The Fisher King Summary (Paule Marshall)

Paule Marshall


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In The Fisher King, eight-year-old Sonny Payne arrives in the United States with Hattie Carmichael, an American expatriate who has cared for him in Paris since his birth, when his parents disappeared. Hattie, once a scorned foster child, grudgingly returns to Brooklyn in response to a letter from Edgar Payne, a wealthy real estate developer and brother of the great jazz pianist Sonny-Rett Payne, Sonny’s grandfather Edgar has asked her to bring the boy for a memorial concert that will honor Sonny-Rett on the fifteenth anniversary of his death in Paris, when he was detained in a Metro station by suspicious police. Apparently he argued with them and tried to leave, fell or was pushed down the stone steps, hit his head, and died.

Honoring the wishes of Sonny’s deceased grandparents, Hattie has refused all previous contact with his American family, so the boy must become acquainted with his personal history. His ancient great-grandmothers, who live across the street from each other but never speak, embody the ongoing resentment between West Indian immigrants and African Americans. Sonny-Rett’s mother, Ulene Payne, an unkempt and angry woman with Parkinson’s disease, encouraged her talented son to study European classical music but barred him from her home when he turned to American jazz, that “Sodom and Gomorrah music.” Sonny is a little afraid of her but thrilled by the player piano that she allows him to touch.

His other...

(The entire section is 511 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

At the opening of The Fisher King, Edgar Payne writes to Hattie Carmichael in Paris that he is planning a memorial concert to take place in the spring of 1984 in honor of his deceased brother. He invites Hattie to attend the concert and to bring with her young Sonny, who is his brother Sonny Rett Payne’s grandson. Edgar invites Hattie because she was the closest person to his brother’s work and she understood it better than anyone else. Hattie arrives in Brooklyn with Sonny and introduces him to his great-grandmothers, Florence McCullum and Ulene Payne, both of whom are nearly ninety years old. Florence is an African American who looks down on Ulene’s West Indian heritage. She also resents the fact that her daughter, Charisse, ran off to France with Ulene’s son.

When Sonny Rett Payne was a small boy, Ulene taught him to play the piano, but she only cared for classical music, considering jazz “the Sodom and Gomorrah music!” She beat him when he played jazz and finally drove him to move to France, where he lived the rest of his life with Cherisse and Hattie. Cherisse and Sonny Rett had a child who became Sonny Carmichael Payne’s mother.

Among these family grievances, young Sonny tries to sort out the truth about his family members, whom he has never met before. He frequently escapes the adults to draw pictures of medieval castles and knights in armor in his drawing pad. The concert takes place, and through the stories of...

(The entire section is 437 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

DeLamotte, Eugenia C. Places of Silence, Journeys of Freedom: The Fiction of Paule Marshall. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1998. Focuses on a complex and repetitive pattern in Marshall’s work.

Denniston, Dorothy Hamer. The Fiction of Paule Marshall: Reconstructions of History, Culture, and Gender. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1995. Traces the development of Marshall’s Afrocentric vision and shows how her distinctive style combines Western forms with the African oral tradition.

Gadsby, Meredith M. Sucking Salt: Caribbean Women Writers, Migration, and Survival. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2006. Offers a special emphasis on the creative artistry of Paule Marshall, drawing on critical and ethnic studies to cover a wide range of topics.

Hathaway, Heather. Caribbean Waves: Relocating Claude McKay and Paule Marshall. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1999. Explores the ways in which literature can probe the complexities of displacement and identity construction that often accompany migratory experiences.

Pettis, Joyce. Toward Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 1995. An exploration of the gender, race, and class oppression that contributes to the problems faced by Marshall’s characters. Places Marshall’s work squarely in the tradition of African American and Caribbean culture.