Racism is without a doubt the most prominent theme in the novel. It is everywhere: in the justice system, in the New Deal programs, in the streets, and in almost every interaction between a white person and a black person. The legacies of slavery are ubiquitous. Blacks are second-class citizens; they are oppressed and marginalized politically, economically, and socially. They have little power even in the smallest of interactions with white people. Their attempts to maintain their dignity and autonomy are often met with displays of brutality. Cassie and her friends and family must learn to navigate their racist world while maintaining their dignity and character.
Family is incredibly important in this novel. Life is difficult, but family nurtures, sustains, helps, and stabilizes. Adults provide guidance and support for their children, as well as for each other. The children seek solace in companionship and shared experience. Family is not just one's immediate members, however: Taylor sees family as the entire network of extended kin and friends.
The novel is told from the perspective of a young girl, so it should be no surprise that one of the main themes is growing up. Cassie both witnesses the passage from childhood to adulthood in her brother Stacey and begins this passage herself. She sees that the world is sometimes cruel and unfair. People are confusing, disappointing, and sometimes downright evil. Good deeds and moral fiber are not always rewarded. There is death, loss, and sorrow. Nevertheless, Cassie comes to see that it is okay to evolve and change; growing older means knowing oneself better and having a more nuanced view of the world.
Dignity and Morality
Taylor's black characters aren't saints: sometimes they are stubborn, angry, selfish, and irrational. Nevertheless, they also display incredible dignity and morality in a world that seeks to deprive them of their selfhood and autonomy. Mrs. Lee Annie tries to register to vote even when she knows it will cost her. Stacey runs off into the cruel world so he can get a job to help his family. Dube works for the union. Papa acts as a moral compass for his family as he stands up for his beliefs and protects them as best he can. Most of the adults in Cassie's life try to exhibit dignity and morality so their children can emulate these virtues. It is not always easy and does not always pay off, but these characters are fully-formed creations who offer examples of heroism in the day-to-day.
Many of the characters in the novel struggle with finding their own identity; this is made difficult for many of them due to the intense racial divide that often does not allow them to fully embrace their selfhood. Identity can be wrapped up in land, voting, making money, passing as white, maintaining dignity in defeat and despair, speaking one's mind, defending one's friends and family, joining a union, and more. Finding out one's true identity is far from easy, but the characters in the novel never stop trying to know themselves and their place in the world.
Taylor's characters exhibit courage in big and small ways; it is undoubtedly something she values and promotes as an author. Stacey leaves his home and everything he knows to help his family out. Mrs. Lee Annie decides to register to vote. Mr. Jamison risks ostracism from white society to help T.J. Avery. Russell and Dube join the union. Mr. Morrison and Uncle Hammer stand up to white men. Mama turns down Mr. Granger's offers of help. Cassie, in her own small way, demonstrates courage in her everyday life as she stands up for her family and friends. Courage can be dangerous, but it is a sign of good moral character and is sometimes the only way one can maintain dignity in an unjust world.
The Great Depression
It is impossible to ignore the historical context of the novel. Taylor vividly depicts the poverty, helplessness, and tensions brought about by the economic disaster; she also references government programs and President Roosevelt's plan to help American citizens. We see how the Depression has exacerbated racial and class tensions and caused untold amounts of suffering for people of all backgrounds. She seeks to show how the Depression necessitated more reliance on friends and family (such as Big Ma bringing the Turners an extra cow) as well as a hardy, persevering mindset.
Let the Circle be Unbroken Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Let the Circle be Unbroken is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.