(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Daughters is a rich and powerful novel, carefully conceived and craftily constructed around a set of tensions that connect the worlds of Triunion, a fictional Caribbean island- nation, and New York City in the person of Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie. In the opening pages, Ursa Mackenzie leaves a New York City clinic feeling guilty about having had an abortion. Her abortion becomes a metaphor for a host of failed dreams and ruined lives, a legacy of slavery, colonialism, and racism in the Americas. Daughters, Paule Marshall’s fourth novel, examines the role in the New World of black women, who must, because of the pernicious and lasting effects of slavery, racism, and sexism, find the courage and resourcefulness to act alone. Whether West Indian or New York African American, black women must lead the struggle to be free and whole.

Ursa is the daughter of Estelle Harrison of Hartford, Connecticut, herself the daughter of Tennessee parents who had fled north. Ursa’s father is Primus Mackenzie, born into an ascendant class of West Indian blacks and destined to lead his people. Sent away from his village home to attend school at age eight, Primus learns European ways, English ways, as the road to power. Later, as a rising young lawyer in Triunion, he is brought by the Carnegie Endowment on International Relations to the United States to “see how it was done.” He falls in love with Estelle, a grade-school teacher and a member of a hospitality committee.

From her first exposure to Triunion, Estelle is fascinated by Congo Jane and her consort Will Cudjoe, who are immortalized in a heroic group sculpture called the National Monument. After Ursa’s birth, Estelle often takes Ursa to the monument, puts the child on her shoulders, and lifts her up toward the two “warrior-lovers.” Marshall connects the leadership of the black woman, the necessity of struggle, and the figures of Ursa and Estelle. Later, when Ursa’s professor at “Mt. H.” college rejects her senior thesis proposal to study the forces of connection and community between black men and women as represented by Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe, it becomes clear that the struggle continues. When Ursa returns to Triunion for the climax of the novel, she takes a flying tumble off “Little Gran’ Morne,” a twelve-foot-high rockpile that the children had always called “the Monument,” an echo of the name of the National Monument to Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe. Ursa’s fall that morning suggests a loss of innocence about her father and her obligation as an adult to do what is necessary to preserve the Government Lands, a publicly owned area, for the people of Triunion and not to let the land be perverted into a monument of another kind, one to North American and colonial greed and exploitation.

Nearly forty years earlier, in 1943, Estelle spends her honeymoon with Primus on the campaign trail as he seeks a seat in the Triunion parliament. On their way back home, their car breaks down after dark; Estelle looks for a flashlight, hoping the problem is “something we can fix.” Primus laughs, claims that “I don’t even know how to open the bonnet on this thing,” and sends a small boy running down the mountain in the dark to fetch help. At dawn, Primus has the boy’s mother bring coffee to them. Estelle has a flash of insight into Primus’ character but postpones pursuing it. It will be, it turns out, her daughter who will confront him.

Primus Mackenzie’s early dream was to make a “model village for all these people you see scattered about on these hills or into a cooperative farm, or both” or to establish a cannery in Government Lands; his plans, however, are transformed by time and disillusion into a scheme—in which he himself invests—to create a resort for rich North Americans to play in, destroying access to and use of the lands and beaches by the people in the process. Primus has sold out to the “hangmen who run the government” and allowed his better dreams to be deflected and defeated. Although Ursa, Primus’ only child, reveals the resort scheme to his constituents and causes his defeat. Marshall suggests that Ursa’s violation of the values of family loyalty is justified by the higher calling of loyalty to the community. Part of Primus’ problem, Marshall suggests, is that he has no real vision of his own but instead aspires to remake Triunion after the U.S. pattern; the seductive visions of colonialism obscure the power and potential of his own culture. This problem is shared by other black men, whether executives such as Lowell Carruthers, with whom Ursa has a lengthy affair, or Sandy Lawson, who had shown promise as a New Jersey political leader. Although angry at neocolonial domination and seeing themselves as “always running after white folk with the long hand out,” they lack the power to fight off that domination.

The women, however, do not. In different ways, each of the memorable women who act in important supporting roles develops and wields the power to battle against such oppression. Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde, a French Creole, is one of “Mis- Mack’s” “doormouth” children, whom she takes in and who, because of her intelligence and loyalty, becomes housekeeper and family retainer, continuing to wait on Primus even after he is married, her loyalty to him unbending. Astral Forde, an ambitious country woman, becomes Primus’ long-term mistress; loyal and intelligent, she and Ursa bond in a powerful scene after Mackenzie’s defeat, Viney, Ursa’s New York City friend, is a determined single mother, and Mae Ryland is...

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(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

DAUGHTERS continues and expands themes that Marshall first explored in BROWN GIRL, BROWNSTONES (1959). Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie, a small, brilliant woman, makes her way in New York City, battling against loneliness, racism, sexism. The daughter of Primus Mackenzie, a West Indian politician from the fictional Caribbean island of Triunion and his American wife, Estelle, Ursa makes tough but necessary decisions, including having an abortion, quitting a job that was for her ethically ambiguous, breaking up a long-standing relationship, and, perhaps most problematic for her, helping a rival politician defeat her father in his bid for reelection and thereby defeat a questionable development scheme.

