Daughters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2288

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.

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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 a community organizer and political force in New Jersey. Each of these women, powerful in her suffering and determination, is connected in Ursa’s mind with the heroic figure of Congo Jane.

Marshall argues that the African sense of culture, ecology, and community, nearly destroyed by the disruptive transplantation into the New World through slavery, is, nevertheless, better than the colonial values of Christianity, property, and development. Black men, even those who, like Primus Mackenzie, Lowell Carruthers, and Sandy Lawson, are well educated and have positions of power and influence, are unable to implement the true vision. They continue to be defeated by colonial forces. Only Ursa and the other daughters can and must discover the true values and restore and reinvigorate them, despite the futility and ineptitude of black men. Black women have the will to throw off the shackles of slavery and colonial oppression and create a better, stronger, new world, a world of vision and power, even if, ironically, they must apparently betray family values—or perhaps, to put it more positively, must painfully rethink family values, subordinating them to the higher values of community and nature.

The defeat of hopes for strong, free, and productive post- Liberation societies in the West Indies is a fact of history. Whether through coup of left or right, “free elections” influenced by a Pax Americana, or support from other post-World War II powers, the promise of an orderly, humane, and democratic society seems always to be denied. In Daughters, however, Marshall locates the causes for such failures within the hearts and minds of individuals as they react to larger forces. These include not only the powerful oppositions between conservative and revolutionary elements within Triunion society but also those more elemental tensions between love and hate, dependence and independence, father and daughter, husband and wife. This novel has them all.

Marshall also commands language and symbol, character and plotting, to create a fully realized art evocative of the human heart in conflict with itself. The language of the novel represents the richness of African-American New York street talk, West Indian English Creole, Barbadian and Antilles Creole, standard English, and Standard West Indian; at one point, Primus writes to Estelle about the “people up Gran’ Morne behaving like they’re still maroons fighting the French, refusing to even speak the official language; and the rest of us still with this colonial thinking, acting more British than the British.” Thus, Marshall illuminates a major topic—colonialism in all its guises and its destructive consequences. In addition, Marshall weaves folklore deftly into the fabric of the novel to reveal character and motivation, establish theme, and create atmosphere. Adding to the general texture of the novel are such facial and vocal folk gestures as “cut-eye” and “suck teeth,” common Caribbean expressions of disgust, annoyance, and denigration. A traditional and powerful oath, “I kiss my right hand to God,” reveals Ursa to be a child of Triunion as well as of the United States. Folk phrases such as “Miss Murry in a hurry,” used to describe a busy woman, or “standing there like a foolie-the-fifth,” used to describe a country bumpkin, create texture and character. The description of eating mangos in the surf and other traditional food customs contribute to an evocation of place and time and their impact on scene and character. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of folklore in the novel is Marshall’s metaphoric use of a traditional child’s game, “Statues,” when, at a reception held by the Triunion planning and development board, Estelle’s anger at such events and their values breaks out. Turning to one of the visiting U.S. businessmen, she asks whether he recalls the game. Without waiting for a reply, she assumes the pose of the Statue of Liberty—and holds the pose until the entire reception is silent; “all sixty or more guests…turning into statues of themselves.” Estelle’s game is a stunning criticism not only of the visiting dignitaries but also of Primus and the entire “game” of development and power. In another example of folklore’s functioning to reveal theme, Astral Forde, after a terrible abortion, the consequence of being raped by a soccer player, throws dirt behind her: “Throw down little dirt when you leave the place so the child won’t come back to hag your spirit,” her friend Malvern had instructed her. Ironically, this is Astral’s only pregnancy; her ability to have children, indeed, to have a successful, sustainable relationship, is blighted by the experience. Its thematic significance is even larger, a contribution to the larger political themes of the novel, a significance underscored by Ursa and Astral’s reconciliation at the end. Thus, it is in the intimate gestures of mothers and daughters, of woman to woman, not in the large political schemes of male politicians, that Marshall ultimately situates salvation, the hope of community, the anodyne for loneliness and despair.

