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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 573

While Daughters appears at first to be based on a conflict between two different cultures, both of which have shaped Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, as the novel proceeds it becomes clear that in fact there is little difference between the black society of Triunion and that to be found in Hartford, Connecticut, or among the young professionals of New York City. North or South, black men posture, preen, and betray the causes they pretend to embrace, while black women support the men psychologically if not financially, rear their children, and provide whatever stability there is.

In the statue representing Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe, Triunion’s long-dead freedom fighters, Ursa saw an ideal relationship between men and women. Yet even when black men and women share the same values, things seem to go wrong. Although he considers himself enlightened, Ursa’s lover is not interested in her projects or problems; indeed, he is interested in very little beyond the petty office infighting that affects him directly. Instead of admiring her for quitting a lucrative job to work for social betterment, Lowell criticizes Ursa for making a foolish decision. Ursa’s disappointment in her lover is not unlike her mother’s disappointment in the young, idealistic husband she married. Instead of working beside him for the betterment of their people, Estelle finds herself relegated to a ceremonial position. Moreover, Primus has willingly let himself be seduced by another woman, and, just as willingly, by the corporate representatives who plan to pillage his island. As a result, something in the marriage has died; while Estelle and Primus still love each other, they are no longer united in the pursuit of a common good.

Admittedly, some of what happens on Triunion must be blamed on the colonial heritage. As her physician and friend, Roy Shepard, explains to Estelle, Primus Mackenzie’s ambition stems in part from his desire to rise above his rural background. That same sense of inferiority accounts for Primus’ desire to imitate everything he sees in the United States, as if he could wipe out the colonial past and attain equality by behaving like the men he sees as the masters of this world. With them as his models, unfortunately, it is inevitable that Primus will abandon his ideals and his own people.

When at the end of Daughters Estelle, Astral, and Ursa block Primus’ scheme, one might conclude, with some reviewers, that Marshall believes the redemption of society depends on black women’s wresting authority from black men. This interpretation is supported by the references to abortion in the novel. Not only do Ursa and Astral refuse to have children by unworthy fathers, but, more significantly, after she has betrayed her father Ursa experiences severe abdominal pain, which may well represent her expulsion of her father’s influence over her.

Yet interviews with the author make it evident that her hopes for the future are not based solely on the admitted strength of women, working together as sisters and friends. Even though at present black women seem to represent the conscience of the race, Marshall has not given up on black men. After all, if Primus was spoiled for leadership, it was in large part women who ruined him; in Viney’s son one can see the possibility of a new kind of man, one who will commit himself to a woman he loves and to a world in need of being remade.

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Critical Context