The titular "rockpile" of the first story in the collection symbolizes a religious force of nature, full of mystery and consequence. It looms large, especially in Roy's mind, as a manifestation of the supernatural. The explanation his Aunt Florence offers for the rockpile's existence is that "without it the subway cars underground would fly apart, killing all the people," thus attributing to the rockpile a godlike role in protecting and maintaining the lives of "all the people." The symbolic significance of the rockpile is reinforced when one of the neighborhood boys, Richard, drowns in the river. Richard's father carries his lifeless body down their street to their home, and Baldwin describes Roy and John watching "the small procession [disappear] within the house which stood beside the rockpile." Thus, the rockpile is associated with absorbing the dead, much like an afterlife or deity. In this way, the rockpile figures religiously into Roy's worldview as something that both preserves life and brings forth the dead.
Gabriel's Boot (Symbol)
The first story in the collection, "The Rockpile," concludes with John kneeling down to pick up his father Gabriel's lunch pale, "bending his dark head near the toe of his father’s heavy shoe." Gabriel's large boot symbolizes that which is powerful enough to offer protection, while at the same time, with the same power, threatens to do harm. The timidity with which John regards the boot mirrors his relationship with Gabriel; on the one hand, Gabriel provides him with a roof, food, and clothes, the securities of a guardian; on the other hand, John lives perpetually in Gabriel's debt for these provisions because, unlike the other children in the household, John isn't Gabriel's biological son.
The cup of trembling (Symbol)
At the end of "Sonny's Blues," the narrator buys his brother a drink and sends it up to him between sets. Sonny takes a sip and places the drink up on top of the piano. The narrator says of the drink, "For me, then, as they began to play again, it glowed and shook above my brother’s head like the very cup of trembling." The cup of trembling is an Old Testament reference to a moment in which God relieves the faithful of their suffering, saying, "Behold, I have taken out of thine hand the cup of trembling, even the dregs of the cup of my fury; thou shalt no more drink it again" (Isaiah 51:22). Thus, Baldwin elevates music to a spiritual, almost supernatural force capable of momentarily relieving the suffering of those who truly experience it. In this way, Baldwin suggests the power of music to take away, even temporarily, the suffering of man.
Icy Dread (Motif)
On the first page of "Sonny's Blues," the narrator describes the icy feeling he gets when he reads the news about Sonny. He says, "A great block of ice got settled in my belly and kept melting there slowly all day long, while I taught my classes algebra." He refers to the feeling again as he walks towards the subway with the neighborhood boy as "that ice in my guts again, the dread I’d felt all afternoon; and again I watched the barmaid, moving about the bar, washing glasses, and singing." Later, after he picks Sonny up from jail and they're riding back to his apartment to have dinner with his wife and kids, the narrator refers to the feeling as "that icy dread." This motif serves as a way for the narrator to relate his feelings of dread and foreboding to a larger network of situations that cause unease. For a reader, the motif allows us to map out these moments and better understand when and why the narrator feels the way he feels.
The second prominent motif in "Sonny's Blues" is whistling. The narrator mentions whistling usually as a shield against darkness. The first instance of it occurs at the school where the narrator teaches algebra. He observes that "one boy was whistling a tune, at once very complicated and very simple, it seemed to be pouring out of him as though he were a bird, and it sounded very cool and moving through all that harsh, bright air, only just holding its own through all those other sounds." The way the whistle is described as barely perceptible amidst all the noise represents the chaos and iniquities that the narrator is proposing surrounds these boys throughout their childhoods. The narrator's mother, while telling him the tragic story about his uncle, notes that in the moments before his senseless killing, he "was feeling kind of good, and he was whistling to himself, and he had his guitar slung over his shoulder." And then later, when the narrator describes leaving his brother's Greenwich Village apartment after having a big fight with him, he says, "I started down the steps, whistling to keep from crying, I kept whistling to myself, You going to need me, baby, one of these cold, rainy days." The tune he whistles in this moment also gestures to the fact that he knows his brother is headed for trouble, and he knows that the more level-headed life he leads will provide a reliable fallback when his brother is eventually in need.
Going to Meet the Man Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Going to Meet the Man is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.