Margaret Walker’s preoccupation with crafting a story that, above all, tells the whole truth can be seen in her approach to characterization. In Jubilee, even the most oppressive whites are shown as individuals, with their own frustrations and their own griefs. The overseer Ed Grimes, for example, resents the fact that he must spend his days in the fields with the slaves while his wealthy employer indulges his own whims. Grimes’s sense of social inferiority and his fear of the slaves under his control help to explain his willingness to join with Big Missy in torture and murder.
As for Salina herself, Margaret Walker once commented in an interview that those readers who called the woman a “monster” misunderstood the story. Given her upbringing as a young southern lady, an upbringing that denied her any knowledge of sex, Salina was conditioned to react as she did when confronted with the realities of marriage. Moreover, it is not surprising that Salina hates her husband’s offspring by another woman, slave or not. Unfortunately, the institution of slavery gives her the opportunity to vent her wrath upon the innocent child Vyry.
Although Walker wants her readers to understand the motivations of her unsympathetic characters, she also believes that one can choose to rise above a corrupt society, as Vyry manages to do. Readers who find Jubilee to be one of the most memorable historical novels set in this period often point to the spiritual grandeur of its central character. Even if Walker had not so fully revealed her protagonist’s feelings, the facts of her story alone would have shown how consistently Vyry repays injury with forgiveness. Rejected by her father, tortured by his wife, and brutally beaten after her attempt to follow her husband to freedom, Vyry has every reason to hate the white race. On occasion after occasion,...
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