The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Maud Martha Brown is a sensitive, intelligent, and poetic child of seven at the start of the novel. As the novel is told from her point of view, readers see her grow, both literally into a young woman, a mother, and an adult and also in knowledge of herself and the world that she inhabits. By the end of the novel, Maud Martha has matured in many ways; she has learned to accept the limitations of her world that she cannot change, but she also has learned to create change where it is possible, and she knows her own abilities both to accept and to alter, depending on circumstances. She is a strong, compassionate, and in many ways wise woman by the end of the novel, as she contemplates the coming arrival of her second child.

Helen Brown, Maud Martha’s lighter-skinned sister, appears as something of an antagonist in the early part of the novel, although often through no fault of her own. Helen is the preferred child, even by Maud’s beloved father, and it is only as an adult that Maud can begin to appreciate Helen’s tough-mindedness.

Harry Brown, Maud Martha’s only brother, is a minor but important character. He is the male element in her young life, separate and unequal.

Belva Brown, Maud Martha’s mother, plays a more important part in the novel than does her father, although the father’s influence in some ways is greater. She is a realistic character, both heroic and, at times, silly. Her behavior during the birth of her...

(The entire section is 452 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Maud Martha Brown Phillips

Maud Martha Brown Phillips, the protagonist. She is the daughter of Belva and Abraham Brown, reared with her older sister Helen and brother Harry in Cottage Grove, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side. She is first seen at the age of seven. Maud perceives herself as ordinary and not beautiful, with her dark coloring and nappy hair. She desires to be cherished and dreams of an exciting life in New York City. Helen warns her to stop reading books if she ever wants to get a boyfriend. Maud Martha eventually marries Paul Phillips and moves to a dingy kitchenette apartment on the third floor of a graystone building. There they read together. She loses herself in Of Human Bondage while he falls asleep with Sex in the Married Life. After the birth of their daughter Paulette, Maud settles for a life that is clearly less than she had hoped for, in a listless marriage and living in a shabby apartment in a quirky neighborhood, but she remains determined to survive life’s indignities.

Paul Phillips

Paul Phillips, a grocery clerk, Maud’s insensitive husband. He is interested in her at first because she is an incorruptible virgin. He cannot concede defeat so “allows” Maud to steal him away from the city’s nightlife, beautiful “high yellow” (light-skinned) women, fancy clothes, and impressive cars. He retains his obsession with the social whirl, however, cultivating an...

(The entire section is 550 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Maud Martha Brown is the book’s only fully developed character, and it is through her consciousness that the story is told. The third-person narration allows the author the flexibility to enter Maud Martha’s mind, to record the dialogue with little comment, and to make ironic observations through the narrator.

Since the novel focuses on Maud Martha’s inner life and the effect of external events on her development, other characters are described only briefly. The author, however, gives many of these characters depth and substance through the poetic economy of her description. Occasionally, as in the case of two white women who insult Maud Martha, these characters border on stereotypes.

Maud Martha’s immediate family includes Papa, a janitor, a comforting father who offers the family security. Nevertheless, Maud Martha perceives that Papa loves her older sister Helen more because she is attractive and lovable. Mama is outwardly loving but unable to help Maud Martha at one of the crucial moments of her life—the birth of her first child. Helen, two years older than Maud Martha, makes only brief appearances in the novel. As a teenager, Helen attracts boys and scolds Maud Martha for losing herself in her books. Helen eventually marries an older man, a doctor. Through the impersonal narration of the conversation between Maud Martha and her mother, readers understand that the mother disapproves of Maud Martha’s marriage but admires Helen’s choice of a husband who will offer his wife material comforts.

At the beginning of the novel,...

(The entire section is 643 words.)