Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 493

Among the themes that can be traced through Jubilee are the centrality of folklore, myth, and music in the black heritage; the roles of black women as preservers and transmitters of the cultural identity of their people; and the importance of black Christianity in the struggle for freedom. It is...

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Among the themes that can be traced through Jubilee are the centrality of folklore, myth, and music in the black heritage; the roles of black women as preservers and transmitters of the cultural identity of their people; and the importance of black Christianity in the struggle for freedom. It is also rewarding to look at Jubilee as a book about illusion and reality.

As Walker has pointed out, her perspective on history is not that of whites, either northern or southern, but that of African Americans. In the conversations among slave owners in her novel, and in their speeches to the slaves, it is evident that the white masters have deluded themselves into believing that their motives for keeping slaves are noble, that the slaves are well treated and happy, and that any hopes of freedom they might cherish are simply proof of their childlike ignorance.

Because, as Walker shows, such justifications for the suppression of African Americans did not disappear with the Emancipation Proclamation, the discussions between Innis Brown, Vyry, and Randall Ware at the end of the book are all related to another major theme in the novel, that of the struggle for freedom. Given the blindness of whites, Walker seems to be asking, how can blacks progress beyond nominal freedom to full equality?

Each of the three main characters has a different answer. Innis Brown takes a passive approach. Despite his experiences with oppression, both during slavery and since his emancipation, he thinks, or perhaps he wants to think, that if he works hard and stays away from whites, he and his family will be safe. His attitude is explained partly by the fact that by owning his own land, he has achieved his highest goal.

Vyry, on the other hand, has had a glimpse of greater possibilities. She knows that her children have the capacity to move upward in society. She also realizes that if they are to do so, they must acquire education. Isolation on the farm is no answer, because even to get schools established, blacks will have to associate with whites. Vyry pins her hopes for change on persuasion, supplemented by prayer.

Randall Ware represents a third point of view, that of the black separatists and militants. He has already tried political action and been thrown out of the office to which he was elected. Convinced that whites will do everything they can to suppress blacks, he sees education as the major weapon giving blacks a chance in the inevitable conflict ahead.

Although in this work Walker does not clearly commit herself to one position or another, it is obvious that any answer to the problems of blacks must depend on the destruction of the illusions so long held by whites. For this reason, the theme of freedom is intertwined with the theme of the pursuit of truth. Exploration of these themes must be perceived as one of the author’s major purposes in writing Jubilee.

Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 222

Through her own family history, Margaret Walker seeks in Jubilee to show plantation life and the early days of freedom through the eyes of the blacks. Although she refuses to divide good from evil on the basis of skin color, she does create a dual world, in which slave owners assume that only foolish or insane slaves could be unhappy, while slaves, pretending to be contented, yearn and plot for freedom. When the Yankees, their longed-for redeemers, do come, the former slaves are disillusioned to find that the Northern deliverers are as unconcerned about the future of the blacks as are their desperate former masters. At this point the theme of the first part of the book, the human longing for freedom, is redefined. Having been freed from slavery under the law, blacks are threatened with economic slavery as tenants or as menials: Furthermore, the threat of violence as effectively stifles their freedom of expression as it did in slave days. After emancipation, blacks must fight for education as the only way out of the new slavery. As Vyry insists in the last pages of the book, however, the will to achieve must come not from bitterness but from spiritual strength, based in the same sense of God’s immanence that sustained the slaves in their secret religious meetings in the woods.


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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1237

Jubilee contains a number of general expressions of hope for deliverance and specific references to the tale of Moses leading the Hebrews out of Egypt and slavery. Many of the songs cited in the novel are spirituals that deal with the freedom found in death, for example, and Brother Ezekiel preaches about Moses in Chapter 3 and talks while on his deathbed about Lincoln as a Moses-figure in Chapter 29. An exploration of this theme can also include the different means by which freedom might be achieved, from the plotting of slave uprisings and the alleged murder of slave owners in the first section of the novel to the debate in Chapter 57 between Innis Brown and Randall Ware about whether hard work or education would be the better means to improve the status of black Americans in the Reconstruction era. This debate between Innis and Randall may be seen as a fictional representation of the differences in the philosophies of two black leaders in the early twentieth century, Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois. Whether through allusions to biblical tales or modern black leaders, the novel presents a consistent treatment of the theme of emerging out of bondage and into freedom.

