After two world wars, humankind inevitably grew bored with swashbuckling idealism and wanted to witness inner torment, pessimism, alienation from society, and general incapability of dealing with life. Art had to reflect the new hopeless reality people were experiencing. Almost concurrently, we also discovered ennui, existentialism, and irony. All past ideals and traditional beliefs suddenly appeared devoid of meaning. The new type of literary narrators who exemplified these struggles and completely snubbed conventional morality codes became known as antiheroes. They became cathartic representations of our own secret desire to act out of pure self-interest and greed. In Himes’ novel If He Hollers Let Him Go, the representation of individuality was heavily influenced by this conception of “realistic” antiheroism.
The main character, Bob Jones, is a black man working in a shipyard. The novel extensively describes the racial discrimination he faces at work. A traditional hero would use these struggles as an opportunity to transcend the situation, forgive his aggressors, and become an advocate for social equality. Bob Jones is no such character.
Firstly, he fantasizes about raping the white woman who threw racial slurs at him as a way to avenge himself on white America. In other words, Bob wants to exploit his status as a member of the physically stronger gender to assert his authority as a racial minority. There is no hope of toppling the system as per the classic antihero’s pessimism; instead, he will gain fleeting satisfaction from subjugating a woman complicit in it. This reveals that Bob is not actually concerned with ensuring equal rights for everyone but is merely frustrated at his own lack of access to a position of racial superiority. This preoccupation with self-aggrandizement is also characteristic of the antihero. Himes starkly reveals the less noble impulses of humankind in this complex intersection of race and gender.
Secondly, Bob also feels frustrated because of the class differences between him and other black people. His girlfriend, Alice, is wealthier and more educated than he is. He feels lost when her friends discuss racial integration issues and dismisses it as nonsense designed to prove intellectualism. Alice encourages Bob to create a life in conformity to the unjust social structure and middle-class sensibility. However, Bob cannot do this – as an antihero, he cannot submit to society’s rules if he does not agree with them, and he does not submit to the class hierarchy.
In conclusion, Bob is a classic antihero who feels alienated from society and the people who are supposed to be close to him. He rails against conventional models of success and middle-class conformity. Bob acts almost exclusively out of self-interest, and his antiheroic racial, gender, and class identity become symbolic of the dark underbelly of the American dream.