Paule Marshall Essay - Paule Marshall Short Fiction Analysis

Paule Marshall Short Fiction Analysis

Paule Marshall’s first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones, ushered in a whole new approach to the African American female protagonist; only Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953) and the earlier Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston had focused on an African American woman’s search for identity within a black community and her own conscious, interior life. Marshall’s work has been concerned from the beginning with a number of major themes: the experience of growing up African American in the United States; the clash of cultures between Westerners and African Americans, West Indians and inhabitants of the American mainland; and the relationships between men and women.

Soul Clap Hands and Sing

Marshall’s first collection of shorter works, Soul Clap Hands and Sing, contains four longer short stories, almost novellas. They are given the titles of the settings: “Barbados,” “Brooklyn,” “British Guiana,” and “Brazil.” In each, the main character is an older man, and the stories explore how that man has failed to live his life fully, for whatever reasons. This failure is indicated by the title of the collection, taken from the William Butler Yeats poem “Sailing to Byzantium,” which includes the lines “An aged man is but a paltry thing/ A tattered coat upon a stick, unless/ Soul clap its hands and sing.” In each case, the failure of the man to allow his soul to “clap hands” has led to the emptiness or aridity of his life. Thus, he is forced to realize his failure to live truly through the intervention of a woman who, in some way, exposes his inadequacies.


In “Barbados,” Mr. Watford, who has returned to his native island after having worked single-mindedly throughout his adult life in the United States just so he can return for this purpose, lives like a white colonizer. He has built a house, bought plantation land, and planted coconut trees, which he tends faithfully, despite years of accumulated fatigue. He has never completely finished his house, however, and he lives in total isolation, proud of the fact that he needs no one and no one needs him. It takes a young native woman, foisted on him as a servant, to reveal the paucity of his life, the emptiness of his days. He recognizes that he has not been able to bear the responsibility for the meaninglessness of his life, but when he goes to confront the young woman with the hope of some renewal, he is capable only of attacking her verbally, to which she responds, “you ain’t people, Mr. Watford, you ain’t people.” It is this that destroys him: He has not been able to be a part of the people who bore him, and has not found sustenance living the same way as those who oppressed him.


In “Brooklyn,” an aging Jewish professor, who has been banned from teaching by the Red-baiters of the McCarthy era, attempts to coerce a young black woman who is taking his class to spend some time at his summer home. She refuses but in the end returns to his class for the final and takes him up on his invitation, only to express her outrage as well as the freedom that she now feels. She has also felt an outcast from her own people, while unable to trust whites. Now she has the courage to live not as her parents have taught her but as she chooses. Professor Max Berman, on the other hand, is forced to recognize that it is his failure to believe in or stand up for anything that has resulted in his loneliness and misery. Interestingly, in “Barbados” the female protagonist is not given a name, while here she is named only in dialogue as Miss Williams.

“British Guiana”

“British Guiana” explores the present of Gerald Motley, a man who is indeed a motley collection of races; he could have been taken for white, because of the British army officer who was one of his ancestors, or black, for the slave woman that officer had been intimate with, or East Indian, from some Hindu who also had a part in his creation. He has achieved a certain amount of success as the head of a radio station, but he knows that he has failed to live his life fully. Although as a young man he had shown a great ability and had rejected his middle-class background to organize a strike, he had been bought off by a job in radio, which forces him to copy the whites who have colonized his country. When he attempts to penetrate the...

(The entire section is 1826 words.)