Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 851

Daughters begins with an epigraph to an Alvin Ailey dance: “Little girl of all the daughters,/ You ain’ no more slave,/ You’s a woman now.” Marshall has stated that these words “immediately suggested to me other kinds of slavery, more political and familiar—the bondage of the mind and heart.”

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Ursa is the inheritor of the struggles of those daughters who went before her, each one seeking freedom in her own way. Only through heeding their lessons does Ursa gain control over her own life and the freedom necessary to become a complete and happy person.

Celestine is the self-sacrificing woman who lives her entire life for other people, first for Mis-Mack and then for Primus and his only child, Ursa. Abandoned by her family, having neither friends nor lovers, Celestine finds her meaning in servitude. When Ursa is a little girl, Estelle suggests that Celestine take the day off or go to the movies with Estelle and Ursa, but Celestine refuses. Her devotion and loyalty to Primus define her.

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Astral Forde is a daughter bound to status and security. After a passionate moment on the beach with a group of handsome football players that turns to rape and then results in pregnancy and abortion, Astral chooses only those lovers who can help her achieve financial and emotional independence. The one man she could have loved, “the nice young fella name Conrad” with whom she worked at the department store, would never be successful. He is sacrificed in favor of men who pay for her bookkeeping and typing classes, men who get her bookkeeping positions, men who are secretaries of public works departments, and men like Primus who will set her up comfortably for the rest of her life.

Ursa’s mother, Estelle, is important for pushing her daughter toward the total freedom she herself was unable to claim. The recurring image of Congo Jane and Will Cudjoe represents an ideal that Estelle believed in when she left her Connecticut teaching job to join her husband in his political life. Ursa had been raised to love the story of these two heroes. Her first memory is being raised on her mother’s shoulders to touch the toes on the memorial to these figures. Ursa had told her resistant college thesis adviser that she wanted to write the slave rebels’ history. She explains that “there was a time when we actually had it together. That slavery, for all its horrors, was a time when black men and women had it together, were together, stood together.” Estelle had written to her homefolks soon after arriving in Triunion, “We’re getting to be quite a team.” She cannot change the politics of the “Do-Nothings” in power, and she cannot watch as Primus is seduced by white money and influence. She tolerates the petty corruption that makes Triunion work (free rice, rum, and Bic pens in exchange for votes) and even grows to accept Astral Forde as Primus’s mistress, eventually even feeling sympathy for her when Primus threatens to sell the hotel. She needs Ursa to stop Primus’s descent.

Viney is Ursa’s friend, confidante, and sister, the epitome of middle-class corporate success but also a victim of it. She is what Marshall says her folks would have called CTTR, “a credit to the race.” She is beautiful, well respected, and financially secure. Her son Robeson, the product of artificial insemination, attends private school, computer camp, and day camp; participates in Little League; and has a role in the cultural center’s play about Sojourner Truth. Viney seems to have it all. It is Ursa who knows that Viney’s self-imposed celibacy is a subterfuge to mask her loneliness. When Robeson is falsely arrested for trying to steal a car stereo, Viney recognizes a black woman’s need for a man to be there for her and for her children, a man whom her grandfather would call “useful.”

Ursa is pushed to shed the bondage of her mind and heart. Marshall has stated that Ursa is struggling to remove “that dependency that gets built in those early relationships. That’s why the symbol of abortion . . . is so important, abortion meaning being able to cut away those dependencies that can be so crippling.” Only after her argument with Lowell can Ursa acknowledge that she has been living for her father. Only by cutting away her dependence on him can she claim the legacy of all the daughters who made the way for her. Throughout the novel, Ursa suspects that the abortion did not take. At the end, as Ursa prepares to subvert her father’s election and sits on the beach at Government Lands (where local men fish, women help them prepare the catch, and whole families spend Sundays in what could be described as religious rituals in the sea and where they will be forbidden to come if the resort scheme succeeds), a “wave of pain wells up and explodes across her belly.” Ursa “just lets it take her.” It is done. She is free of her father. She claims her legacy.

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