Gloria Naylor Essay - Critical Essays

Gloria Naylor American Literature Analysis

Naylor has stated that, as a young reader, she was impressed by the lack of fiction reflecting the experiences and perspectives of black women. Besides the British classics, she read the works of such American authors as the southern white man William Faulkner. Even established black writers were almost all male and reflected a male perspective. There was a severe shortage of fiction that spoke directly to her, a black woman—the invisible woman of American literature. Naylor set out deliberately to help rectify this situation, or this injustice, by writing fiction that brought black women to the foreground.

Naylor began writing during the heyday of the women’s movement, which had articulated a vast body of feminist thought. Although sometimes contradictory, feminist thinking at that time generally stressed the uniqueness of women at the same time that it called for their political equality within society and the family. More doctrinaire thinkers glorified woman as hero—a figure somehow more sensitive, loving, responsible, and courageous than the male of the species. Naylor’s views on black women are permeated by these various strains of feminism.

In Naylor’s work, however, feminism is layered onto more old-fashioned influences that work in concert with it. One set of influences is literary. From such writers as the Brontës, Dickens, Faulkner, and Morrison, Naylor appears to have developed, underneath her surface realism, a taste for romanticism that sometimes verges on the melodramatic or gothic.

The romantic streak comes out, for example, in many of Naylor’s characters. Emotional, obsessive, and unforgiving, they are prone to extreme gestures: A single trait or event can set their whole life course or shatter relationships. As a result, the characters are somewhat one-dimensional, if not stereotypical, but they are nevertheless memorable. Notable examples are Luther Nedeed, who imprisons his wife and child in the basement, and the old conjure woman Mama Day.

Naylor’s romanticism is also apparent in her heavy use of symbolism, which can almost make her seem to be a latter-day Nathaniel Hawthorne. As in Hawthorne, the weather usually cooperates with the mood of her story: a week of gloomy rain after the tragic climax of The Women of Brewster Place, bone-chilling December cold in Linden Hills, and a hurricane in Mama Day. Her novels are filled with such obviously symbolic details as an eerie howl that comes floating up the hillside or “the pinks”—imaginary blobs of pink slime—that pursue Norman Anderson in Linden Hills. (The influence of horror films can also be noted here.)

Most obvious of all is the symbolism of place: Brewster Place is a dead-end street, Linden Hills is laid out like Dante’s Hell, and the barrier island in Mama Day recalls the magical isle of William Shakespeare’s The Tempest (1611). Indeed, Naylor is so intent on the symbolism of her settings that she is occasionally careless about their literal accuracy. In depicting the South, for example, she has crape myrtle blooming in the spring, sugar cane growing in middle Tennessee, and interstate highways heading north years before they were actually built.

Besides literary romanticism, another influence affecting Naylor’s feminism is her early religious background. In her fiction, Naylor is no longer a missionary for any religion; on the contrary, as a former insider she portrays religious hypocrites and self-righteous bigots with deadly accuracy. Rather, she seems to have transferred her original missionary fervor into her feminism and, in the process, retained some of the trappings of religious thought. In particular, there is a tendency in her earlier work to demonize men (black and white). In a conversation with Toni Morrison that appeared in The Southern Review, Naylor said that she had tried hard to avoid portraying men negatively in The Women of Brewster Place and thought she had succeeded. This statement is rather astounding, as practically all the men in the novel are scoundrels, except for a kindly old wino—who is killed for his troubles by a lesbian.

In Linden Hills, Naylor relents somewhat. Two easygoing young black men, poets, are the informal heroes, or at least sympathetic observers, of the novel (in the symbolic scheme, they play a modern-day Dante and Vergil). Luther Nedeed is a scoundrel of the old school, however; one of his black ancestors is even rumored to have “financed gunrunners to the Confederacy.” Within the symbolic scheme, Luther is the devil himself, ruling over the middle-class hell of Linden Hills from its lowest, richest level.

In Mama Day, Naylor relents even more, offering the character George Andrews as her portrait of a good man. A gentle, understanding, hardworking engineer who loves his wife, George even comes across as a better person than most women in the book, including his wife, Cocoa. George is not a woman, however, and hence he has serious limitations deriving from his masculine propensity to approach things in a strictly rational manner—a severe kind of tunnel vision. George’s failure to understand the wider worlds of nature and the supernatural inhabited by the women proves to be fatal. Over these worlds reigns old Mama Day, representing the powers that be. She is the antithesis of the demonized Luther Nedeed.

Such is the feminist gospel according to Naylor. Whether it will ultimately be limiting to her work remains to be seen, but as Naylor’s varying portrayals of men indicate, her thinking has continued to develop. Naylor’s abilities as a writer have progressed, as well: Her style has improved, she has tried new techniques, and with each book she has taken on a more difficult task and succeeded. Naylor’s work contains much more than feminism. Her concern with serious themes is relieved by a sense of humor that presents an effective representation of black banter and repartee. She provides an intimate glimpse into black life at all levels and a daring critique of its problems. Her interest in these difficulties, while sometimes related to her feminism, at other times seems to supersede it. Outstanding among the problems that her characters face are discrimination, poverty, family breakups, and, in particular, the question of black identity.

The Women of Brewster Place

First published: 1982

Type of work: Novel

Seven black women struggle to cope with life on a dead-end ghetto street.

Naylor began her celebration of black women’s lives with The Women of Brewster Place: A Novel in Seven Stories. Exhibiting the varied backgrounds and experiences of seven different women, the seven stories of its subtitle can be read separately, but they are united by their setting and by characters who reappear from one story to the next. The stories also perform a kind of counterpoint to one another, with various parallels and contrasts. However varied the courses of their lives have been, the women now share a common fate: They have all arrived at the dead-end ghetto of Brewster Place, not only a racial and socioeconomic enclave but also a dumping ground for used women.

Mattie Michael, the motherly figure on the block, grew up in Tennessee and arrived on Brewster Place via repeated betrayals by the men in her life. During her youth, one weak moment in a basil patch with the sweet-talking Butch left her pregnant, for which her father brutally beat her and kicked her out. Finding refuge first with her friend Etta Mae Johnson and then in the home of another woman, Eva Turner, Mattie devoted her life to raising and pampering her son, Basil. Basil eventually repaid her by killing a man in a tavern brawl and, after Mattie posted her house for bail, skipping town. Minus son and home, Mattie also left town and headed for Brewster Place, located in a bleak northern city resembling Brooklyn, where she feels a sense of cultural dislocation on top of her other losses.

What brings Mattie to Brewster Place specifically is a remaining personal tie there to Lucielia Louise Turner, or “Ciel,” the granddaughter of Eva Thiner, to whom Mattie is a mother in all but name. Mattie’s presence and...

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