Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Paule Marshall

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Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 732

Several themes are at work in Brown Girl, Brownstones. The strongest, perhaps, is the theme of personal and social alienation. From the start of the novel, Selina is aware of an environment that does not welcome her. The brownstone buildings themselves seem to warn her of pending entrapment, a pervasive, heavy darkness that will always surround her, like the darkness of her skin. The people she meets remind her of those who found themselves hopelessly mired in this darkness: Suggie, with her meaningless sexual encounters, perpetrated only for the momentary illusion of power and life force they provide, and Miss Thompson, with her painful reminder of the violence of the world toward the weak, the black, the female.

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Initially, Selina hopes to escape their fate through her father’s dreams, believing in them because she must. The intense hatred she feels toward her mother for the destruction of these dreams is the hatred a prisoner feels for the jailer who throws away the key. Selina sees her mother as someone who, like the brownstone buildings, exists merely to imprison her. When her father dies as a result of Silla’s scheming, and Suggie is evicted, Selina is certain of her mother’s objective: She wants Selina to become what she is, an object of cold, autonomous strength, without need of anyone. What Selina fails to understand until the end of the novel is that her mother has prisons of her own, and these prisons have made her strong.

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The truth is that Silla is neither cold nor autonomous: She very much needs her husband’s strength and love. Her passion for him is what leads her to surrender the money she has stolen from him. Her need to believe in his love for her provides him with the means of hurting her. It is only Deighton’s final and total abandonment of Silla that makes her renounce him. Until Selina herself falls in love and understands what it means to be emotionally dependent, she cannot understand her mother’s prison and need to own something no one can steal from her—a home.

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Selina’s sense of alienation extends beyond her familial relationships. As she begins to venture outside the brownstone world, she meets people who see her blackness as a kind of invisibility, and she fears this lack of identity more than anything. Though she forms friendships with white people, she always feels a need to overcome their initial dismissal of her as a void of blackness. As Clive explains to her, “I’m afraid we have to disappoint them by confronting them always with the full and awesome weight of our humanity, until they begin to see us and not some unreal image they’ve super-imposed.” Selina senses that her whole life will be a struggle to prove her humanity. If this is so, how can she get beyond that to achieve other things—education, marriage, politics, dancing, love?

The alienation in the novel gives birth to the logical consequence of the power of dreams and aspirations. Deighton uses his dreams of success in the white man’s business world as a means of coping with the alienation he feels as an “invisible” black man. Silla lives for her dream of a house to bridge the gap between her feelings of repulsion toward her past and her present feelings of an outsider in a world that is at best ambivalent toward her presence. Selina dreams of a sense of wholeness, a truce between and among her warring worlds—the Nazis and the Allies, the Suggies and the Sillas, the mothers and the fathers. She also seeks internal unity, and this dream seems focused on a need to find a place to call her own, not like her mother’s “place,” but a place of origin. In this quest, she is a combination of both her parents’ dreams: her mother’s dream of possessing something of her own and her father’s dream of finding his own social and emotional place in the world. When Selina embarks on her journey to the Caribbean at the end of the novel, she is committing herself to a quest for self, with the ultimate objective of presenting to the world that denied the individuality of both of her parents a person of definitive blackness, a whole being, one that cannot be dismissed as invisible.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 517

It is typical for a Bildungsroman to focus on the growth and education of a young person. In depicting a protagonist’s maturation and acceptance or rejection of social values, the novelist can hold those values themselves up to inspection. This is certainly true of Brown Girl, Brownstones.

Selina, like her father and like Clive, intuitively rejects the impulse to get ahead at any cost, an impulse best represented by her mother and by the Barbadian Association. What she cannot simply reject, however, is the strength and direction of character that allows Silla to work long hours at menial wages to support and improve the lot of her family. Despite Silla’s flaws, Selina respects her as a strong woman.

So long as Deighton is besieged daily by Silla and is struggling to find a sense of self-respect not founded upon the assimilationist and materialist values of Silla and the Barbadian Association, Selina can use his lonely anguish as the focus of her own anger and uncertainty. Thus, Selina supports her father throughout much of the novel because he so clearly needs her emotional support, whereas Silla does not seem to.

After Deighton’s death, Selina faces the task of resolving for herself the conflict of values that was always embodied by the struggle between Silla and Deighton. It is in the spirit of resolving these issues that she attends her first meeting of the Barbadian Association. Yet because of her anger toward Silla and the members of the association for their treatment of Deighton, and because of her continued rejection of the association’s values, she storms out of the first meeting. Clive, who intercepts her as she leaves, proves to share her reservations about the values of the association.

When Selina begins her affair with Clive, she does not appreciate how closely she is reenacting the attitudes and roles of her mother. Like Silla, Selina manipulates those around her, especially her mother, the association, and Clive. Her mother and the association—both of whom recognize Selina as a potential leader and want her to succeed—prove to be remarkably easy to manipulate. Clive, who is weaker willed than either Silla or Selina, proves to be as difficult for Selina to manipulate as Deighton was for Silla.

When Selina, after a successful dance recital, is humiliated by a white woman (who compares Selina to a housekeeper she once hired and asks Selina to say something in her charming West Indian accent), Selina begins to see the members of the association in a new light. Recognizing not only that they have had to struggle throughout their working lives in America with such racial discrimination, but also that they have been strong enough to protect her generation from some of the most searing aspects of racism, Selina realizes that she cannot simply reject the members of the association. Because she still cannot accept their values, she decides that she must travel back to Barbados, searching for values that might be predicated on more than a desire for, or a rejection of, assimilation into the culture of mainstream America.

Social Concerns / Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 205

Brown Girl, Brownstones has been described as a bildungsroman of a black female, and it is often compared to Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). It is a novel of initiation that follows the life of Selina as she grows up a first generation American, the daughter of Barbadian immigrants. As she matures, she struggles to resolve the conflict between succumbing to materialism and retaining the customs, rituals, and folkways of her parents' native land, Barbados. In developing this theme, Marshall contrasts Barbadian with American culture, and immigrant with American culture, and seems less concerned with Selina Boyce's race than with her status as a first generation American. Brown Girl, Brownstones examines the corruption and loss of identity that accompanies the obsessive pursuit of property, in this case, an obsession to purchase brownstones. Cultural assimilation and financial security replace warmth and love, and real poverty is exchanged for spiritual poverty.

A second theme in the novel involves Selina's search for her identity as a woman and as a daughter of Barbadian immigrants. She must learn to transcend the stereotypes and repressive definitions of "woman" established by a patriarchal Caribbean community, as well as to carve out a meaningful place for herself in America.

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