Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

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In Brown Girl, Brownstones, why does Paule Marshall use interior monologue in each chapter?

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A common literary device is the use of first-person narrative to tell the author’s story, involving some fictional character reflecting and observing on that character’s life and experiences.  Using such first-person narration enables the author to easily convey the narrator’s thoughts, as the entire story constitutes such an approach to storytelling.  Paule Marshall, in her novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, does not employ such a device.  She tells her story from the third-person perspective, also common in literature, but a little more distant.  It is through the use of “internal monologues” that Marshal conveys the underlying emotions that motivate the characters.  In Chapter One, looking at a photograph of her family from past years, before Selina was born, and noting the presence in the picture of baby boy she has never known, and will never know, she bitterly reflects on the picture: “He’s like a girl with all that hair.” Later, as Selina encounters her parents, her mother, Silla, responds to Selina’s question, directed towards Deighton, the father, and Silla’s husband, in a way that reveals a barely veiled bitterness about her past and current struggles, much of which have their roots in the racist societies in which she has been immersed.  Silla’s monologue begins as part of a conversation, but one soon gets the sense from her comments, which reflect the harshness of her life, that it evolves into a series of bad memories vocally expressed to no one in particular:

“Her [Silla’s] eyes narrowed as she traveled back to that time and was that child again, feeling the sun on her back and the whip cutting her legs. . .

“’And when it was hard times,’ she was saying now, ‘I would put a basket of maongoes ‘pon muh head and go selling early-early ‘pon a morning.  Frighten bad enough for duppy and thing ‘cause I was still only a child . . .’

“Selina listened.  For always the mother’s voice was a net flung wide, ensnaring all within its reach. . .

“’No,’ the mother was almost shouting now.  ‘No, I wun let my mother know peace till she borrow the money and send me here.  But what’ – her voice dropped tragically – ‘I come here and pick up with a piece of a man and from then on I has read hell by heart and called every generation blessed’.”

This passage provides a good example of Marshall’s use of internal monologues, even the latter, Silla’s memories exposed for all around her to hear, constitute more of an internal monologue than a dialogue involving others in the room.  Silla’s temperament, full of anger and resentment, provides the most opportunities for thoughts expressed aloud.  “Lord-God, tea strong enough to choke a horse,” she declares aloud to no one in particular. In Book III, the start of World War II occupies the household, with its potential ramifications for all.  Hearing the news of the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, with its obvious implications for America, Silla announces to herself, “Nineteen fourteen again.  Thank God I ain’t got neither one to send to die in another white-man’s war.”  Silla is the kind of character around whom others develop the ingrained tendency to step quietly.  Whereas Deighton is relaxed and easy-going, Silla seethes with rage, which provides great context for the verbalization of thoughts.  Her comments regarding Edgar Innis and his attentions towards Ina reflect, again, a sense of Silla’s tendency to verbalize her thoughts while indirectly (or, maybe directly) communicating to Ina the need to tread carefully lest nature take its course to everyone’s detriment.  Marshall’s use of internal monologues serve to allow for the expression of thoughts that might otherwise remain hidden in the subconscious. 

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