Traditional and Invented Families
Traditional and invented families in Jubilee give structure to the narrative. The dedication at the beginning of the novel emphasizes the author’s sense of family and heritage, particularly through a matrilineal line of descent. Black characters throughout the first section of the novel frequently have names that begin with Sis, Brother, Aunt, Uncle, Mammy, and Grandpa, although only a few of them are literally related to one another. Literal family ties are often not recognized or respected in the novel, particularly when they cross racial lines. Salina Dutton claims that she and her family treat their slaves “just like a part of our family,” but in truth they do not consider the slaves, including Vyry, “their own blood kin.” The one moment in the novel in which Mrs. Dutton becomes an almost sympathetic character is when she grieves over her dying son, Johnny. This theme of family also allows the novel to be compared meaningfully with other texts. For example, Vyry’s deep desire for freedom for her children can be compared to similar desires of slave women in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl and Toni Morrison’s Beloved.

Jubilee is full of references to food and to the women who prepare it for different occasions. Among other references are Salina Dutton’s full breakfast table and Grimes’ letter itemizing food consumption in Chapter 5, the extensive menus for the formal dinner party and the rumors of slaves poisoning their owners’ food in Chapter 6, the passionate instructions on how to cook possum and raccoon in Chapter 14, the serving of Innis Brown’s favorite meal in Chapter 55, and the care package prepared by Vyry for Jim Ware in the final chapter of the novel. Throughout the book, food serves various, often conflicting purposes. It can be a means of controlling people, a thing to hoard or to steal, a way to show hospitality or to express love, a commodity to sell for extra money, or something to prepare as a steady job.

Vyry’s personal story, which is the central concern of the novel, is set against the background of the dramatic changes in Southern society from the antebellum era through the Civil War and into Reconstruction. In writing the novel, Margaret Walker engaged in extensive historical research. Thus, the novel is full of historical references and details about the experiences of black Americans in the nineteenth century. In Chapter 3, for example, Aunt Sally reckons birth and death dates of the people whom she loves not by calendar years but by significant historical events, such as a brilliant meteor shower or a severe drop in cotton prices. When Aunt Sally recalls having “seen the stars fall outen the sky with my naked eyes,” she is most probably referring to the Leonid meteor shower in the fall of 1833, and the reference to dropping cotton prices probably also has an equally real historical reference. The novel treatment of Vyry’s personal story thus presents the opportunity to explore the larger history of African Americans as a whole. This theme allows for a discussion of one or more of the many historical landmarks or developments in the novel, such as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, or a comparison of a scene in Walker’s novel, such as the celebration of Christmas on the plantation in Chapter 14, with one or more of the narratives by former slaves recorded by Federal Writers’ Project, available and fully searchable online through The Library of Congress.

Religion plays important and sometimes conflicting roles in Jubilee. In Chapter 10, Salina Dutton reads a passage from the Bible in support of slavery and in Chapter 20 her husband asserts that “the Bible is witness to the benefits of slavery.” In contrast, Brother Ezekiel preaches about Old Testament deliverance in Chapter 3, and Vyry retains her faith in the face of extreme hardships and, at the end of the novel, delivers a sermon of her own on the importance of unconditional love. Walker’s novel thus illustrates how religion can simultaneously serve opposing purposes: it can oppress or liberate entire groups of people, just as it can stifle or promote the growth of an individual.

Duty is a subtle but pervasive theme in Jubilee, and it is a value that is experienced differently by different characters, based on whether they are black or white and female or male. Vyry, the black woman who is the central character of the novel, has perhaps the strongest sense of duty. Although freed from slavery, she stays on at the plantation, working without pay for the woman who used to own and torment her and caring for the Dutton daughter without any expectation of reward. Vyry stays for other reasons, too; she says at least twice that she is “duty bound to wait” for her husband Randall Ware. Similarly, the male slave Jim does not escape to the North during the Civil War when presented with the opportunity to do so because he feels duty bound to bring the wounded Johnny home to the Dutton plantation. The wealthy white men and women express a sense of duty mostly in their support of the war effort. For the women, this support comes in many forms, including the sewing of uniforms, and for men, it is manifested primarily in their enlistment in the Confederate Army. Through its occasional reference to knights, castles, King Arthur, and dragon slaying, the novel may be suggesting that these patriotic duties are less real or less mature than the obligations to care for the people one loves.

The epigraph to each chapter of Jubilee is a set of lyrics from one song or another, and the lyrics often have clear connections to the chapters that they introduce. Music is clearly a central theme in the work. Walker’s novel explores how song can be used to express an individual person’s state of mind or to celebrate a group’s shared identity; these dual purposes are seen, for example, in Aunty Sally’s different songs for her changing moods in Chapter 6 and in the songs sung at the worship services of the Rising Glory Baptist Church deep in the woods in Chapter 3.

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