Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

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The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1044

In Brown Girl, Brownstones, Paule Marshall brings together in a New York community a group of first-generation Barbadian immigrants who find their intrinsic spiritual values to be in conflict with the more transient material values of U.S. society. Many find themselves embracing the materialism of U.S. society in order to succeed; others, in trying to hang on to their cultural values, find themselves essentially ostracized from the community.

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While the novel traces Selina Boyce’s development from childhood to young womanhood, at its center is Silla Boyce, Selina’s strong-willed, self-assured mother. Silla is determined to do whatever is necessary to succeed in “this white man’s world.” She is a strong, hardworking, tough-minded, business-oriented woman; to her, as to most of the Barbadians, success means owning commercial property. She works long hours in a factory job and even sacrifices her marriage to this ideal. Without his consent, Silla sells her husband’s property in Barbados in order to obtain the money to purchase the brownstone in which she and her family reside. She is ruthless in her pursuit of money and power.

Both in physical stature and in personality, Silla Boyce is an overpowering figure, as Marshall’s description of her suggests. She is a “bold, angular, powerful” woman, and her family and friends are overawed by her. She so completely dominates her older daughter, Ina, and her husband, Deighton, that Ina withdraws into the church and then into a dull, safe marriage, and Deighton retreats into a cult and ultimately commits suicide. Even Selina, the stronger of the daughters, finds that her resolve withers when she confronts this powerful presence. Watching her mother at work in the factory, Selina observes that the force of the great machines is equally matched by “the mother’s own formidable force.”

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Not only is Silla a powerful woman, but she is also a skillful manipulator of language—a trait that reveals her Barbadian heritage as much as it symbolizes her strength. Talking was frequently the only way in which Barbadian women—many of whom were uneducated—could express their artistic nature. Silla is of this breed of woman, and she practices her art as she gossips with her friends around her kitchen table, as she chastises or cajoles her family, and as she operates within the business world and with the members of the Association of Barbadian Homeowners.

Deighton Boyce, on the other hand, is one of those Barbadians who has tried to cling to the old ways and resist the materialism of U.S. society. Carefree and easygoing, he takes life at a leisurely pace and is content to lie in his parlor reading the paper or playing his trumpet. He is not driven, as are many of his fellow Barbadians; when chided for not making a greater effort to purchase one of the old brownstones, Deighton retorts that he will not invest his money in “old houses white folk don’t want.” Rather, he holds on to his dream of returning to Barbados and using his inheritance to build a grand house on the island.

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The son of a doting mother, Deighton has never developed a sense of responsibility. Thus, he is content to leave the running of the Boyce household and the disciplining of the children to Silla. Deighton is also unfocused; thus, he is unable to complete a project, quickly abandoning one for another at the least provocation. This attitude is viewed by the Barbadian community, including his wife, as a weakness for which he is essentially ostracized. In the face of this ostracism, he seeks refuge in a cult; later, having been deported to Barbados on a ship, he jumps overboard and commits suicide.

Selina, the younger daughter, acts somewhat as a reporter; all the incidents in the novel are filtered through her consciousness. She exhibits characteristics of both her mother and father. Like Silla, she is strong-willed and resolute, and these traits often put her in conflict with her mother. Even in their confrontations, however, Selina’s admiration is apparent; she seems to recognize herself mirrored in Silla.

Selina’s strength, unlike Silla’s, is employed in aiding the weak—Miss Mary, the aged invalid; Suggie, the prostitute; and Miss Thompson, the hairdresser. Each of these women is flawed in some way, and, though much older than Selina, they seem to draw upon her strength. Even Selina’s father seems to look to Selina as a source of strength, often seeming to be more the child than the parent.

Like her father, Selina exhibits a romantic, artistic quality. This quality is evident not only in her sensitivity to people but also in her musings about the old brownstone, which she imagines to have a personality of its own, and in her interest in the arts. Although during much of the novel, Selina is closer to her father, it is apparent that she is a composite of both her parents—a fact that she acknowledges in a final confrontation with Silla when she says, “They used to call me Deighton Boyce’s Selina, but they were wrong. I am truly your child.”

