Brown Girl, Brownstones Additional Summary

Paule Marshall


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Written as an attempt by Paule Marshall to reflect on her own life, Brown Girl, Brownstones is an autobiographically based novel about a young black woman growing up among the Barbadian immigrant community of Brooklyn in the 1940’s. From the beginning, Brown Girl, Brownstones is a novel about the conflicting set of values represented by Deighton and Silla Boyce, with Selina, their daughter and the novel’s main character, caught in the middle. On one side is Deighton Boyce, idle because he lacks the drive and discipline to embrace a culture and its materialistic values that he knows devalue him. Deighton studies to become an accountant, but never becomes one; he studies to learn to play the trumpet, but never performs. Opposing him is Silla Boyce, who embraces a hard-edged, penny-conscious immigrant ethic. Silla is determined to do what it takes to own land and get ahead materially. Though Selina identifies explicitly with her father throughout much of the novel, she slowly comes to realize that her deeper affinities are to her mother.

At the novel’s start, Selina is ten, but she is described by the narrator as possessing a manner seemingly wise beyond her years, with eyes “too old . . . in their centers.” When her father unexpectedly inherits a two-acre plot of land, he begins dreaming of moving back to Barbados. Silla, who has no intention of returning to her homeland and who resents her husband’s dreaming as much as his idleness, plots to have the land sold.

The first two short sections of Brown Girl, Brownstones, “A Long Day and a Long Night” and “Pastorale,” establish the close relationship between Selina and her father, the emerging similarities between Selina and her mother, and the frequently unstated attraction and respect between Silla and Deighton that underlies their fighting. The third section, “The War,” covers the years of World War II, years when the conflict between Silla and Deighton erupts into a domestic war.

After Deighton is notified that he has inherited land, Silla plans to have the land sold behind his back. She...

(The entire section is 869 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Brown Girl, Brownstones, Paule Marshall’s first novel, set in the Barbadian community of Brooklyn, focuses on the coming-of-age of Selina Boyce, whose parents emigrated from Barbados. Selina’s initiation into adulthood is complicated by family strife and the racial prejudice she finds in Brooklyn in the 1940’s. Her mother, mirroring the Barbadian community around her, strives for the American Dream of owning her own home, while her father refuses to be caught up in the pursuit of that dream, longing to return to the idyllic life he associates with Barbados. Selina is caught in the family tensions between her father’s free spirit and her mother’s power. Although most often drawn toward her father, she recognizes the pull of her mother. Selina discovers that she cannot find her own way by following either parent.

The first glimpse the reader gets of Selina highlights contradictions and conflicts: Although only ten, her eyes suggest an uncanny age; she springs forward while at the same time pulling herself backward with one arm; she imagines herself wearing a gown and belonging to the genteel white family that previously lived in the brownstone now rented by the Boyces, but she sees her lanky and ragged reflection in a mirror.

Several characters in the novel mark Selina’s development from an awkward ten-year-old into a graceful dancer and successful college student. She quickly outgrows her childhood friend Beryl, who opts for conformity with the community; Selina’s friendship with Miss Thompson, an African American, provides some solace from family strife and widens her knowledge about American society and prejudice; Selina leaves Clive, her lover, recognizing in him an inertia that also took hold of her father before his death.

By the novel’s end, Selina decides to leave Brooklyn and travel to Barbados alone. Although often at odds with her mother and the Barbadian community, Selina, before leaving, makes peace with both; she leaves the brownstone and her community not with bitterness, but with determination to find her own way.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

The brownstone in which the ten-year-old Selina Boyce resides with her family is a dusty memorial to the generations of white families now being replaced by brown West Indians. Selina dreams about the house’s past and then turns her attention to a photograph of her own family before she was born. She tries to understand how her mother, Silla, changed from the shy and pretty young woman in the picture to the hard and aggressive mother she associates with darkness and winter. In contrast, Deighton, Selina’s summery father, with his teasing smile and carefree attitudes, has not changed in the slightest from the man in the photograph. Just thinking about her father makes Selina feel warm and loved.

Deighton inherits a piece of land in Barbados, and Silla plots to get it away from him to buy the brownstone in which they currently live. She succeeds in selling the land but needs Deighton’s signature to cash the check. Pretending defeat, he literally seduces her into trusting him and then spends the money on extravagant presents for each member of the family. However, his moment of triumph, able to walk into fancy stores and be treated with respect because of the cash in his hand, is short lived. The Bajan community mocks and rejects him, he ends up maimed by a machine at the factory where he works, and in his weakened state he is recruited to join a religious cult run by Father Peace.

Selina visits her father at his retreat but cannot help but acknowledge his utter emasculation. Silla, infuriated by Deighton’s abandonment of his family, tips off the immigration authorities to his illegal status and has him deported. He apparently commits suicide by jumping off the boat taking him back to Barbados. In the meantime, Silla, by working several jobs and mastering the powerful machines that contributed to Deighton’s demise, is able to buy the brownstone after all....

(The entire section is 772 words.)