Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In the novel, Bourne Island is a mythical place, one Marshall creates to illustrate the plight of postcolonial people. Located at “the eastern boundary of the entire continent, to serve as its bourn,” Bourne Island looks west to Africa and the slaves who perished en route to the New World. Marshall’s account of the Cuffee Ned legend, which lives on, suggests a place where time stands still, where past, present, and future merge. Saul believes that the island is a place that “he has unwittingly returned to,” and Merle observes that “yesterday comes like today to us.” Cyclical patterns, such as the periodic cleansings of the sea, predominate in the novel. Events occur and then are reenacted, overtly as in the annual Cuffee Ned pageant, and implicitly, as Harriet returns to the site where her ancestors exploited the Bourne Island people. In fact, the Center for Applied Research project is in danger of becoming another example of white exploitation, perhaps not so different from the scheme Lyle and his friends propose.

As is often the case with island literature, the small island world becomes a microcosm of the larger world; the fate of Bournehills becomes the fate of exploited people everywhere. There are two classes of people, the colonizers and the colonized, who, as Merle suggests, “colonize our minds, too.” Percy Bartram, Sir John Stokes, and Harriet are alike in some ways. They want to control, they assume parental authority, and they...

(The entire section is 496 words.)

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The Chosen Place, the Timeless People is a novel about neocolonialism and the reverberation of past actions in the present. Yet the novel is not a political tract; rather, it carefully explores the ways in which people’s relationships are critical to the historical process. The book demonstrates that there is an ongoing interaction between the apparently faceless forces of society and the choices human beings make. The parts of the novel reflect that interaction. The novel also emphasizes the connection between character and context, while extending that connection beyond gender or racial indicators to include an entire people and their land.

The novel turns on its epigraph, a saying from the Tiv people of West Africa: “Once a great wrong has been done, it never dies. People speak the words of peace, but their hearts do not forgive. Generations perform ceremonies of reconciliation but there is no end.” The theme is that of the complex series of interactions between the oppressed and their oppressors; its truth is that half measures cannot substantially change those interactions.

Finally, the novel portrays history as an active, creative, and moral process composed by human beings. According to Marshall, individuals and whole cultures decide upon the moral nature of an act, a series of acts, a history. In this novel, Marshall brings together the two themes that are most central to her work: the importance of truly confronting the past, both in personal and historical terms, and the necessity of reversing the present order.