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Symbolism in the Short Story "Bad Neighbors"


Edward P. Jones grew up in the Washington, D.C., area, the son of a single mom who washed dishes and worked as a hotel maid to support her children. Although she herself couldn't read or write, she encouraged academic excellence. Jones achieved a scholarship at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts and then earned a master's degree in creative writing. He worked as a business writer for 19 years, and began publishing short stories. The story "Bad Neighbors" appeared in Jones' 2006 anthology "All Aunt Hagar's Children" and was also published that year in the prestigious "The New Yorker."

The Benningtons

"Bad Neighbors" is set in a Washington, D.C., neighborhood, on a street on which the residents are well-to-do African-Americans. The families of Eighth Street are immediately indignant when the Benningtons move into a rental house on a Sunday. The narrator explains, " ... on Sunday, which was still the Lord's Day even though church for many was now only a place to visit for a wedding, or a funeral." The reader immediately senses some hypocrisy on the part of these families. The families, watching the Benningtons move in that Sunday, note junky furniture and a clan of 12 or more.

Sharon and Derek

Derek Bennington is a 20-something who is loud, often shirtless and drives an old Ford that other Eighth Street residents would consider a junker. His quiet younger brother, Neil Bennington, forms a friendship at school with the womanly and desirable Sharon Palmer, also a resident of Eighth Street. Sharon's father, Hamilton, has ambitions for his daughter and young Terence Stagg, who seems destined for a career as a doctor. Several neighbor families conspire to buy the house rented by the Benningtons and force them out. Sharon marries Terence. Everything is on track until she is threatened with violence one night by three young men as she finishes her shift as a nurse's assistant at Georgetown University Hospital.

Biblical Allusions

As someone interferes and fights off the attackers, Sharon realizes that her Good Samaritan is Derek Bennington, whom she hasn't seen for years. Derek is stabbed and bleeding, but refuses Sharon's efforts to get him help. He confirms that it was he, and not Neil, who admired her from a distance years before and dropped off a mysterious present of an elegant carved figure. At home in her elegant condo, she notes that the blood on her uniform seems "almost alive in some eerie way." She forgoes washing off the blood and crawls into bed naked, which suggests rebirth. Derek has reappeared in Sharon's life as both Good Samaritan and a Christ figure who has offered himself on her behalf.

Additional Symbolism

The title of this short story collection alludes to the Biblical Hagar, who is symbolic of slavery for African-Americans. In the Book of Genesis, God listens to and protects Hagar. In "Bad Neighbors," tough guy Derek seems to have been protecting and watching over Sharon. The color red figures prominently in the story, as Derek once told Sharon years earlier that she wore too much red, and ultimately Sharon finds herself spattered with his blood. The clock striking 3 as Sharon crawls into bed seems to signal the entrance of a third party. It's also worth noting that these stories are set in Washington, D.C., the center of American political power and yet home to so many African-Americans who might feel powerless.

About the Author

Susie Zappia teaches humanities and research and writing courses online for several colleges. Her research interests include counterculture literature of the 1960 and instructional design for online courses and she enjoys writing about literature, art and instructional design. She holds a Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills and a Master of Science in instructional design from Capella University.

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