Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Dessa Rose, Williams creates an account of two lives that can be glimpsed only as possibility in the historical record. Herbert Aptheker’s American Negro Slave Revolts (1947) mentions two women, one a pregnant slave who led an 1829 revolt on a trader’s coffle in Kentucky and the other a white woman who harbored runaway slaves on a remote North Carolina farm in 1830. Williams joins their stories in a fictional time and place, creating an imaginative revision of documented history. Williams describes experiences usually ignored in historical texts, in literature by white authors, and even in slave narratives by black men. She counters stereotypes of the passive slave mother and the cruel plantation mistress with the story of a pregnant slave woman who dares to fight for her freedom and of a white woman who defies law and taboo to seek friendship with black companions. Though she never minimizes the dehumanizing brutality of slavery or the criminal threat of the slavemaster’s power, Williams emphasizes the strength of black culture and the loving interaction of slaves on the Vaugham plantation, on the coffle, and at Sutton Glen.

The narrative structure of Dessa Rose demonstrates the theme of Dessa’s struggle for self-definition. The novel is divided into three parts, with a prologue and an epilogue. Part 1, “The Darky,” is dominated by Adam Nehemiah’s attempts to discover Dessa’s story and appropriate it for his own purposes. Dessa’s indirect replies give only the glimpses into her past that she is willing to disclose. Williams reflects the ambiguity of historical records in creating no definitive account of Dessa’s history; different versions of her various attacks on whites are alluded to throughout the novel. Both Dessa’s story and Dessa herself elude Adam’s grasp. In part 2, “The Wench,” the narrative focus shifts between Dessa and Ruth, reflecting the tension of their relationship. In part 3, “The Negress,” the narrative voice for the first time is Dessa’s...

(The entire section is 832 words.)

Dessa Rose Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

That the slaves do resist commodification is one theme the novel critiques. With neither rationale nor explanation, masters can buy, sell, overwork, and murder slaves simply because these are their property. A mistress such as Rufel can brag of her mammy, but she need not remember that mammy’s name or acknowledge that mammy’s black family. This is an objecthood that slaves counteract by assertive renaming, as when Dessa rejects the nickname “Button,” which Rufel attempts to give to Dessa’s son. In another example of naming as resistance, the slaves derisively rename whites and reclaim their own perspectives of life in enslavement. “Miz Ruint” is the name the Glen slaves comically christen Rufel for bungling her marriage and beginning a romance with a slave.

Ultimately, slaveholders are bestialized by their system of bondage. While the slaves’ communities privilege industry and respect of authority, in white communities, anarchy rampages. So-called good masters discourage religion among enslaved populations, and the fields and kitchens swell with the light-skinned faces of their bastard children. Supposedly stern sheriffs are shamelessly seduced by the winks of wicked women. Finally, as even the slaves sardonically recognize, the language of the masters is often worse than that of their supposed inferiors.

The mistress’ complicity in enslavement is also scrutinized in the novel. Rufel, for example, suspects that Bertie beats...

(The entire section is 458 words.)

Dessa Rose Themes

Language and Literacy
As the Prologue establishes, Dessa's dialect is an authentic voice that struggles to be heard. Her voice is set up next to that of Nehemiah, a white man who can read and write, which Dessa cannot do. Nehemiah is recording events and writing an account of the information that he finds. He clearly has control in the situations in which he is interviewing Dessa. He uses his language skills to try to manipulate her into answering his questions. Dessa is expressive with her words even if they are not as fine as Nehemiah's. Writing and words have power. When Dessa is observing the plans for the money-making scheme, she feels at a disadvantage because she cannot read or understand the numbers. She is entirely dependent on others in this respect.

Music and Song
From the beginning, the novel establishes the retreat and solace that comes from music and song. Kaine’s great talent with the banjo and his singing are a relief at the end of a long and back-breaking day of labor. She hears his high, clear voice as he walks through the lane of cabins. She feels the rhythm of his banjo as the same one that powers her heart. Kaine risks being found by Boss Smith and Tarver just to see Dessa. He plays the banjo so well that the Mistress asks him to play at the house. Dessa sings herself to calm her mood and ease any thoughts about an event or circumstances. One morning, Dessa improvised with her voice from the jail. At one point, she is singing with Jemina. A call-and-response song develops. These moments of song appear regularly and when Dessa feels most vulnerable.

The women in the deep South, black and white, faced incredible danger. In Dessa Rose, the women survive by developing their own bonds and community. At the Steele Plantation, Aunt Lefonia, Dessa, Dessa’s mother, and others form an intricate bond that helps them recover from rape and other forms of violence. They develop ways to care for each other and look ahead to prevent any unfortunate circumstance that is likely to come their way. Dessa and Rufel manage to survive based on the friendship they develop. Rufel’s dangerous moment with Mr. Oscar illustrates that white women also were exposed to the same oppression and threats from men as black women. The fugitive slaves also form a community with Rufel to develop ways for her to survive on her farm. With her husband gone and no expected time for his return, Rufel is forced to consider her circumstances. How can she survive alone? How will she acquire money? The land is poor and none is forthcoming from her absent husband. The money-making scheme at first seems an unlikely venture until you consider her options. She has three children and a farm that is failing.

History and Memory
When experiencing such oppression as slavery, how important is the role of one’s memory? The slaves in Dessa Rose remember both the traumatic and the joyful. The women can...

(The entire section is 1226 words.)