(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Jubilee tells a story of slavery, the Civil War, and the Reconstruction period from the point of view of the black people who were often both victims and pawns in a struggle that convulsed an entire nation. Just as Gone with the Wind (1936) is the story not just of a period but of a woman, the indomitable Scarlett O’Hara, so the narrative power of Jubilee derives from its protagonist, the slave Vyry, modeled after Margaret Duggans Ware Brown, the author’s great-grandmother. The book was inspired by the stories told to Margaret Walker at bedtime during her childhood by her grandmother, Elvira Ware Dozier, who is Vyry’s daughter Minna in the novel. Thus, as Walker points out in her book How I Wrote “Jubilee” (1972), the novel has a solid basis in oral tradition, which was later amplified with the extensive study of slave narratives. In her attempt to ensure the accuracy of her work, Walker invested a solid ten years in research, checking not only the historical background but also minute details of everyday life.

Walker’s novel is divided into three sections, each of which represents a distinct historical period as well as a separate segment of Vyry’s life. The first, “Sis Hetta’s Child—The Ante-Bellum Years,” is the account of Vyry’s childhood as a slave. It begins when Vyry is two years old and her mother, Sis Hetta, is dying in childbirth. Although she is only twenty-nine years old, Sis Hetta has given birth to fifteen children, many of them the offspring of her white master, John Dutton. Although he does not acknowledge Vyry or his other slave children, his wife Salina Dutton, or “Big Missy,” is painfully aware of their existence. Because Vyry looks so much like her own daughter, Lillian Dutton, Salina vents her anger toward her husband by mistreating Vyry on every possible occasion. Vyry cannot expect any help from her father. When she asks permission to marry Randall Ware, Dutton refuses his permission, thus making it clear that, despite his facile promises, he has no intention of ever setting Vyry free, either during his life or after his death. The section ends with Vyry’s...

(The entire section is 881 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Jubilee follows the protagonist, Vyry, from the age of two, when her twenty-nine-year-old mother dies after having borne fifteen children, many of them to the master of the plantation, through the Civil War and Emancipation, finally leaving her in her own home at Greenville, Alabama, with the knowledge that her children will be educated. The novel is unified by the central character Vyry, who comes to represent all of the thwarted aspirations of the slaves; by the continuing associations of the principal characters who survive into the Reconstruction period; and by the theme of freedom, embodied in the hopeful spiritual from which comes the title of the book.

Jubilee is divided into three equal sections. In the first, the orphaned child becomes accustomed to the loss of those whom she loves: of Mammy Sukey, who had mothered her in infancy and who dies of a “plague” brought by a new slave; of Aunt Sally, the slave cook, sold because of rumors of poisonings on other plantations. Later, this pattern of loss is continued when Vyry’s husband, Randall Ware, a free black man, and therefore suspect, flees North, begging Vyry to leave their two children and escape with him. Because she insists on taking her children Jim and Minna, Vyry is caught, and the section ends with her being beaten almost to the point of death.

The second section involves suffering and loss both for blacks and for whites. John Morris Dutton dies of...

(The entire section is 493 words.)