Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 569

Brown Girl, Brownstones depicts the coming-of-age of Selina Boyce. Narrated in the third person, the novel is divided into four books that cover the growth and maturation of Selina from the age of ten to eighteen. The first two books bring out the basic conflict in the novel. The Boyce family lives in a leased brownstone in Brooklyn. As young as she is, Selina is aware of the tension between her parents. She is devoted to her father, Deighton, an impractical dreamer who lacks the ambition and energy of other immigrants from the West Indies. He likes to bask in the sun and flit from one plan to another, without applying himself enough to achieve any goal. Silla, Selina’s mother, offers a stark contrast; she works two jobs and is determined to succeed in attaining the American Dream. Selina’s inability to reconcile the two conflicting forces in her life is further complicated by her own emerging sexuality and consciousness of race. Beryl, Suggie, and Miss Thompson are her confidantes during this period.

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The underlying conflict deepens when Deighton Boyce inherits two acres of land in Barbados. Silla wants him to sell the land and use the cash as a down payment on their brownstone. Deighton refuses to consider the option and dreams of building a beautiful house on the land. As the United States enters World War II, Silla and her fellow countrymen find better-paying jobs and begin to acquire properties at a faster pace. Envious of her friends, Silla takes drastic measures to own her house. She forges her husband’s signatures and manages to sell the land in Barbados; Deighton, in turn, pays her back by squandering the fraudulently obtained money on frivolous gifts for himself and his family.

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Selina hates her mother for destroying her father’s dreams. On Selina’s fifteenth birthday, Deighton’s right arm is mangled in an accident at his workplace. The resulting forced retirement, along with the rejection by his wife and by the Barbadian community, gradually causes Deighton to seek solace in a cult. He distances himself from the family—even from Selina, his favorite daughter—and moves out. Silla, defeated in every way, takes revenge by reporting him to the immigration authorities. Deported because of his illegal status, Deighton commits suicide as his ship approaches Barbados.

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The last section of the novel deals with the aftermath of this tragedy. Mourning her father, Selina refuses to forgive her mother for her betrayal. Her isolation is increased as Beryl moves away and Suggie is evicted by her mother. She goes to college on her mother’s insistence but refuses to study for a respectable profession. Selina finds more joy and fulfillment in ballet and modern dance, which are considered useless by her mother. During this period, she has an affair with Clive Springer, a jobless war veteran who is a failure by the community’s standards.

Selina has a rude awakening when she confronts racism on a personal level. She realizes that to the white people around her, she is no more than another member of the black race. When Clive refuses to break out of his mother’s manipulative control, Selina decides to make it on her own. She recognizes how similar she is to Silla in her determination and her will to succeed. She decides to follow her own interests and finally makes peace with her mother.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 434

The first full-length American novel to offer an in-depth treatment of a black girl growing up, Brown Girl, Brownstones describes the coming-of-age of Selina Boyce, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants living in Brooklyn, New York. Beginning when she is ten, the novel traces the various influences that affect her development until she reaches college age. As she struggles with warfare between her parents, her sexual awakening, racism, and the development of her own values, Selina’s is a painful coming-of-age. Yet she seems strong and resolute at the novel’s end.

The novel is divided into four parts. The first, “A Long Day and a Long Night,” introduces the various characters as they go about their business in a Brooklyn neighborhood on a single day. The second part, “Pastorale,” is a lyrical evocation of two girls’ friendship and Selina’s despair at the physical prospect of growing up. Part 3, “The War,” occurs simultaneously with World War II but centers on the warfare between Selina’s parents over Barbadian land willed to Deighton. Silla wants to sell it and “buy house”—a New York brownstone—while Deighton wishes to return to Barbados. The fourth part is entitled “Selina” and treats Selina as a young woman finally come of age, challenging her mother and community, having her first love affair, attending college, and being wounded by racism.

Besides being the first American novel to treat a black girl’s coming-of-age, Brown Girl, Brownstones is also the first to explore fully a black mother-daughter relationship. Silla and Selina have a relationship deeply complicated by the warfare between the determined Silla and Deighton, Selina’s beloved but weak-willed father. Through much of the book, Selina hates her mother, for she ruthlessly cheats Deighton out of his inheritance and then, after he regains it and squanders it, causes him to be deported. Silla also speaks contemptuously of Selina’s older friends, Miss Thompson and Suggie Skeete.

Yet even as Selina seems to reject her mother, she begins to act like her. When her older lover Clive, whose weak will and artistic temperament are reminiscent of Selina’s father, finds it difficult to detach himself from his mother to attend to Selina’s needs, Selina rejects him as decisively as Silla would have. She shows an equal amount of resolve when she rejects the community of materialists in the Barbadian Homeowners Association and when she decides, at the end of the novel, to return to Barbados. Although these latter two actions may represent an effort to follow her father’s wishes, her capacity for resolve derives entirely from her mother.

