Student Question

What type of character is Mary Brown and what is her role in Buckingham Palace: District Six?

Quick answer:

Mary Brown is a larger-than-life character that transcends conventional categories in Buckingham Palace: District Six. She's a dedicated church-goer yet she also manages a brothel. We might view her role as a kind of community organizer. Not only does she provide jobs for the members of District Six, but also tries to help its remaining institutions stay afloat before the racist South African regime sends in bulldozers.

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In Richard Rive's novel Buckingham Palace: District Six, we meet a lot of compelling characters, including a Holocaust survivor and a dancer named Zoot. Besides being an excellent dancer, Zoot also provides security for Mary Brown and her brothel.

This brings us to the character you want to talk about: Mary Brown. We'd say Mary is a rather dynamic and complicated character. Her talents include twirling batons and making husbands disappear. Even Mary's own husband runs off. Although Mary may not care much for husbands, she is deeply religious. Remember what her father was? He was a pastor. Mary attends church regularly and tries to help raise money for it as well.

Mary's faith in God doesn't prevent her from running a brothel. The brothel is made up of girls who've run away from their difficult and sometimes abusive homes.

Again, there's a lot to unpack with Mary. She's a deeply religious woman, yet she's also the madame of a brothel. When you think of religious people, do you think of people who openly participate in sex work? The combination is interesting. Maybe sex work and religion aren't as incompatible as we might assume.

Another paradox of Mary is her role as a mother figure/business woman. Yes, she gives the girls a home. Yet she also inevitably exploits them. Then again, it's not like Mary forces them to be prostitutes. Again, perhaps Rive, through Mary, is asking us to reconsider the way in which people tend to single out sex work as particularly demeaning and exploitative. Does it seem like such exploitative occupation in District Six?

Back to Mary. We've already talked about her character. She's a devoted church-goer and a business woman. She's also something of a mother.

In the novel, we might say her role is the most important. It seems like most of the characters revolve around her or have at least something of a relationship with her. We might also see her role as a kind of community organizer. She's trying to help its citizens and its remaining institutions stay afloat amidst the destructive, racist South African policies.

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