Master Harold... And the Boys

Master Harold... And the Boys Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Ballroom Dancing (Symbol)

Sam and Willie’s love of ballroom dancing is a driving force in Master Harold…and the boys. In the beginning it is a type of escape for the men, something they are good at, that they enjoy, and that takes their minds off of their work. Becoming proficient and talented at ballroom dancing is a goal to which they can aspire. Thus, for Sam and Willie, ballroom dancing symbolizes freedom and escape. For Hally, however, it symbolizes something else entirely. When Hally comes home and speaks to his parents on the phone, his mood turns sour and angry. He takes his anger out on Sam and Willie by denigrating the thing they care most about at the moment: ballroom dancing. At first he calls it “simple” and “mentally retarded,” and then sees it as a symbol of “primitive black society” (114 and 126).

The Chair (Symbol)

The play opens with a single unoccupied chair in the middle of the room. Neither Sam nor Willie is using the chair, even though they are the only ones in the room. Willie is busy mopping the floor, so he cannot use the chair. Sam, however, is reading a comic book, an activity for which he could use the chair. He decides to lean against a table instead. The reason for this becomes clear once Hally comes home. The chair was reserved for Hally and symbolizes his place and power as a white male. He sits in the chair and waits for Sam and Willie to serve him and respond to his demands.

Kite-flying (Symbol)

Hally’s memory of kite flying with Sam is a pivotal moment in the play. At the beginning of the play it represents childhood innocence and the halcyon days of boyhood. Later on, Hally’s memory of the day is marred by an ugly truth Sam hid from him through the years: Sam had to leave Hally alone with the kite because the bench Hally sat on was marked “whites only.” Sam told young Hally he had to leave because he had work to do in an attempt to preserve the young boy’s innocence. Sam tells Hally the truth now because Hally is beginning to internalize apartheid’s teachings of white supremacy and racial superiority. Sam warns Hally that unless he curbs his behavior and beliefs, he’ll be sitting alone on that bench again, this time with no kite in the sky. In this situation, kite flying symbolizes togetherness, racial harmony, and equality.

Hally’s School Books (Symbol)

Hally’s schoolbooks symbolize Western knowledge and ways of knowing. They contain the information the South African government believes is necessary for creating informed citizens. When Sam struggles to decipher Hally’s math textbook, it shows that he did not receive the same education as Hally when he was a youth. Clearly, Black South Africans are not included in the government’s plans for informed citizens.

Book Learning vs. Experiential Learning (Motif)

The push-and-pull between knowledge gained from books and knowledge earned through life experiences is one of the most important ideas in the play. With his advanced language skills, lofty ideals, and dense catalogue of important historical figures, Hally represents book learning. Because he passes along to Sam the things he learns in school, Hally has an inflated sense of self, and thinks he’s much smarter than Sam. Rather than be resentful, Sam takes Hally’s sometimes-condescending treatment in stride, and instead focuses on trying to teach Hally how to be a man. Sam is representative of knowledge gained from life’s experiences, knowledge that Hally cannot get by reading a book. Hally doesn’t understand this, and lashes out against Sam when the older man tries to advise him about his relationship with his father. At first Sam is angry about Hally’s disrespectful behavior, but then realizes he cannot teach Hally how to be a man if he cannot be one himself. By the play’s denouement, experiential learning wins over book learning when Sam shows Hally how to be understanding and forgiving even when someone has insulted and mistreated you.