Context

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In a society that paid little attention to the welfare of young women of color, Brown Girl, Brownstones provided a much-needed contribution. Like many other works of women’s literature, it was not properly appreciated when it was first published, but it has grown in influence and importance as the study of women has developed. Adopted and reissued by the Feminist Press, the novel now must be regarded as one of the masterpieces of coming-of-age literature.

That Paule Marshall had no precedent for such a novel makes her achievement all the more remarkable. She eagerly read Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha (1953), which was the first book to describe a black woman’s consciousness, but she had no model for a book about a black girl’s interior life. Moreover, she could find few models of a strong woman character like Silla Boyce. In an interview Marshall attests the importance of creating such characters: “Traditionally in most fiction men are the wheelers and dealers. They are the ones in whom power is invested. I wanted to turn that around. I wanted women to be the centers of power.” Thus Brown Girl, Brownstones is one of the pioneering works of black women’s fiction.

Techniques / Literary Precedents

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Marshall pays homage to an oral storytelling tradition. In "Shaping the World of My Art," Marshall describes listening as a child to her mother and her mother's friends telling stories in the kitchen of their brownstone. Marshall calls these women the "kitchen poets" for their skillful use of language. Marshall learned early that the key to good storytelling is characterization, and in this novel, the simple linear plot turns on character portrayal. The drama and suspense in the narrative is married to the characters — especially Selina — and their search for identity. The language of Marshall's immigrants is indeed poetic, dramatic, and alive, and often leavened with irony and humor.

Defining oneself and establishing self autonomy is not new to literature nor to African-American letters, but Marshall's first novel is in a sense atypical in its portrayal of strong female protagonists. Brown Girl, Brownstones has been favorably compared with Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Dorothy West's The Living Is Easy (1969), Nella Larsen's Quicksand (1928), Ann Petry's The Street (1946), as well as some of her drugstore fiction found in the Miss Muriel and Other Stories collection (1974) and Gwendolyn Brooks's Maud Martha (1953).

Bibliography

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Brown, Lloyd W. “The Rhythms of Power in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7 (1974): 159-167. Examines the use of rhythm and sound in Marshall’s novels and short stories, especially Brown Girl, Brownstones and “To Da-duh, In Memoriam.” Brown contends that Marshall uses a repetitive, rhythmic symbolism to support themes of self-reflection and life versus death. He also examines the way in which the power of the machine, another strong theme in Marshall’s fiction, is portrayed through rhythmic symbols, pitting the machine against the life force to create a jarring “sound” full of tension and conflict.

Cobb, Michael L. “’She Was Something Vulgar in a Holy Place’: The Resanguination of the Word in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones.” In Racial Blasphemies: Religious Irreverence and Race in American Literature. New York: Routledge, 2005. Chapter on the ideological function of blasphemy in Brown Girl, Brownstones; compares the work to novels by James Baldwin, Flannery O’Connor, and William Faulkner.

Collier, Eugenia. “The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Contends that Marshall’s body of work reveals a progression of characterization from divided individuals to whole individuals integrated within a community. Collier sees in Brown Girl, Brownstones an illustration of a lost, fragmented protagonist—Selina—who finds herself within the world community. Collier illustrates her thesis with references to all Marshall’s novels and several short stories.

Jackson, Blyden. The Waiting Years: Essays on American Negro Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1976. Includes Marshall’s The Chosen Place, the Timeless People in a discussion of African American novels that might be labeled “militant” for their intolerance of the white world.

Jackson, Tommie Lee. “The Success Phobia of Deighton Boyce in Paule Marshall’s Brown Girl, Brownstones.” In An Invincible Summer: Female Diasporan Authors. Trenton, N.J.: Africa World Press, 2001. Looks at Marshall as a diasporic writer in examining her representation of success and ambition.

Kapai, Leela. “Dominant Themes and Techniques in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” CLA Journal 16 (September, 1972): 49-59. Examines the major themes at work in Marshall’s novels, including racial tension, psychological struggles for identity, and the African American cultural tradition. Kapai traces these themes through an examination of character in each of Marshall’s novels, concluding that one of Marshall’s primary voices is the one that calls readers to their past in order to enlighten their present selves.

Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, eds. Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. An anthology of essays that emphasizes the power of the written word in giving voice to the “magic” and reality of black women’s lives. Marshall’s work is a frequent subject in this collection. In Barbara Christian’s “Trajectories of Self-Definition,” Brown Girl, Brownstones is discussed as a major literary touchstone in African American fiction by women, focusing as it does on a mother-daughter relationship. In “Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World,” Hortense Spillers discusses Marshall’s novel in the context of her career, viewing it as an expansion of the themes initiated in Brown Girl, Brownstones.

Whitlow, Roger. Black American Literature: A Critical History. Totowa, N.J.: Littlefield, Adams, 1974. Traces Marshall’s life and career, evaluating her work in a personal and social context. Whitlow considers Brown Girl, Brownstones a major novel of urban realism. He emphasizes Marshall’s use of the urban setting of Brooklyn as a symbol of various thematic concerns.

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Critical Essays