The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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,...

(The entire section is 768 words.)

The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Because Margaret Walker wishes to make the novel about her real great-grandmother Vyry a realistic picture of two decades in the South, she chooses in Jubilee to write as an omniscient author, venturing onto the Confederate battlefields and into the minds of the slave owners and tracing the adventures of Vyry’s husband, Randall Ware, when he has been assumed to be dead. Yet all the characters in Jubilee and all the events are important to Vyry, who is Walker’s admirable heroine. During slave days, Vyry is intelligent enough to survive. She learns to work hard and to avoid confrontations, particularly with Salina Dutton, who hates this slave-born offspring of her own husband even more because Vyry resembles Salina’s daughter Lillian. She learns to be skeptical of the easy promises of her white father and of the courting gestures of her admirers. As one by one her protectors vanish from her life, Vyry must depend on her own strength. During the later days of the war and the Occupation, it is Vyry’s leadership and her practical good sense which enable the surviving whites and the remaining blacks on the plantation to cope with the dangers of disease and starvation. Above all, through her living Christianity Vyry subdues hatred and bitterness, and because of a typical charitable act, she gains for her family a home and a place in the community.

Vyry’s two husbands are very different from each other. Randall Ware, the free black, is well educated and intelligent but consumed by his hatred of whites and of the white Christian God. The stable and hardworking Innis Brown lacks Vyry’s faith in education, which he sees as denying him the field help which he needs. His whipping of Vyry’s oldest boy, Jim, Randall Ware’s son, comes very close to breaking up the marriage; it is only after Innis sees Vyry’s scars that he finally understands why his own violent actions so repel her.


(The entire section is 785 words.)