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The Piano Lesson | Study Guide

August Wilson

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The Piano Lesson | Symbols


The Piano

The piano represents the Charles family legacy. It is at once a physical legacy with a specific monetary value and, more importantly, a personal, familial, and racial legacy. As August Wilson once said, "The real issue is the piano, the legacy. How are you going to use it?" Boy Willie focuses on the piano's monetary value; he wants to sell it so he can buy land and make himself independent by growing his own crops to eat and to sell. Berniece concentrates on the piano's spiritual legacy—the family's sufferings during and after slavery. Her uncle Doaker recalls Boy Charles, Berniece and Boy Willie's father, saying, "as long as Sutter had it ... he had us. Say we was still in slavery" (Act 1, Scene 2). At first, Berniece tries to protect herself and her daughter from the painful history embodied in the instrument. This was an important question for Wilson: "Can you acquire a sense of self-worth by denying your past?" Boy Willie clearly feels you cannot, but Berniece fights accepting her past until forced in the end to embrace it.

It is worth noting no matter how hard he tries, Boy Willie is unable to move the piano so he can sell it. This suggests despite African Americans' efforts to get rid of the racial legacy of slavery, they may find it too heavy to shift off completely.


More than one ghost acts as a symbol in The Piano Lesson. There is James Sutter's ghost, who began haunting the house shortly after his death—drawn to it apparently by the piano his grandfather Robert had brought into the Sutter family. That piano is infused with the spirits, or ghosts, of the Charles family, who were once enslaved to the Sutters. There are also the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog: Berniece and Boy Willie's father, Boy Charles, and the hobos who were riding in the boxcar with him when it was torched. They are vindictive ghosts, who take revenge on white men around the county. Both Sutter's ghost and the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog embody the shadow of slavery that continues to fall on the Charles family and on the broader society. After all, no matter whose hand it is that pushes people down their wells in Sunflower County, the culprit is that shadow.

The characters in the play all have to take a stand with regard to the ghosts. Wining Boy, for instance, seeks out the Ghosts of the Yellow Dog; Doaker refuses to engage at all with Sutter's ghost; Boy Willie denies the existence of Sutter's ghost until the very end, when he can no longer do so. Then he throws himself wholeheartedly into the fight.

The Railroad

The railroad represents freedom of movement. As Doaker says in Act 1, Scene 1 with the railroad "you can start from anywhere" and go in any direction. It moves in all directions, and if passengers change their minds about where they're going, the railroad will take them somewhere else. For the men in the play, it offers escape. Doaker can escape everyday life in Pittsburgh through his job for the railroad. Wining Boy travels the country on the rails. Boy Willie will head back to Mississippi by train without having to worry about the breakdowns that plague his trip north. But the railroad is not always completely reliable, as Boy Charles learned trying to jump a train after stealing the piano from the Sutters. The railroad throughout this play, as well as in the 1930s, also represented modernity (especially speed) and the vast American landscape. In a play about the legacy of the racial past, the railroad operates as a means of moving forward in American history, away from that traumatic past, at a fast pace and far away from the trauma's origin.


After the U.S. Civil War, watermelons were a crop commonly cultivated, consumed, and sold by former slaves. The fruit became a symbol of their freedom. It was so closely associated with them that Southern whites who perceived their success as a threat began to stigmatize watermelons, associating the fruit with free blacks in cartoons, songs, and even "news" reports and linking the melons to dirty, lazy, and childish behavior. Historically, watermelons had long been associated with these behaviors, but they were not associated in this way with African Americans until after emancipation.

In The Piano Lesson, Wilson reclaims the watermelon as a symbol of the freedman's emancipation and self-reliance. Boy Willie and Lymon make a huge profit on their truckload of watermelons, which will help them achieve their immediate goals. Lymon will have plenty of money to tide him over until he finds work in Pittsburgh, and Boy Willie has made another third of the cash he needs to buy the land he wants. Such a reclamation of a stereotype of African American life suggests these symbols can be remade into the means of self-reliance and financial success.

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