The Sellout

by

Paul Beatty

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Dickens Symbol Icon

Dickens, the fictional “ghetto community” where the narrator grew up and the entire novel is set, is a city within the greater Los Angeles area. The vast majority of Dickens’ population is black, with a small number of Mexicans. Shortly after the death of the narrator’s father, Dickens is quietly removed from the map of California. While the residents remain in place, the narrator feels that the municipal erasure of Dickens means it has “disappeared”; his mission to “bring back Dickens” forms the backbone of the novel’s plot. Part of the narrator’s attachment to Dickens connects to the importance of origins and home. After the death of his father and the disappearance of Dickens, the narrator is left completely rootless, lost, and confused. This sense of rootlessness caused by the loss or erasure of home is a major theme in African-American literature and culture. In The Sellout, it is literalized by Dicken’s sudden removal from the map, an act that also speaks to the way in which black people (and especially poor black communities) are treated as disposable by the American authorities. There is so much stigma associated with being from Dickens that some residents are relieved when Dickens disappears, because they no longer have to admit that they come from the city. However, over the course of the novel the narrator inspires pride and enthusiasm among his fellow “Dickensians” through acts such as his decision to paint a border around the city.

Eventually, the narrator decides to re-segregate Dickens in order to bring back the city. This process starts with Marpessa’s bus, before spreading to Chaff Middle School and other public institutions. Although it may seem counterintuitive to resurrect a majority-black city through segregation, the narrator’s plan is successful, suggesting that segregation may not be inherently harmful if it is done in service of black communities, rather than as a way of entrenching racial inequality. At the end of the novel, the narrator returns to a “Welcome Home” party in Dickens after his Supreme Court case in Washington, DC. “Welcome Home” here has a double meaning—not only is the narrator being welcomed to his home, but Dickens itself is being welcomed back, as on the day of the party it is included in the weather report, revealing that the narrator’s plan to bring it back was successful. The overall arc of the novel thus takes the form of a homecoming story akin to Homer’s Odyssey, with the added twist that home itself—while it may physically exist— is something that must be searched for and resurrected.

Dickens Quotes in The Sellout

The The Sellout quotes below all refer to the symbol of Dickens. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Picador edition of The Sellout published in 2015.
Chapter 4 Quotes

In a way most Dickensians were relieved to not be from anywhere. It saved them the embarrassment of having to answer the small-talk "Where are you from?" question with "Dickens," then watching the person apologetically back away from you.

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dickens
Page Number: 58
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

“Segregate the school.” As soon as I said it, I realized that segregation would be the key to bringing Dickens back. The communal feeling of the bus would spread to the school and then permeate the rest of the city. Apartheid united black South Africa, why couldn't it do the same for Dickens?

Related Characters: The Narrator (speaker)
Related Symbols: Dickens, Marpessa’s Bus
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:
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Dickens Symbol Timeline in The Sellout

