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.
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.”
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...
(The entire section is 1044 words.)