Study Guide

Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

Brown Girl, Brownstones Themes

Themes and Meanings (Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Several themes are at work in Brown Girl, Brownstones. The strongest, perhaps, is the theme of personal and social alienation. From the start of the novel, Selina is aware of an environment that does not welcome her. The brownstone buildings themselves seem to warn her of pending entrapment, a pervasive, heavy darkness that will always surround her, like the darkness of her skin. The people she meets remind her of those who found themselves hopelessly mired in this darkness: Suggie, with her meaningless sexual encounters, perpetrated only for the momentary illusion of power and life force they provide, and Miss Thompson, with her painful reminder of the violence of the world toward the weak, the black, the female.

Initially, Selina hopes to escape their fate through her father’s dreams, believing in them because she must. The intense hatred she feels toward her mother for the destruction of these dreams is the hatred a prisoner feels for the jailer who throws away the key. Selina sees her mother as someone who, like the brownstone buildings, exists merely to imprison her. When her father dies as a result of Silla’s scheming, and Suggie is evicted, Selina is certain of her mother’s objective: She wants Selina to become what she is, an object of cold, autonomous strength, without need of anyone. What Selina fails to understand until the end of the novel is that her mother has prisons of her own, and these prisons have made her strong.

The truth is that Silla is neither cold nor autonomous: She very much needs her husband’s strength and love. Her passion for him is what leads her to surrender the money she has stolen from him. Her need to believe in his love for her provides him with the means of hurting her. It is only Deighton’s final and total...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Brown Girl, Brownstones Themes and Meanings (Masterpieces of American Fiction)

It is typical for a Bildungsroman to focus on the growth and education of a young person. In depicting a protagonist’s maturation and acceptance or rejection of social values, the novelist can hold those values themselves up to inspection. This is certainly true of Brown Girl, Brownstones.

Selina, like her father and like Clive, intuitively rejects the impulse to get ahead at any cost, an impulse best represented by her mother and by the Barbadian Association. What she cannot simply reject, however, is the strength and direction of character that allows Silla to work long hours at menial wages to support and improve the lot of her family. Despite Silla’s flaws, Selina respects her as a strong woman.

So long as Deighton is besieged daily by Silla and is struggling to find a sense of self-respect not founded upon the assimilationist and materialist values of Silla and the Barbadian Association, Selina can use his lonely anguish as the focus of her own anger and uncertainty. Thus, Selina supports her father throughout much of the novel because he so clearly needs her emotional support, whereas Silla does not seem to.

After Deighton’s death, Selina faces the task of resolving for herself the conflict of values that was always embodied by the struggle between Silla and Deighton. It is in the spirit of resolving these issues that she attends her first meeting of the Barbadian Association. Yet because of her anger...

(The entire section is 517 words.)

Brown Girl, Brownstones Social Concerns / Themes

Brown Girl, Brownstones has been described as a bildungsroman of a black female, and it is often compared to Zora Neale...

(The entire section is 205 words.)