The timeline below shows where the symbol Dickens appears in The Sellout. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
...and “sole practitioner” of what he called Liberation Psychology. They lived on a farm in Dickens, a “ghetto community” on the outskirts of Los Angeles. The narrator’s father spent twenty years... (full context)
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
...farming. The narrator stresses that not all his memories of his father are bad. In Dickens, the narrator’s father was known as “the Nigger Whisperer.” When a Dickens resident was in... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
The narrator assumed that he would stay in Dickens and live an average life. He hoped to marry Marpessa Delissa Dawson, his childhood sweetheart... (full context)
Chapter 4
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
Five years after the narrator’s father’s death, Dickens is “quietly removed” from the map of California. The surrounding cities conspire to erase Dickens... (full context)
Chapter 5
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
After Dickens was erased, the person who needed the narrator most was an elderly man named Hominy... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...had had sex with his father. The narrator muses that “Freudian hermeneutics doesn’t apply to Dickens.” (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
...narrator asks if he cannot do something else, and Hominy asks him to “bring back Dickens.” In a dissociative episode, the narrator beats Hominy, an act that traumatizes him for life.... (full context)
Chapter 6
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
During the drive, the narrator realizes that the signs indicating where to turn off for Dickens have been removed. He commissions new signs and asks Hominy if it feels better to... (full context)
Chapter 7
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
The narrator calls the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals “the closest approximation [Dickens] had to a representative government.” Since the narrator’s father’s death, the Dum Dum Donut Intellectuals... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
The narrator announces that he is “bringing back the city of Dickens,” and everyone laughs. Foy turns over a nearby portrait of the narrator’s father and asks... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
King Cuz admits that he likes the narrator’s plan to bring back Dickens. He says he started coming to Dum Dum meetings because he liked the narrator’s father.... (full context)
Chapter 8
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
The narrator buys a line-marking machine and white spray paint, and paints a border around Dickens. At first, people who see him do it think he’s a performance artist or simply... (full context)
Chapter 9
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...terrible smell known as the Stank, which comes from a nearby oil refinery, descends on Dickens. Two weeks after the border is finished, both the narrator and Hominy are woken up... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...off the bus.” The narrator boasts that it was he who painted the line around Dickens. He declares that he’s “bringing the city back. Bringing you back, too!” Marpessa wishes him... (full context)
Chapter 10
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...off her clothes and leaps out into the water. Hominy asks if they are in Dickens, and the narrator replies that “Dickens exists in our heads.” Hominy then asks when they... (full context)
City Lites: An Interlude
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...from the company named Susan Silverman calls the narrator and tells him they couldn’t find Dickens on the map. When the narrator explains the situation, she says it doesn’t matter, and... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
Susan tells the narrator that Dickens’ three most compatible cities are Juárez, Chernobyl, and Kinshasa. The narrator is confused because Chernobyl... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
In the end the narrator decides to match Dickens with three cities that also “disappeared under dubious circumstances.” The first is Thebes, the set... (full context)
Chapter 11
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
...a presentation by Nestor Lopez, whose family were the first Mexicans to move into the Dickens farms. As a child, the narrator always thought Nestor was cool, but over time they... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...the school to become like Marpessa’s bus. When the narrator was a child, everyone in Dickens was black. Marpessa didn’t realize her best friend was Mexican until Charisma’s mom picked her... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
...as he does so he realizes that segregation is also the answer to bringing back Dickens. People assume that integration is a good thing, but integration is often used as an... (full context)
Chapter 14
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...of them moved to an affluent black neighborhood named the Dons, ten miles north of Dickens. Before they broke up, Marpessa and the narrator would dream of moving there together. After... (full context)
Chapter 17
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
Marpessa points out that people didn’t really love Dickens even when it existed. The narrator then realizes that it was Marpessa who threw the... (full context)
Chapter 19
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
After one of the Intellectuals calls Dickens a “hellhole,” King Cuz leaps to the city’s defense. The narrator is surprised to hear... (full context)
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
...rides off, annoyed. He realizes that even if he does achieve his goal of bringing Dickens back, no one will greet the news with “fanfare or fireworks.” He realizes that the... (full context)
Chapter 20
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
The narrator admits that he secretly found re-segregating Dickens quite fun and “sort of empowering.” He and Hominy would go around town sticking up... (full context)
Chapter 21
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...to refer to any neighborhood, in the past, it only meant one place in LA: Dickens. During the confrontation between the gangs, Marpessa tells MC Panache that she is sleeping with... (full context)
Chapter 25
Progress vs. Regress Theme Icon
Blackness, Origins, and Home Theme Icon
Stereotypes and Absurdity Theme Icon
Criminality, Authority, and the Law Theme Icon
Gender, Sex, and Hypersexualization Theme Icon
...Charisma lying on the bed. The TV is on, playing the weather. The announcer includes Dickens in the forecast. Marpessa laughs “maniacally,” and the narrator bursts into tears over the fact... (full context)