Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
In the first of the novel’s thirty-four brief chapters, the seven-year-old Maud Martha Brown yearns to be “cherished” in the way that she perceives her sister Helen, two years older, to be. The same motif of sibling envy pops up late in the novel when Maud Martha’s mother, Belva, reveals that Helen wants to marry the family doctor, a man much older. This revelation (the girls’ father is thinking of changing doctors) leads to Maud Martha’s musing that “It’s funny how some people are just charming, just pretty, and others, born of the same parents, are just not.” The best answer that Belva can muster is “you make the best cocoa in the family.”
These passages reveal something of the insecurity that Maud Martha feels, but her sensitivity to race and class issues troubles her much more. Her “first beau,” Russell, is “decorated inside and out,” but he is dismissed in favor of the “second beau,” who longs to be an English country gentleman and envies the chaps who have mastered Vernon Parrington’s classic work of intellectual history, Main Currents in American Thought. Maud Martha comes to an understanding, however, with Paul Phillips, who admits “I’m not handsome,” and their generally contented marriage produces Paulette, who arrives in the world in comic confusion.
Some of Brooks’s best chapters are stinging portraits of pretentiousness. When she goes to hear a popular black author speak, to his annoyance she tags along with him afterward toward the Jungly Hovel. His tone changes immediately when they meet up with a white couple, and Brooks’s contemptuous portrait of this “rash representative from the ranks of the intellectual nouveau riche.” Equally cutting is the sketch of Mrs. Burns-Cooper, an elegant white lady who interviews Maud Martha as a potential house maid. Mrs. Burns-Cooper struggles to achieve the common touch as Maud Martha is peeling potatoes, but her tedious chatter about her imported lace, her sister-in-law’s Stradivarius, and the charm of the Nile convinces Maud Martha never to return.
Maud Martha is a novel of acute observation of human behavior, and it is written in the bright language of a major poet.
Summary (Masterplots II: American Fiction Series, Revised Edition)
Maud Martha is a lyrical, impressionistic series of episodes and vignettes narrating the life of Maud Martha Brown, a young African American woman born into a struggling working-class family. It is clear from the beginning that she is sensitive, aware, and deeply affected by color prejudice both outside and inside her home. The reader follows her through her development from a seven-year-old child into young adulthood. Much of the novel is loosely autobiographical.
The novel is divided into thirty-four brief chapters, each delineating a moment in Maud Martha’s life. The narration is in the third person, but events are seen from Maud Martha’s point of view. The first five chapters take readers quickly through her childhood, touching on her family life with reference to quarrels between her parents, a description of her schoolyard, the death of her grandmother, and the experience of being visited, and patronized, by a white child.
The sixth chapter begins to explore the young woman, beginning with a visit to a theater that results in Maud Martha’s making the decision that what she wanted was “to donate to the world a good Maud Martha.” The next few chapters explore three events significant in the heroine’s life not only as individual occurrences but also as representative of the kind of traumas she deals with throughout the novel: the death of her Uncle Tim, the near loss of the family home; and the preference of a young man for her younger, lighter-skinned sister Helen, which makes Maud Martha realize that even her beloved father favors Helen. Helen tells her sister that she will never get a boyfriend “if you don’t stop reading those books.”
The following chapters prove that statement false, as they describe Maud Martha’s “first beau,” Russell, her “second beau,” David McKemster, and Paul Phillips, the “low yellow” man who is to become her husband. Although at this point she is dreaming of going to New York City, her symbol for what life ought to be like, at the age...
(The entire section is 834 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Sensitive, intelligent, and discerning, Maud Martha Brown is a member of a solid family, but she competes with her sister Helen, who is prettier and more attractive than Maud, according to the standards of their family and of society. Maud is African American, and in Chicago she discovers the complexities and cruelties of racism in not only her relationships with whites but also her connections with other blacks.
Maud has dark skin, and African Americans who are lighter-skinned receive preferential treatment from others, even though Maud’s loyalty and intelligence deserve recognition as well. Maud’s central philosophy is that the common and ordinary features of daily life are beautiful, too, and should be cherished. The dandelion, for example, is common and simple, but it is also radiant and beautiful.
For the young and observant Maud, death and the responses of people to illness and death are impressive. Maud and her siblings visit their grandmother, Ernestine Brown, in the hospital, and to Maud, Grandmother Brown, whose bed is equipped with sideboards to prevent her from falling out of bed, seems to be lying in a coffin. People who visit her ask foolish and predictable questions, and she can only gasp in response. The children return home. Their father receives a phone call, informing him of grandmother’s death.
Later, Maud’s uncle Tim dies, leading Maud to recall his daily personal habits and some memorable moments. Seeing her uncle in the coffin, Maud vainly thinks of her own death and how she wants to be laid in her coffin to reveal her most favorable profile. This silly vanity is counterbalanced by Maud’s observation that life is like a book in the hands of Jesus, but before death, people fail to see that the answers to life’s questions are all listed at the back of the book.
As Maud matures, courtship becomes an important part of her life. Her first boyfriend, Russell, is attractive but insubstantial. David McKemster, her second boyfriend, is dedicated to the styles of the university. Though he is from a modest home and does menial jobs to make his way, he longs for refinement, education, and tasteful possessions.
Maud’s third boyfriend is Paul Phillips. She is thoroughly attracted to him and aims to marry him, but she has some doubts about his full attraction to her—perhaps he would prefer a woman of lighter complexion. Their courtship becomes serious, and they make plans for an apartment and decide on furnishings. Though both would like to have a fine apartment, their limited resources permit them to get only a kitchenette apartment, one with roaches, thin walls that allow the sounds of neighbors to be heard, and prevailing odors of sweat and the result of bodily functions. Despite these shortcomings, the apartment becomes their home.
Like all young couples, Maud and Paul have their moments of pleasure and frustration. One night, they go to the World Playhouse and enjoy a film, feeling conspicuous as the only African Americans in the theater. Paul later accepts an invitation from the Foxy Cats Club to attend a ball, and Paul and Maud attend in high dress. Maud enjoys the gala event, but when Paul dances with another woman, Maud becomes decidedly jealous.
Despite these difficulties, Paul and Maud conceive a child, and Maud gives birth in the apartment. Paul frantically tries to get a...
(The entire section is 1386 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Maud Martha does not have a conventional plot; the thirty-four brief chapters relate a series of fragmentary incidents in Maud Martha’s life. Brooks, using the third-person-limited point of view, constructs an episodic story of an ordinary African American woman’s life, beginning with Maud Martha at the age of seven and ending with her second pregnancy. Historical events (the Great Depression of the 1930’s and World War II) affect Maud Martha’s life but are not a major theme.
The novel focuses on the title character’s domestic life, first as a child and later as a wife and mother. Maud Martha’s relationship to her family is affected both by the black residents of Chicago’s South Side and by the larger world of white people. Although the life of a black family is of central interest, white people enter the narrative in several incidents. The reader is always aware of the white world as a controlling political and social presence in the lives of these African Americans.
Young Maud Martha is revealed as shy and studious with a strong need to be “cherished.” Her home life is portrayed as loving and secure, with a poetic description of her schoolmates, the recounting of a frightening dream about a gorilla, and her sadness and wonderment at her first experience of death, that of her grandmother.
Underlying the benign surface of these childhood events is a darker theme. Maud Martha is insecure over the impending...
(The entire section is 568 words.)