In The Piano Lesson, what different view of the past does the piano represent for each of the characters?

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Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The complex relationship that people have towards the past is evident in the divergent approaches that different characters take towards the piano.  For example, Doaker Charles recognizes that the piano represents the narrative of the family's slave past.  It is an object that represents the value of human beings, as his grandmother and father were bartered off for it.  At the same time, he also recognizes that the carvings on the piano, as well as the feeling of Ophelia "missing" her slaves, also represents the complex nature and relationship that Blacks and Whites shared as a result of slavery.  The etchings of the family history on the piano represent how the family's narrative is one of suffering and pain, indelible marks that can never leave.  For Boy Willie, the piano's past is a moot point. He refuses to see it in that light.  Rather, he sees it in the light of the present.  The piano has a utility and a benefit in cost that makes the past negotiable. In this, one sees a very material approach to the appropriation of the past in that the current economic conditions can dictate how the past is viewed.  If we speak of complexity in the relationship to the past, little can go beyond Berniece's approach.  On one hand, she demonstrates a fierce loyalty to the past in not wanting Boy Willie to sell it.  This indicates that her understanding of the past is one of respect and reverence.  Yet, she herself does not play it in acknowledgement of her mother's passing.  She refuses to confront the past in her own context, yet she insists that Maretha, her daughter, play the piano.  In this, an odd dynamic is struck for while she possesses an unwillingness to open the door of the past, she has little problem asking her child to do so.  When Berniece does play the piano in the end, it is a moment where she has to confront and reach into the past in order to bring peace to both the present and the hopes for redemption in the future.  It is here where yet another set of dynamics is presented in terms of how a character views the past.


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