Themes and Meanings

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.)

Themes and Meanings

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.)