In the short story "Our Time", John Wideman writes about his younger brother. The story has three different beginnings and several unrelated stories. One of those stories is about his brother Robby and his experiences in prison.
The story of Robby's jail time is in a way irrelevant to the rest of the story because it does not relate to the three beginnings. The first beginning involves some guy named Garth and his death. It goes on to explain It goes on to explain that after this man died Robby's life changed in a way that landed him in prison. The story of how or why he went to jail however is never mentioned. What is mentioned in this first story is that Robby became very angry at society and so did Robbys mother. They both blamed the authorities and mainly white people for Garths death. The first beginning of "Our Time" tries to cast the blame of Robbys misfortunes on society.
His experiences in prison however are after his misfortunes. They do not relate to them at all. The second beginning is about the family moving from Shadyside to Homewood. In this beginning we see Robby growing up. At first he is raised in Shadyside, which is considered the good part of town. Later the family moves to Homewood, which is considered the bad side of town. Here Robby is influenced in a bad way. The decisions he makes however are his own. His family raised him the same as his other brothers and sisters and they turned out fine. Robby just made all the wrong choices. The second beginning clearly tries to show us that maybe Robby was to blame for being thrown in prison. The story of how Robby is treated in prison again does not relate to the story directly. We know he went to jail. What does it matter what happened in jail? We don't even know why Robby went there in the first place! The third beginning involves the birth of Robby. Robby was born toward the end of December. This was not a good thing because the family generally experienced nothing but misfortunes throughout that month. Mainly people died. It was a time of grieving and in the middle was Robby's birthday. This beginning touches upon the idea that maybe it wasn't anybody's fault that Robby went to jail it was just fated to happen. The question of why he went to jail is not answered. Robby's jail time plays no part in these stories. The fact that he went to jail does. His experience in jail however is irrelevant the three beginnings.
Robby's experience in prison has nothing to do with blame. They don't explain how or why he got there and at this point I'm dying to know. The story would read the same without the mention of the experiences. Robby's time in prison simply explains what happened to him after the big event in his life. We never find out why Robby went to prison exactly. We know he killed someone but we don't know when, why or how. It was not necessary for us to know anything about the prison except that Wideman and Robby wrote the book when Robby was in there. His treatment in prison is somewhat irrelevant to the events that preceded it, mainly the three beginnings.
The story, however, would not have had the same effect without it. The most important thing about the mention of the prison experiences is simply that it gives the reader sympathy for Robby. After Robby goes to prison he becomes aware of all the wrong he did to the people around him. He recognizes the pain he put his mother through. He says that he understands that as sorry as he is, he knows that all the sorrys in the world won't make everything okay again. Robby in a sense is reforming. But even though he's reforming he is sentenced to die. Robby is treated horribly by the guards and he has no way of redeeming himself now. It is a sad ending. Even though the story never ends with Robby dying, Wideman, by explaining the living conditions Robby is exposed to, foreshadows his inevitable end.