Happy Birthday by Toni Cade Bambara
In Happy Birthday by Toni Cade Bambara we have the theme of connection, control, desperation, identity, honesty, aspirations and recognition. Taken from her Gorilla, My Love collection the story is narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator and from the beginning of the story the reader realises that Bambara may be exploring the theme of connection. Ollie, the main protagonist, is trying to wake her grandfather so that he will talk to her but he is too drunk. Likewise Ollie is waiting for Wilma to arrive but she never does. In fact throughout the story Ollie travels around the block in an attempt to connect with others, though she has no luck. Nobody is interested in talking to Ollie something that becomes clear to the reader when Ollie sees the Big Boys on the roof. They are more interested in resting in the sun than talking to Ollie.
The theme of control is self-evident in the story. None of the people that Ollie tries to connect with give her the time of day. They remain in control of the situation that Ollie finds herself in. If anything there is a desperation to Ollie. So desperate in fact that she tries to connect with several people. It may also be case that Bambara is exploring the theme of honesty. Wilma according to the narrator likes to tell lies. She appears to like lying to Ollie in order to make herself into something she is not. This may be important as it suggests identity is something that Wilma craves. She wishes to be more than she is.
There may also be some symbolism in the story that is important. The sun is shining if not draining a lot of the characters in the story. Which may suggest that they have an excuse to ignore Ollie. It is this excuse which leads Ollie to not only desperation to have her birthday recognized by others but also leads her to tears. The tar that sticks to Ollie’s sneaker might also have some symbolic significance. It is possible that Bambara is using the tar to introduce irony into the story. Nobody if anybody notices Ollie. In reality she doesn’t stick to the minds of others. The fact that Peter usually asks Ollie to go to the store for him is important too. It means that Ollie is connected to Peter in some way but not on her birthday. Despite so many characters in the story. Ollie remains emotionally alone.
The end of the story is interesting as it becomes clear to the reader that Ollie has one aspiration and that is to be recognized on her birthday. Even when Ollie tells Hazel it is her birthday, Hazel doesn’t wish Ollie a happy birthday. If anything throughout the story Ollie faces adversity when it comes to others wishing her a happy birthday. In reality Bambara ends the story with Ollie feeling broken in some way because nobody wishes her a happy birthday. Which may be the point that Bambara is attempting to make. She may be suggesting the importance of recognition in a person’s life. In order to validate themselves it is possible that the individual needs to feel as though they are recognized by others or at least their achievements (birthday) are.