The Blind Men and the Elephant by James Baldwin
In the James Baldwin adapted parable, The Blind Men and the Elephant, we have the theme of curiosity, perception, ignorance and conflict. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realizes from the beginning of the story that Baldwin may be exploring the theme of curiosity. The blind men have never seen an elephant before and do not know what one looks like until one day a man passes by with an elephant and allows the blind me to touch the elephant. It is through touching the elephant that the blind men hope to lessen their curiosity and discover for themselves what an elephant might look like. This is when the story gets interesting as none of the men can agree on what an elephant looks like. The first man touches the elephant’s side and thinks the elephant looks like a wall. The second man touches the elephant’s tusk and thinks he is smooth and sharp. The third man touches the elephant’s trunk and says the elephant looks like a snake.
The fourth man touches the elephant’s legs and thinks the elephant looks like a tree. The fifth man touches the elephant’s ear and feels as though the elephant looks like a fan. While the sixth man touches the elephant’s tail and concludes that the elephant looks like a rope. All these perceptions are important for two reasons. Firstly all the men are wrong and secondly none can agree with the other. Which may be the point that Baldwin is attempting to make. He may be suggesting that everybody, regardless of their circumstances, may not necessarily always agree with another person. Each individual will have their own perception or opinion on an issue.
There may also be some symbolism in the story which might be important. The perceptions of the men mirrors the perceptions of the general population. As mentioned there can and will not be common agreement, when all the facts are unknown. If each man had touched more than one part of the elephant there might be some sort of agreement but this has not been the case. Each man has only touched one part of the elephant. If anything all facts are not known nor can they be known by touching just one part of the elephant. The fact that the elephant’s owner does not assist the men by describing the elephant only leads to further ignorance from the blind men.
The end of the story is interesting as Baldwin appears to be exploring the theme of conflict. After the elephant has left and the men are sitting down again, by the side of the road, they begin to quarrel. Arguing over what the elephant really looks like. So strong is the argument that the men call each other hard names and insult one another. It is also interesting that Baldwin suggests that even those who have sight can act as foolishly as the blind men, believing they know something when the fact is they could also be ignorant. When may be the point that Baldwin is making. He may be suggesting that one does not need to lose their senses in order to be ignorant. Even the wisest of men can be wrong.