Paule Marshall Essay - Critical Essays

Paule Marshall American Literature Analysis

One of Marshall’s unquestioned strengths is her skill with language, especially the colorful West Indian dialects. She has identified herself as trilingual, at ease with the dialect of Barbados, the African American dialect of Harlem, and the “proper” English she spoke at school. She believes that her sense of language is an African characteristic, triggered by listening to her mother’s friends, who “did marvelous things with the English language. . . . They brought to bear the few African words and cadences that they remembered and they infused and enriched it.” In “From the Poets in the Kitchen,” Marshall confesses that she longed to possess the same power with words. Her evocative scene at the beginning of the 1961 novella Barbados affirms her mastery of that power: “Dawn, like the night which had preceded it, came from the sea. In a white mist tumbling like spume over the fishing boats leaving the island and the hunched, ghost shapes of the fishermen. In a white, wet wind breathing over the villages scattered amid the tall canes.”

Marshall is not a static writer, for each book presents a new challenge. Reena, and Other Stories demonstrates in one volume her increasing command of language between 1954 and 1983. Brown Girl, Brownstones is seen primarily through the viewpoint of the girl Selina, but the novellas of Soul Clap Hands and Sing are perceived through their male protagonists. Marshall’s longest novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, is lushly overwritten, encompassing the voices of many characters, whereas Praisesong for the Widow is taut and compact. Daughters employs some experimental techniques—a poetic slash between words to mark direct thought, an occasional shift into present tense. In The Fisher King, a novel in which bloodlines from Africa, the Caribbean, and the United States come together in the child Sonny, the male characters again attain equal significance with the female.

Marshall’s themes include the individual quest for identity and the need for community, as well as a recognition of individual interconnectedness with the past. In her work, the desire to establish an identity is always linked to integration within a larger community, and her concept of community spreads outward from Brooklyn to encompass the entire African world. A character’s sense of community is then strengthened by an awareness of communal history.

Discovering her historical past, first in Barbados, later in Africa, gave Marshall that communal view that was so healing, and her characters seek similar discoveries. In Brown Girl, Brownstones, Selina Boyce longs to break away from her family to become her own person, but she does so by determining to go to Barbados, her ancestral home. In The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, the American Jew Saul Amron finds himself embraced by the community of Bournehills and is then better able to come to terms with his own history. In Daughters, Ursa Mackenzie breaks away from her father’s influence only to become aware of the community of daughters to which she, her mother, and every other woman belong.

All of Marshall’s major characters find they must explore their collective, as well as their personal, history. One way to connect with the past is through ritual, especially dance, and Marshall uses it often. Examples include the social rituals of the Barbadian Association in Brown Girl, Brownstones, the pigsticking ritual of the cane workers and the Carnival reenactment of Cuffee Ned’s revolt in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, and the collective ritual of the Carriacou Big Drum in Praisesong for the Widow. In contrast, The Fisher King demonstrates that the personal history of each individual character informs the collective history of all.

Another major concern of Marshall’s work is the need for social change. One of her most political novels is The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, which examines the social and economic problems of Bournehills, a hard-luck section of a small Caribbean island where the shadows of slave and master have not been fully obliterated. A number of references are made to thirty pounds sterling, the former price of a slave. Merle Kinbona reminds her American guests that nine million Africans died on their journey to the New World, and the raging sea below her Cassia House will never forget them. Yet the major tension now is between the oppressive British owner of the sugarcane mill and the exploited native workers, known locally as the “Little Fella.” The many sociopolitical tensions of Daughters are reflected in the Caribbean politician Primus Mackenzie and his African American wife, Estelle, through their conflicting views on what is best for the people of Triunion and for their daughter, Ursa.

Marshall questions not only British capitalism, as seen in Bournehills, but American materialism. Brown Girl, Brownstones’ Silla Boyce succumbs to the American Dream of ownership, sacrificing her husband, her daughters, and much of her humanity. Mr. Watford of Barbados loses his human tenderness in his pride of possession. From a different perspective, The Fisher King deplores the materialism of some of the American characters, as opposed to others who have chosen to live in Europe.

Marshall also addresses the control that society has had over women. In her own world, men were the ones who held power. Elsewhere, she notes the triple invisibility of her mother’s Barbadian friends, her mentors in America, who were black, female, and foreign. In a 1979 interview, she stated, “I wanted to turn that around. I wanted women to be the centers of power.” By emphasizing the role of the black woman in her community, Marshall anticipated popular culture by twenty years. She believes that her role as a writer is to tell the truth about her community, to counteract negative stereotypes of African Americans, and to offer a model for young black women.

Brown Girl, Brownstones

First published: 1959

Type of work: Novel

A young girl of West Indian ancestry comes of age in 1940’s Brooklyn, discovering her identity to be apart from, yet defined by, her parents and her culture.

Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall’s first novel, is the story of Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants, and her journey to womanhood. At ten, Selina resists her awkwardly changing body, uncomfortable yet fascinated by a dawning sexual awareness. Marshall writes candidly about women’s bodies, menstruation, and sexuality at a time when writers, especially women, were not encouraged to be so frank.

This initiation novel brings Selina into much more than physical womanhood. She must also develop emotionally and mentally; she must learn humiliation, grief, understanding, and the courage to be herself. Many characters guide Selina through her approaching womanhood: the voluptuous boarder Suggie; Miss Thompson, an elderly southern hairdresser who serves as comforter and surrogate mother and whose foot bears an ulcerous “life-sore” as a direct result of racism; Selina’s schoolmate Beryl; and, of course, her parents. A final guide is Clive, a sometime artist whose major lesson for her is to learn to leave him.

Selina’s real and ongoing conflict is with her mother, a blank, formidable woman. Eventually, Selina learns to understand her mother better, but she never completely overcomes her anger at her mother’s treatment of her father. Selina also recognizes that a part of her is determined and ruthless, too. She is her mother’s daughter as well as her father’s.

A second plot line follows the complex struggle between Selina’s parents. Deighton, her charming yet doomed father, was a cosseted child who was sent to college in Barbados to become a teacher. His proud refusal to be treated as second-class, his insistence that the white world must see him as an equal, leads him to grandiose, ill-fated schemes. Silla, her mother, comes from a background of rural poverty and is determined to survive in “this man country” by acquiring property and renting to tenants. Her strength allows the family to survive as she moves from domestic work into a wartime job as a lathe operator. Silla, however, is weakened by her unquestioning embrace of American materialism. When she realizes that her husband’s dreams will never allow him to share her practical goals, she betrays him by acts that devastate the family.

The faded elegance of the Brooklyn brownstone that the Boyce family shares with other tenants symbolizes the changing neighborhood of the 1940’s. Upstairs lies the disabled Miss Mary, the death-in-life white servant of the building’s former owners, whispering of her dead lover and the vanished past. Next to her lives good-time...

(The entire section is 3675 words.)