Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 745
Literary critic Barbara Christian argues that a major theme of Paule Marshall’s fiction is the black woman’s search for wholeness. In Brown Girl, Brownstones, Selina tries to integrate a number of confusing and even contradictory elements into her life as she grows into adulthood. She must come to terms with her gender, race, community, and individual relationships. Even the brooding, ghost-haunted brownstones themselves influence her life. In forging her own identity, she tries to reconcile the conflicting viewpoints of her parents and to incorporate elements of the lives of other women of whom her mother disapproves, such as Suggie Skeete and Miss Thompson. She find that each of these persons has experiences that have value.
Christian also calls Marshall a relentless analyst of character. The thoroughness of her analyses makes for well-rounded and memorable characters. For example, the young Selina’s salient characteristic is her openness to others’ influence. Even after she tries to shut out certain persons, such as her mother and the members of the Homeowners Association, she realizes that she has not done them justice, for she carries their values with her. When she determines to gain vengeance on her mother and the Barbadian community for her father’s defeat and death, Selina is displaying both her father’s disarming charm and her mother’s strength of will.
In Silla and Deighton, Marshall creates fully developed characters whose mixture of flaws and virtues gives them complexity and credibility. Critic Mary Helen Washington calls Silla a pioneer ruthlessly cutting a path in the American wilderness for her children. Concerned with survival, she cannot afford to tolerate her husband’s weakness. Deighton, on the other hand, seems bewildered by the new land and does not have the strength of character to make an impression on it.
Marshall derives symbols that characterize this feuding couple from the everyday details of their lives. For example, Silla is pictured making coconut bread in the kitchen, suggesting that she is a provider for her family and maintainer of Bajan customs. Selina also sees her at work among the noisy and dangerous machines in the war factory and notes that the formidable force of her character alone enables her to manage the job. Deighton, on the other hand, is surrounded throughout the novel with inconsequentials: books on accounting that he only half-reads, a trumpet that he only half-practices. In the climactic moment of the third book, when he returns home after having spent all nine hundred dollars from the sale of his land, he unveils a brand-new three-hundred-dollar golden trumpet, which, among the other frivolous gifts he has bought, symbolizes his glittering and inconsequential life. The enraged Silla, who had hoped to put the money into a home of their own, smashes the trumpet on the floor, and its crumpled remains represent Deighton’s defeated manhood.
Marshall skillfully weaves these dramas of character into a cultural fabric unique to the community of which she writes. For example, she devotes a chapter to a Bajan wedding in which Deighton is shunned by the community for his improvidence. The Bajans dance with their backs to him. This community pressure helps to defeat him and to lead him into total dependence, symbolized by his eventual conversion to Father Peace’s religion. Drawing on an actual historical figure from Harlem, Father Divine, Marshall pictures a religion that offers salvation at the expense of autonomy and independence. Father Peace offers a “heaven” that rewards Deighton’s tendency toward weakness by making him totally dependent.
One of the pleasures of this novel is its skilled use of the Bajan dialect and generally brilliant rendering of oral language, particularly in Silla’s incisive assessments of other characters. She says of Deighton, “You was always looking for something big and praying hard not to find it.” She remarks on her daughter’s strong will, “You’s too own-way. You’s too womanish!” Marshall has said in an interview that, as a girl, she was awed and sometimes frightened by the powerful language of the women who used to come to her mother’s kitchen. Clearly this memory informs the chapter in which Silla ominously vows before her female friends to sell Deighton’s land so that she can join the rest of the community in purchasing a home of her own: “Be-Jesus-Christ, I gon do that for him then. Even if I got to see my soul fall howling into hell I gon do it.”