Praisesong for the Widow Essay - Critical Evaluation

Paule Marshall

Critical Evaluation

Paule Marshall is considered one of the most important of the African American women novelists who reached broad popular and critical success beginning in the 1960’s. An American writer whose parents were born on the island of Barbados in the Caribbean, Marshall created a body of work about Caribbean immigrants and their descendants that anticipated the work of later Caribbean American writers, such as Jamaica Kincaid and Edwidge Danticat. Marshall was awarded a MacArthur Foundation genius grant in 1992.

Marshall’s semiautobiographical first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), was groundbreaking for featuring a female protagonist from a black immigrant family. The novel introduces a theme that would continue to be important in Marshall’s fiction: African Americans maintaining and honoring ties to the Caribbean and to Africa. In Praisesong for the Widow, the third of Marshall’s novels, she lends voice to a middle-age upper-middle-class African American woman. As the novel opens, the main character, Avatara “Avey” Johnson, is on a cruise through the Caribbean on a ship named Bianca Pride (“white pride”); with her six suitcases and a hatbox and her mainly white shipmates, she is as far away as she could be from the poverty, struggle, and joy she knew as a young wife in Brooklyn.

As a child, Avey spent summers with her Aunt Cuney on Tatem Island, off the coast of South Carolina, and heard again and again stories of the slaves who landed there in captivity. Newly married, she lives in Brooklyn with her husband, Jay, and finds a spiritual connection with her heritage in the music of Duke Ellington, Count Basie, and Ma Rainey and in the poetry of Langston Hughes, Paul Lawrence Dunbar, and Gwendolyn Brooks. However, as Avey and Jay turn their focus more and more to material success, they lose all cultural connection. They stop listening to Jay’s jazz and blues records, stop going to Harlem to see friends and go to shows, and stop...

(The entire section is 816 words.)