Maud Martha Summary

Maud Martha is a novel by Gwendolyn Brooks. It was published in 1953 and follows the life of the titular character, Maud Martha Brown, from childhood through young adulthood.

  • Maud Martha is a young Black girl growing up in Chicago in the early 1900s. She is smart and hardworking, but she feels inferior to her light-skinned sister, Helen.
  • Maud Martha goes to school and eventually gets a job as a maid for a wealthy white family. She marries Paul Phillips, and they have a daughter together.
  • The family struggles financially, and Maud Martha has to work hard to make ends meet. She also has to deal with the racism of her employers and the prejudice of her own community.
  • Despite the challenges she faces, Maud Martha remains hopeful for the future.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 841

When the novel begins, Maud Martha Brown is seven. Very early on, we learn that “to be cherished was the dearest wish” of this little girl. Her story is told in a series of thirty-four short chapters in her life. In one, we see Maud Martha’s childhood school. In another, we witness her reaction to seeing her dying grandmother. In another, she awaits the visit of a white boy named Charles, and she realizes, sickeningly, that she feels “a sort of gratitude! . . . As though Charles, in coming, gave her a gift.” She goes to a show at sixteen, and she realizes that she has no interest in being “a star”; instead, she plans to “donate to the world a good Maud Martha. . . . She would polish and hone that.”

Later, Maud Martha attends her Uncle Tim’s funeral, and she is disturbed both by his “gray clay” appearance as well as a question: is “the world any better off for his having lived?” She considers the purpose of life on the earth and worries that we might not get answers about life until after we have lived it—if then. Later, the family almost loses their home. Maud Martha recalls being abashed when a boy named Emmanuel was more interested in her light-skinned sister; he called Maud Martha an "old, black gal.” She thinks, painfully, that Helen is the “pretty,” “dainty,” and “lovely” sister while Maud Martha believes herself to be lacking. Even her own family, she knows, prefers Helen. Maud Martha does not blame them; she understands their preference even though it pains her.

There are beaus. She dreams of New York and of the life she wants to have. At eighteen, she imagines people on the train to New York City, and their smiling poise reflects the way she feels like should be. She seems sure there is a world out there, waiting for her. She meets Paul Phillips; though she knows that he only sees her as someone who will “do”—as in meet the bare minimum of his expectations—she marries him because her body feels alive next to him. They plan to start small with their living arrangements but have big plans to get a stylish place and host friends in time. Maud Martha remains optimistic, even when their first apartment is small, but the roaches and mice really bother her. One day, she notices that everything is gray, and this upsets her. She sets a mouse free from the trap, and she realizes that she could have preserved or destroyed a life but chose to preserve it. She has a realization that she is good.

Maud Martha gets pregnant. One night, she sees Paul dance with some light-skinned woman, and she wants to “scratch her upsweep down.” She does not do it. She has a little girl named Paulette. Maud Martha begins to acknowledge the importance of traditions; she recalls her own family’s and now wants to establish some with her daughter. She has a bit of a health scare: she overdid it with some new exercises and thinks that she has a tumor. Maud Martha understands that her husband is getting bored. He is tired of the daily life with the family, his job, and their small apartment. They have little money and no car. We learn how lean times have ensued as a result of the war; Maud Martha struggles with her chicken. She is thankful to have one but misses the good old days when better meat was available.

Her husband is laid off, and Maud Martha interviews with Mrs....

(This entire section contains 841 words.)

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Burns-Cooper for a job as a maid and tries to only “hate her just some.” Mrs. Burns-Cooper tries to seem more human and less snobby by talking incessantly about her college days, her debut, her travels, and her money. When her mother-in-law arrives, Mrs. Burns-Cooper reassumes her air of absolute authoritativeness. Maud Martha vows never to return: she understands, for the first time, what her husband has gone through while working for white people. Maud Martha learns from her mother that her sister, Helen, does not like to visit because “it sort of depresses her. She wants [Maud Martha] to have more things.” Maud Martha remarks that siblings differ so wildly in charm, appearance, and overall disposition. Her mother can find no other reassurance for her aside from how wonderful Maud Martha has always been and that she makes the best hot cocoa in their family. 

Maud Martha takes her daughter to see Santa Claus, who is quite attentive to the white children, but he hardly listens to Paulette at all. Maud Martha has to actually tell him that her daughter is speaking to him to get his attention. Maud Martha has to reassure Paulette that Santa Claus does like her because her daughter is astute enough to see that she was treated very differently from the other children. Her brother, Harry, then returns from war. Maud Martha feels hopeful for the future, and we learn that she is pregnant again.