Clive, Selina’s first love, is, like Deighton, a dreamer. An artist and musician, he is a World War II veteran who has been disillusioned by the prejudices and injustices of U.S. society. Thus, he is content to paint his pictures and while away his time lying around the apartment, for which his mother assumes responsibility. He is completely devoid of ambition, and, like Deighton, he is essentially ostracized by the Barbadian community. In a moment of reflection, Selina, who is first drawn to Clive because of his sensitivity and his artistic qualities, admits that she “possessed a hard center he would never have.”

The other characters in the novel are the friends and associates of the Boyce family, and they flesh out this Barbadian community. Most are business-oriented people who have embraced the materialism of white American society, adhering to the dictum pronounced by Silla in her speech to the Association of Barbadian Homeowners: “People got a right to claw their way to the top and those on top got a right to scuffle to stay there.” For this, however, some pay a terrible price.

The Characters

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 522

Selina Boyce is very much the central character of Brown Girl, Brownstones. Even though the novel also offers glimpses into the lives of many members of the Barbadian community and details the struggle between Silla and Deighton Boyce over power and values, these other people are seen from Selina’s perspective. The novel’s central consideration is the influence of various people and forces on Selina’s development. Additionally, although Selina is occasionally described from a third-person-omniscient point of view, the majority of the novel is told from a third-person-limited point of view that describes what Selina perceives and how she reacts.

At the novel’s beginning, Selina is still an adolescent girl, but she is respected by her parents not only for being headstrong but also for being in many respects the emotional center of her family. As the conflict between her parents develops, Selina explicitly tries to identify with her father; however, she is in fact more similar to her mother. Both love Deighton Boyce and seek his love in return, but neither knows how to deal with his unhappiness or seeming aimlessness. After her father’s death, she falls in love with Clive Springer, a man who, like Deighton, is an idle dreamer. Selina’s plans to leave with Clive and save him from his family and his own withdrawal make her relationship to Clive seem remarkably like Silla’s relationship to Deighton. Clive, like Deighton, is willing to be controlled by a woman of stronger will but is not willing or able to change. Selina finally recognizes that she cannot control Clive, and she abandons her hopes for the two of them, planning instead to travel to Barbados alone.

Silla and Deighton represent opposing viewpoints of the immigrant’s plight in America. Silla focuses primarily on the possibilities of land ownership and wealth her adopted society offers; Deighton sees primarily the cost of living in America as a West Indian immigrant and treats the benefits contemptuously. Though their positions are squarely opposed to one another, and they battle openly, they are each also aware of the extent to which they need the other. Deighton needs Silla for material, daily survival, and Silla needs Deighton for his sense of life and wonder.

Clive is, like Deighton, a dreamer and a would-be artist. Though Clive is more intellectual by nature than Deighton, he is no more effective, and he is just as dependent on strong-willed women—his mother and Selina—as Deighton was before his death.

Selina’s friend and classmate, Rachel Fine, is one of the few developed white characters in the novel, and to a large extent, she represents the community of art and artists to Selina. Her friendship and encouragement of Selina’s dancing provide Selina with exactly the type of encouragement Selina could not find in the Barbadian Association. When another white woman blithely insults Selina’s skin color and accent after a dance recital, however, Selina begins to realize that she cannot simply replace her Barbadian community with an artistic community. This understanding supports Selina’s decision to travel to Barbados to search for values.


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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 167

The development of identity is at the core of Brown Girl, Brownstones, and in its related books The Chosen Place, The Timeless People (1969) and Praisesong for the Widow (1983). Through the eyes of Selina Boyce, the reader sees the struggles of her mother Silla and the women of her Barbadian Brooklyn neighborhood, which is the major setting of the novel. Deighton Boyce, Selina's father, represents a back-home-in-Barbados mentality, a kind of fantasy of spirit, gentleness, love, passion, and warmth. Silla comes to reflect a cold, unfeeling, competitive materialism, which is the face that America presents to the "Bajan" immigrant. Silla and Deighton's relationship embodies the extremes of the Barbadian immigrant experience in America. The old culture — and the old gender definitions — must be refashioned to suit a new life. Silla and her friends must find ways of coping with being disparaged as black, female, and foreign. Selina is pushed out into a large, hostile world and must find out who she is in order to make her way.

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