fire, Hills Like White Elephants, Rich Boy, and Billy Budd vary vastly from the short stories The Gun, and Battle Royal. The reason for this is because society for black men at the time was very different from white men. In To Build A Fire, Hills Like White Elephants, Rich Boy, and Billy Budd the men in the stories are working to achieve a life for themselves where they are rich and successful. The main character in Battle Royal is also working to achieve a successful future for himself but because of society at the time the struggles for the black characters is much different from the struggles of the white men. I’ll elaborate more on this idea below.

White Mens Voices

In the short stories about white men in the early twentieth century i discovered that a lot more of their struggles are an internal struggle. One of the most common themes I found was the theme of discovering their identity. A lot of the white men I discovered were denying their true character to create an image of someone else. The someone else they were working to achieve is the “Alpha Male” so they would be accepted. White men were working to further their career with education, create a family, rise up the social ladder, and have the perfect “tough” exterior. On the outside the main characters from Hills Like White Elephants, To Build a Fire, Rich Boy, and Billy Budd all have at least one of these characteristics: tough, unemotional, stable, provider, rich, controlling. However, on the inside is where we truly hear their voices and get an idea of what they are going through. One the inside they all have either dreams being pushed to the side, they’re battling depression or alcoholism, they’re going through a crisis, or they are hiding their true identity.

This is the cover of "To Build a Fire" by Jack London. It portrays the man's shortcomings as nature begins to overcome him.
This is the cover of "To Build a Fire" by Jack London. It portrays the man's shortcomings as nature begins to overcome him.

“To Build A Fire” by Jack London

The main character in this story is experiencing the conflicts of both “man vs nature” and “man vs self”. He is tough and believes he is invincible on the outside. He believes that him by himself is enough to outsmart nature. However, we quickly see that his flaw is his extreme macho-ism and his overconfidence. On the inside he is battling a crisis and it leads to his demise.

Black Voices in American Literature

Black men in American Literature had a lot more on their plates to deal with than white men. Black men were battling internally with a lot of the same struggles white men were facing. However, on top of that they are dealing with an even worse external battle. Black men were also facing racism in their day to day lives which made the internal issues even worse. Below I am going to talk about some of the internal and external themes in “Battle Royal”

This image depicts the main character "the invisible man" as he is about to fight the other black men in his community.
This image depicts the main character "the invisible man" as he is about to fight the other black men in his community.

Battle Royal

“Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison is a short story that focuses on a main character who refers to himself as “invisible”. That right there is a give away that something internal is going on. However, there is a more prominent external battle going on in the story. This man lives his life day by day battling racism. It has become so severe that the own main character at times loses sight at how awful it’s become. Instead, he has become fixated on living by his grandfather's dying words essentially telling him just to silently resent the white men but to go along with them because without their support there will never be equality. The severity of the racism is seen when the high society white town leaders pin the black men of the community against one another in a fight. The “winner” gets $10 and the rest are awarded $5. However, to win this they are fighting until they are knocked out and severely hurt while the white men watching scream racist names at them and disrespect them.

To sum things up:

I noticed something interesting once I started to look deeper into each story. In “Battle Royal” if we focus on what is going on inside the “invisible mans” mind we learn that one of his biggest issues is his identity. It is interesting that he refers to himself as an “invisible man” because I have learned that a lot of men in the classic stories i’ve read wear a shield. By this I mean that they cast a veil over who they truly are and try to hide behind a new image that they have created for themselves. Reading closely it seems to be because they want to hide and disguise their internal issues because of the pressure to be the ideal “man”. This can be seen in “Hills Like White Elephants” when the man is partying and traveling the world. It is like he is trying to be fill the role of the young, handsome, party boy. However, once his girlfriend becomes pregnant this facade comes down and he is forced to deal with the reality that his image might be over. In the story “Rich Boy” his girlfriend Paula describes him as, “two alternating personalities” one side of him she felt, “a tremendous pride in his strong, attractive presence, the paternal,
understanding stature of his mind” and the other face was, “gross, humorous,
reckless of everything but pleasure” (Fitzgerald). So this character struggles with his identity as well and portrays two different images of himself that he has casted. Billy Budd is another story where we see a struggle with identity. However, I do not want to talk about Billy Budd in this case but instead Claggart the Master at Arms. It says in the story that he has an unknown and sketchy past and that there are rumors he was once a criminal. In his new role he is in charge of the other men onboard and is to reprimand them and keep them in order. The context clues in the story points to him creating a new image for himself when he went onboard the “Starry Vere” to make himself powerful and appear better than everyone else. I thought the similarities specifically within the theme of “portraying and finding identity” was significant. One of the biggest unheard voices of men from the time was the identity they were portraying because of the pressures from society at the time.

Represents men trying to disguise their true identities.
Represents men trying to disguise their true identities.

Works Cited

“Battle Royal.” Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison, Random House, 1952.

Fitzgerald, F Scott. Rich Boy. Charles Scribner's Sons, 1926.

Hemingway, Ernest. Hills Like White Elephants. New York: Scribner's Sons, 1927.

London, Jack. To Build A Fire. Century Magazine, 1908.

Melville, Herman. Billy Budd, Sailor. Constable & Co., 1924.


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