Bibliography

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Ascher, Carol. “Compromised Lives.” The Women’s Review of Books 9 (November, 1991): 7. Book review in which Ascher describes the novel as “intimately observed, culturally rich, morally serious.”

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

Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 15, 1991, p. 410.

Chicago Tribune. October 6, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

Essence. XXII, October, 1991, p. 48.

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.

Krist, Gary. “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Hudson Review 45 (Spring, 1992): 141-148. In a review of works indicating publishers’ increasing “inclusiveness,” Krist argues that Daughters rejects a “sentimentalized” version of history and even suggests that “corrupted” black males may be useless in future struggles.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 1, 1991, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 6, 1991, p. 1.

Marshall, Paule. Interview by Daryl Cumber Dance. Southern Review 28 (Winter, 1992): 1-20. A substantial interview, focusing on Daughters, but touching on a variety of subjects. Marshall’s West Indian settings enable her to point out truths about the history of black people, such as their sexual “equality” under slavery. Present-day black women must remind men of their lost idealism and also join them in concerted action. Discusses the genesis of Daughters, which Marshall calls her “most personal” novel.

Marshall, Paule. Interview by Joyce Pettis. MELUS: Society for the Study of the Multi-ethnic Literature of the United States 17 (Winter, 1991): 117-129. Conducted while Daughters was still being written, this interview contains revealing comments about the direction the novel was taking. The author comments that on one level it involved working out her own relationship with her father yet also was, more broadly, an exploration of “the themes of seduction, dependency and domination.”

Miller, Adam David. “Review Essay: Women and Power, the Confounding of Gender, Race, and Class.” The Black Scholar 22 (Fall, 1992): 48-51. Looks at the theme of power in various Marshall novels. Of particular interest is a discussion of the activist Mae Ryland in Daughters, whose source of strength is her community. Miller’s argument is not coherently developed, but his comments are illuminating.

New Woman. XXI, November, 1991, p. 26.

Prose, Francine. “Another Country.” The Washington Post Book World 21 (September 22, 1991): 1, 4. Book review that 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.”

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, July 19, 1991, p. 48.

Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. “Cutting Herself Free.” The New York Times Book Review 96 (October 27, 1991): 3, 29. Calls the novel “a triumph.” Marshall’s vision of a sexual union involves “mutual struggle . . . toward an ideal.” Often black women must act as the consciences of their men.

Williams, Sherley Anne. “Solidarity Is Not Silent.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 7 (Winter, 1991): 2-3. Points out the thematic importance of conflicts between the individual and the larger group, whether family or race. The reviewer believes, however, that because Marshall chose to relate crucial events at secondhand or in summary form, Daughters lacks the power of her earlier works.

Daughters

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 827

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.

Bibliography

Ascher, Carol. “Compromised Lives.” The Women’s Review of Books 9 (November, 1991): 7. Book review in which Ascher describes the novel as “intimately observed, culturally rich, morally serious.”

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

Booklist. LXXXVIII, October 15, 1991, p. 410.

Chicago Tribune. October 6, 1991, XIV, p. 3.

Essence. XXII, October, 1991, p. 48.

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.

Krist, Gary. “Other Voices, Other Rooms.” Hudson Review 45 (Spring, 1992): 141-148. In a review of works indicating publishers’ increasing “inclusiveness,” Krist argues that Daughters rejects a “sentimentalized” version of history and even suggests that “corrupted” black males may be useless in future struggles.

Library Journal. CXVI, November 1, 1991, p. 132.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. October 6, 1991, p. 1.

Marshall, Paule. Interview by Daryl Cumber Dance. Southern Review 28 (Winter, 1992): 1-20. A substantial interview, focusing on Daughters, but touching on a variety of subjects. Marshall’s West Indian settings enable her to point out truths about the history of black people, such as their sexual “equality” under slavery. Present-day black women must remind men of their lost idealism and also join them in concerted action. Discusses the genesis of Daughters, which Marshall calls her “most personal” novel.

