Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Brooks had introduced her readers to Maud Martha two years before the publication of this story with her novella Maud Martha (1953). The young black woman who wanted to “found tradition” for herself, for Paul, and for little Paulette now finds herself caught in and measured by the narrow expectations of physical existence. Mrs. Phillips praises her for giving Paul hot meals: “That’s what makes for a healthy man.” Blind to the spiritual values Maud Martha might hope to instill in her household, the mother-in-law goes on to suggest that letting ten-year-old Paulette leave school to baby-sit for the smaller children and getting a job would have been the right way for Maud Martha to help Paul.

Like his mother, Paul had loved physical existence and had offered little but “vicissitudes” to his wife. If love makes a man “more than a body” to a woman, Maud Martha realizes, then even when he “happens to be dead, he is still what you love.” Physical values, though, are easily and surprisingly turned into “a fire-used, repulsive thing”: The body cannot be protected from life’s vicissitudes. Even the young girl observing the grief of others is not envied by Maud Martha; she, too, will know loss in time.

For Maud Martha, life with Paul had become dominated by the physical limits of childbearing and problem-solving; he “had made her feel like a pumpkin.” Now his death offers Maud Martha another opportunity to “found tradition”; she realizes that her children’s lives and her own are now “in her individual power.” The physical realities do not go away—the tears and the white cake will both come—but Maud Martha is ready to rise to the challenge once more. In a world that still approves of her because of her tears, the physical sign of grief, the story of her rising has yet to reach the surface of her life.