Linden Hills Summary
by Gloria Naylor

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Linden Hills Summary

Linden Hills is an exploration of the black middle-class. Written in the vein of Dante's Inferno, the story follows unemployed poets Wille Mason and Lester Tilson as they perform odd jobs in Linden Hills during the holidays.

Linden Hills is owned by Luther Nedeed, whose ancestors bought the land from white owners during the antebellum period. Due to the appearance of his son, Luther suspects his wife Willa of adultery and locks both his child and wife in the basement. When Willie and Lester first arrive, they hear a foreboding scream from the Hills.

The story then mentions the many jobs that Willie and Lester do around the suburb, while also exploring Willa's grief as she looks for a shroud for her dead son and reclaims her identity. Their stories intertwine when Willie and Lester are hired by Luther to trim the Christmas tree. Willa gathers the courage to leave her prison and confront Luther as Willie and Lester escape the house. A candle on the tree ignites the shroud carrying the dead child and the Nedeed house is consumed by the flames. Although Willie asks for help from the neighbors, they simply watch from their windows. This prompts Willie to leave and never return to Linden Hills.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

The other extreme of contemporary black life is shown in Linden Hills, set in an affluent black suburb. In contrast to Brewster Place, Linden Hills is dominated by men, most notably by undertaker Luther Nedeed. Luther’s ancestors settled and laid out Linden Hills, and now Luther controls it through the Tupelo Realty Corporation and his personal influence. The suburb’s name, like its allure, is deceptive: Linden Hills is actually not several hills but only part of one hillside—a large, V-shaped area intersected by eight streets that curve around and down the slope. The further down the hillside one goes, the richer the residents become; in other words, the higher they climb in the socioeconomic hierarchy, the lower they sink in the moral order. Luther Nedeed’s home is at the very bottom, conveniently next to the graveyard.

Naylor’s symbolism seems to echo D. H. Lawrence’s sentiment that America is a death society. The fact that an undertaker presides over Linden Hills throws a certain pall over the suburb, but even more unsettling is the suburb’s street plan, which recalls the geography of Dante’s Hell. Two young unemployed poets, Lester and Willie (corresponding to Vergil and Dante), are introduced. Under the guise of earning some Christmas money by doing odd jobs in the neighborhood, the young poets lead the reader on a guided tour of Linden Hills. The broad parallels to Dante’s Inferno in La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802) make it abundantly clear that Linden Hills is an allegory of the lost souls of affluent black people.

As the young poets move down the hillside, they come across varied examples of people who have sold out. One is Lester’s sister Roxanne, a Wellesley College graduate who feels that black Africans in Zimbabwe are not ready to form their own nation. Other examples include Winston Alcott, a young homosexual lawyer who denies his lover David and gets married to achieve respectability; Xavier Donnell, a junior executive who fears that marrying Roxanne might hurt his chances at General Motors; Maxwell Smyth, a fellow corporate climber who confirms Xavier’s decision to dump her; Chester Parker, who can hardly wait to bury his dead wife before he remarries; the Right Reverend Michael T. Hollis, a sleazy, hypocritical moral leader of Linden Hills; and Dr. Daniel Braithwaite, whose authorized twelve-volume history of Linden Hills makes no moral judgments.

The archetypal dead soul is Luther Nedeed. At the wake for Lycentia Parker, Luther voices Linden Hills’s opposition to a low-income housing project planned for Putney Wayne, a neighboring black ghetto, and proposes joining forces with the racist Wayne County Citizens Alliance in defense of property values. Luther saves his most soulless behavior for...

(The entire section is 1,825 words.)