Marshall, Paule. Interview by Joyce Pettis. MELUS: Society for the Study of the Multi-ethnic Literature of the United States 17 (Winter, 1991): 117-129. Conducted while Daughters was still being written, this interview contains revealing comments about the direction the novel was taking. The author comments that on one level it involved working out her own relationship with her father yet also was, more broadly, an exploration of “the themes of seduction, dependency and domination.”

Miller, Adam David. “Review Essay: Women and Power, the Confounding of Gender, Race, and Class.” The Black Scholar 22 (Fall, 1992): 48-51. Looks at the theme of power in various Marshall novels. Of particular interest is a discussion of the activist Mae Ryland in Daughters, whose source of strength is her community. Miller’s argument is not coherently developed, but his comments are illuminating.

New Woman. XXI, November, 1991, p. 26.

Prose, Francine. “Another Country.” The Washington Post Book World 21 (September 22, 1991): 1, 4. Book review that 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.”

Publishers Weekly. CCXXXVIII, July 19, 1991, p. 48.

Schaeffer, Susan Fromberg. “Cutting Herself Free.” The New York Times Book Review 96 (October 27, 1991): 3, 29. Calls the novel “a triumph.” Marshall’s vision of a sexual union involves “mutual struggle . . . toward an ideal.” Often black women must act as the consciences of their men.

Williams, Sherley Anne. “Solidarity Is Not Silent.” Belles Lettres: A Review of Books by Women 7 (Winter, 1991): 2-3. Points out the thematic importance of conflicts between the individual and the larger group, whether family or race. The reviewer believes, however, that because Marshall chose to relate crucial events at secondhand or in summary form, Daughters lacks the power of her earlier works.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 594

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 which represents a distinct movement toward Ursa’s eventual self-discovery. In “Little Girl of All the Daughters,” Ursa looks at a number of different relationships between women, their offspring, and the fathers of their babies. Ironically, the section begins with Ursa’s having an abortion, primarily because she has grown increasingly disenchanted with her thoroughly selfish lover. Afterward, she cannot help thinking about her mother’s very different attitude toward pregnancy and her delight when, after a number of miscarriages, she had Ursa, who, in all fairness, has always been as dear to her father as to her mother. In the home of her friend Vincereta Daniels, Ursa sees another kind of family, the single-parent pattern increasingly common among young professional black women who are disenchanted with men but delighted with motherhood.

As its title, “Constellation,” suggests, the lengthy second book of the novel describes the complex grouping of individuals as it evolved on Triunion before Ursa’s birth. Again, the section begins with an abortion, in this case one obtained by Astral Delores Forde, a poor young woman who thereupon decides to forswear casual encounters and to find a “big shot” to keep her in comfort. While Estelle is writing home about her married life, Astral is moving toward her eventual conjunction with Primus. The pattern would not be complete without the forces that shaped Primus from his infancy: his mother, Ursa Louise Wilkerson Mackenzie, and his nurse, Celestine Marie-Claire Bellegarde, both of whom encouraged and excused his habit of self-indulgence, which they defined as “mannish.” When Estelle sees that there is no substance beneath Primus’ professions of idealism, she considers leaving, but because she still loves him despite his weaknesses, she remains on Triunion.

“Polestar” returns to the present and to New York City. Among young, urban, upwardly mobile black men, Ursa has expected to find attitudes and actions unlike those that she associates with her father and Triunion; however, she has come to realize that there is no difference. Like Primus, Lowell selfishly uses women; like Primus, the black activist Sandy Lawson selfishly sells out his followers. When Viney’s son is unjustly accused of committing a crime, Ursa has to face the fact that there are no safe harbors anywhere. When she gets a package from her mother, she knows that she must return to Triunion and do battle.

The brief final book shows Ursa, Estelle, and Astral banding together to defeat the man they all love. Having learned that Primus plans not only to betray Astral by selling the hotel she manages but also to betray his people by enabling developers to seize government lands, Ursa turns over her father’s documents to his opponent and thus ensures Primus’ defeat in the election. At the end of the novel, Ursa is planning to return to New York City.

Context

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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.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 251

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.”

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