The novel’s rich assortment of supporting characters includes Astral Forde, Primus’ “keep-miss” with whom Ursa reconciles at the end of the novel; Celestine, the single most important influence on Primus, having been chiefly responsible for his childhood care; and Viney, Ursa’s best friend in New York City, a single mother determined that her son will be secure, well-educated, and ambitious enough to overcome the lingering effects of racism in this country. Marshall makes it clear that, while neither perfect nor superwoman, the women in this novel are the powerful figures; the men, from Primus Mackenzie to Lowell Carruthers (Ursa’s lover) to Sandy Lawson (a black New Jersey politician for whom Ursa and others had had high hopes), are unable to defeat the continuing effects of colonialism, racism, and sexism. In Marshall’s world, a good man is hard to find, but that fact has less to do with individual shortcomings than with the cultural and political consequences of slavery and oppression. Colonialism and oppression are still present in Triunion and New Jersey, she says, but now they wear the faces of businessmen, developers, and sailors from U.S. warships.

The conclusion is controversial but moving, the novel beautiful and political, a first-rate performance.



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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Daughters is the story of a woman’s search for her identity. As her two given names suggest, Ursa Beatrice Mackenzie is the product of two very different cultures. She is named Ursa for her paternal grandmother, Ursa Louise, a Triunion shopkeeper, and Beatrice for her mother, Estelle Beatrice Harrison Mackenzie, a sorority girl from a Hartford, Connecticut, family of schoolteachers and social workers. At the beginning of the novel, despite her father’s pleas and her mother’s letters, Ursa has remained away from Triunion for four years. Yet neither her work in New York City nor her ongoing love affair with Lowell Carruthers can block out her thoughts of home.

The novel is divided into four parts, each of...

(The entire section is 594 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Marshall calls her fourth novel her most autobiographical because in it she finally deals with her feelings about her father, who after joining a cult denied his paternal responsibilities and left his family in poverty. Far from abandoning his daughter, however, Primus dotes on Ursa. Clearly, Marshall’s experience has led her to a more general consideration of the relationships between fathers and daughters, which in a patriarchal society often serve to reinforce a girl’s belief in the natural dominance of males. The fact that Daughters ends with Ursa’s freeing herself from her father is thus particularly significant.

It is also significant that it was her alliance with two other women that enabled Ursa to take decisive action. Throughout the novel, the author shows women nurturing other women. Mis-Mack and Celestine depend on each other, as do Ursa and Viney, Astral and her friend Malvern. Yet when women transcend sexual rivalries, as Estelle does in accepting Celestine and pitying Astral, and as Astral and Ursa do in establishing a new bond, the real meaning of sisterhood becomes evident. This theme puts Marshall in the company of women writers as different as Alice Walker and Terry McMillan, Gail Godwin and Lee Smith, all of whom set out to show the falsity of male claims that women are incapable of real devotion to one another.

Reading Paule Marshall, one cannot help wondering how many works were never written, how many writers were never read, when it was not fashionable to be an African American woman writer, especially one with a Caribbean heritage and pronounced feminist views. Even if the efforts of multiculturalists had resulted in nothing more than the publication of Paule Marshall’s fiction, their crusade would have been justified.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Marshall is one of three novelists whose representations of mother-daughter relationships are the subject of this study.

Ascher, Carol. “Compromised Lives.” Review of Daughters, by Paule Marshall. The Women’s Review of Books 9 (November, 1991): 7. Describes the novel as “intimately observed, culturally rich, morally serious.”

Brownley, Martine Watson. Deferrals of Domain: Contemporary Women Novelists and the State. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2000. Includes a chapter on the intersection of romance and politics in Daughters.

Evans, Mari, ed. Black Women Writers, 1950-1980: A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1983. Contains two fine essays providing thorough overviews and evaluations of Marshall’s early works. Also includes a detailed bibliography.

Marshall, Paule. “Holding onto the Vision.” Interview by Sylvia Baer. The Women’s Review of Books 8 (July, 1991): 24-25. Marshall speaks extensively about her last two novels.

Prose, Francine. “Another Country.” Review of Daughters, by Paule Marshall. The Washington Post Book World 21 (September 22, 1991): 1, 4. Points to Marshall’s handling of “a wide spectrum of serious subjects: race relations, female experience and female friendship, history, loyalty, social responsibility, the legacy of memory and the necessity of forgiveness.”

Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. “Cutting Herself Free.” Review of Daughters, by Paule Marshall. The New York Times Book Review, October 27, 1991, 3-4. Claims that the book “attempts to look at black experience in our hemisphere, to praise what progress has been made and to point to what yet needs to be done.”