Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Naylor’s novel examines the negative consequences of achieving the American Dream. The African Americans of Linden Hills attempt to realize this dream at the expense of their souls and their sense of history. The author presents a series of vignettes in the lives of middle-class African Americans who have sacrificed their sense of racial identity in order to achieve material and career success. The importance of Dante’s Inferno from La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy) as a source for the narrative structure of this novel is evident. The topography of Linden Hills resembles Dante’s hell, with the evil angel, Luther Nedeed, residing at the bottom, surrounded by a frozen lake. Naylor constructs the primary narrative line around Willie and Lester’s odyssey through the hills, juxtaposing their adventures with the story of Willa Nedeed. The names Willie and Willa are deliberately similar. Willie and Willa’s journeys through hell are set in different typefaces to highlight the parallel themes. As Willie passes through Linden Hills, he recognizes and analyzes the moral failures of the lost souls he meets. At the end of Willie and Lester’s journey, they have a spiritual awakening, realizing the significance of all they have seen and heard.

Willa also has a spiritual awakening, realized through her discovery of the tragic lives of the previous Nedeed wives. After producing a Nedeed heir, each became a nonentity...

(The entire section is 473 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Some critics have praised Naylor for avoiding stereotypes and didacticism in this novel; others have argued that she attempts to draw too many characters who cannot be fully explored, and that Willie and Lester, who are central to the novel, are her weakest characters. Nevertheless, they have agreed that Naylor draws vivid, unforgettable minor characters. Her strongest characterizations are of Willa and the vague Nedeed wives, who gradually come into focus through tangible reminders of their lives.

Naylor’s characters struggle with skin color and history. Many people in the Hills seem to deny their own blackness by attempting to erase or mask it, and Naylor suggests that this ambivalence is part of their spiritual sickness. Lester’s sister, who idolizes Eleanor Roosevelt and Diana Ross, “paid her dues to the Civil Rights Movement by wearing an Afro for six months and enrolling in black history courses in college,” but now she employs bleaching cream and hair relaxer and wants a “good” marriage in Linden Hills. The Reverend Hollis, leading a conservative Baptist church, has lost the power flowing from congregation to pulpit that first attracted him to the ministry in the storefront churches of his youth. Maxwell Smyth, in his management job at General Motors, has achieved perfect physical control of himself and his environment. With rigid self-discipline, he never sweats or is cold, needs only three hours of sleep each night, and spends “every waking moment trying to be no color at all.”

Swimmer Laurel Dumont has dived into a corporate career and neglected the roots that could nourish her, symbolized by her grandmother and the blues of Bessie Smith. The earlier Nedeed wives, chosen for their pale skin and lack of African features, are doomed to unhappiness: Luwana rejects the white god who has left her with nothing; Evelyn tries first to lighten her...

(The entire section is 773 words.)