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In Chapter Three of Paule Marshall’s novel Praisesong for the Widow, Avey Johnson, the widow of the title, is an African-American woman of moderate affluence who rediscovers her heritage while traveling in the Caribbean, a region of ancient mysticism heavily influenced by the African influences that arrived courtesy of the European trade in slaves. Marshall’s novel is an indictment of Western imperialism and of the enduring legacy of that expansion of European influences at the expense of indigenous peoples and those African slaves. Marshall connects the present to the past through Avey’s travels and interactions with blacks she encounters along the way. As the age of colonialism as it existed for hundreds of years has largely ended with the decline of the European empires, Marshall interprets contemporary tourism, a largely affluent Caucasian industry, as the new form of white imperialism. It is no accident that the cruise ship – itself a modern symbol of European and American cultural imperialism – is called Bianca Pride, meaning white pride, and that the ship’s main dining room is called Versailles, a very prominent reference to the role of that legacy of European affluence, influence, and imperialism. The palace of Marie Antoinette and the site of the post-World War I conference that sought to dictate a new world order and instead established the framework for the next world war, Versaille’s significance in the novel is less-than-subtly noted by Avey’s daughter Marion when she observes, “Do you know how many treaties were signed there, in that infamous Hall of Mirrors, divvying up India, the West Indies, the world!”
How one responds to this chapter of Praisesong for the Widow is a matter of personal interpretation. Marshall’s body of work is heavily, unsurprisingly, influenced by the African-American experience and by the legacies of colonialism and racism that reconfigured ancient traditions and arbitrarily established borders. The discovery of one’s roots that can accompany encounters with indigenous populations can be emotionally powerful, and Avey’s immersion in the Afro-Caribbean atmosphere after she debarks the cruise ship provides the perfect opportunity for Marshall to impose this metamorphosis upon her protagonist. One could logically respond to this chapter’s theme by emphasizing its importance to Avey’s emotional and intellectual growth. Shorn of the trappings of her American existence and free to explore that Afro-Caribbean atmosphere, she is able to gain a sense of perspective otherwise missing.
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