Sanctuary by Nella Larsen | Summary and Analysis

Summary of Sanctuary by Nella Larsen

Sanctuary by Nella Larsen is a story that deals with the themes of race, community, crime, and identity. The story follows a man who seeks shelter in his friend’s house after committing a murder accidentally, only to later find out his friend is his victim. Larsen’s technique of plot twists renders the narrative a dramatic touch to play with the notion of fate and destiny. 

Nella Larsen was an American novelist who published the short story “Sanctuary” in 1930 which supposedly became a subject of criticism and controversy as an alleged work of plagiarism. This scarred her reputation as a writer which resulted in a decline in her literary career. Most of her works revolved around her contemporary issues such as race, community, crime, language, and identity.

Sanctuary | Summary

The story opens with a man Jim Hammer discreetly running on the lonely road in an anticipation of being followed. He reaches his friend Obadiah’s house to secure refuge. Obadiah’s mother Annie Poole lets him enter the house despite learning about his crime. The only feasible reason that could justify her action is Jim’s belongingness to her community. As an act of loyalty, she participates in his hiding by covering him up with sheets in a bedroom. Jim is terrified and concerned for his destiny. After a few hours, Jim believes his plan of escape to be a success and he prepares himself to move out of the covers. But to his shock, sheriff Bill Lowndes and his team knock at Annie’s door and inform her about Obaidah’s tragic demise. Annie couldn’t believe her senses when she looks at her boy lying on the floor, breathless. 

Bill reveals Jim as the murderer, paving a way for the great plot twist. Jim feels shattered on learning the identity of his victim. On being interrogated about Jim’s whereabouts, Annie maintains her composure and denies seeing him. The police leave the premises and Jim is afraid of the impending confrontation with Annie. He wishes the sheriff to take him along as no clarifications in the world would justify his act of accidentally killing his friend and ironically seeking shelter in his house. The story concludes with Annie approaching her son’s murderer with a furious rage instead of a remorseful tone ordering him to leave her residence and mocking him to express gratitude to his lord for bestowing him a black identity. 

Sanctuary | Characters

Annie Poole – She is a black woman in her fifties who shelters her son’s friend as an act of loyalty to her community. Her wrinkled face is old copper in tone and framed by a crinkly mass of white hair. However, her age and tiny structure do not let her personality appear fragile or timid. As a staunch black woman, she believes in black unity, especially in the trial period when the story is set in. Even the startling revelation about his son’s death and the subsequent identity of his murderer does not obstruct her decision to hide Jim. 

Jim Hammer – He is a big black man who runs for his life and seeks shelter at his friend Obaidah’s house, unknown to him as well as Obaidah’s mother Annie about his accidentally killing Obaidah himself. His profession is not specified and the possible cause of his act is unclear. Annie saves him despite learning the truth and though he is not physically imprisoned by the sheriff, the moral imprisonment refuses to allow him an escape and chains him in guilt and shame forever. 

Obadiah – He is Annie Poole’s son and Jim Hammer’s friend who accidentally dies at the hands of the latter.

Bill Lowndes – He is a white sheriff who informs Annie Poole about her son’s sudden and unfortunate demise at the hands of Jim Hammer. 

Literary Devices


Simile – After listening to the approaching footsteps of the police authorities, Jim’s yellow eyes glow “like pale flames” burning with fear which is yet to mount. Even his tongue could not utter any words as if it is a “weighted, dying thing.” 

Allusion – Jim accidentally kills his friend Obaidah and later learning about it paralyzes him with terror and shame. The narrator alludes to the Bible which claims a similar effect on the wicked as an act of God.

Personification – While he is securing shelter under the covers, Jim’s fear clutches him as he reminisces about his actions. 

Alliteration – Jim’s grimy garments contrast with the snowy sheets and laundered linen which represents cleanliness. Not only his garments but his soul too as he kills the man whose mother allows him to seek refuge. The guilt translates his sanctuary into a suffocating shelter. 

Irony – The plot twist in the narrative concerning the revelation of the man that Jim accidentally kills forms the key irony in the story. Jim’s gun shoots Obaidah, his friend whose mother is guarding him against the crime, unknown about the truth until the sheriff knocks at her door.

Foreshadowing – Annie Poole’s inquiry into the color of the dead man as “White man o’ niggah?” and Jim’s uncertainty about the identity of his victim when he professes “Cain’t say, Mis’ Poole. White man, Ah reckons” foreshadows the death of possible kin. 


Sanctuary | Questions and Answers

How is the story narrated? 

The story is narrated in the third person omniscient who apparently employs American English in his diction as compared to the dialect practiced by the older black community, in this case, Annie Poole. It consists of dramatic events such as running away from a crime and seeking refuge in a state of panic and terror, the provider interrogating the cause and her participation in the same while complying with the plan out of her loyalty towards her community. A sense of mystery and impending doom looms for the protagonist Jim Hammer who even though successfully escapes the clutches of white police authorities fails to escape the moral imprisonment. While Annie serves her community, Jim unknowingly betrays it, becoming a subject of ridicule and contempt in the former’s eyes. The story roots for unity and harmony in a community. 

How important is the dialogue here? 

The inclusion of dialogues in the narrative lends authenticity to the conversation between the characters. Their state of mind comes to full expression especially Jim who is constantly terrified about his future. Annie’s use of dialect renders her character a cultural significance that African-Americans bring with them along with an emphasis on the generational gap between the two. She often cuts Jim during his justifications and praises comments for her that enable her to set her character as a no-nonsense woman. Also, dialogues allow a smooth flow of the plotline, depicting it in proximity to reality. 

How can one explain the ending of the story? 

The end is debatable. Annie’s decision to not hand over her son’s murderer to the authorities could be viewed from multiple perspectives, primarily her loyalty toward her community. At the time when the story is set, the black community was experiencing unsaid racial discrimination in various spheres of life. Such times called for an inevitable mass unity and support. Thus Annie does not turn Jim in owing to her values. Further, her decision could also be interpreted as a deliberate act of leaving Jim to rot in the hells of a morally guilty conscience which would not allow him to have a moment’s peace in his life. Annie advises him to thank Jesus for providing him with a black face, a face which earlier caused him distress but later became the reason for his safe refuge. Being punished and humiliated by your own kin has a greater impact than imprisonment by white police officers. 

What is the principal message of the story?

The key message a reader can decode is to follow your value system only if it allows adaptability to suit your contemporary situations. Annie could have given Jim to the authorities who were looking for him after his criminal act. Instead, she continues to hide him as allegiance to her community’s morals. She was well aware that the time she was living in required immense support from blacks to each other. If she would have exposed Jim to Bill, the already splitting community would have collapsed completely. Thus, sometimes you have to unwillingly perform certain actions that would not benefit you alone but your community as a whole. 






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