The autobiographical novel Maud Martha describes the experiences of a young woman named Maud Martha Brown, following her growth from the age of seven through courtship, marriage, and motherhood. The novel deftly blends aspects of the story and poetry. As a whole, the thirty-four segments reveal Maud’s coming of age. The language in each segment is often poetic, and Gwendolyn Brooks takes some poetic license with punctuation, sentence structure, and vocabulary. Many of the segments could be free-standing stories, but the focus on Maud in each episode links the stories to create a novel. The overall narrative of Maud’s growth is clear, but Brooks places more emphasis on the sensitivity of Maud and her responses to those around her.
A central theme is the dismantling of preconceptions of African Americans, especially as such preconceptions existed among readers in 1953. Maud surprises with her refinement and perceptiveness, but she also connects well to readers because, like them, she wants the satisfaction of home and family. As a family, the Browns have small problems, but on the whole, they are loyal to each other, hard working, and stable. This depiction of an African American family does not conform to stereotype. The members of Maud’s community also exemplify lively diversity. Just as Geoffrey Chaucer in his prologue to The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400) reveals the full range of human integrity and frailty, Brooks, in segments such as “kitchenette folks,” “a self-solace,” and “an encounter,” reveals the range of strengths and weaknesses among African American neighbors and community members.
A second theme is the challenge to the definition of beauty. Why, in both the white and black worlds, is lightness of color more beautiful than darkness? In judging beauty, why do people overlook the characteristics of inner beauty, such as compassion and intelligence, and focus instead on the texture of hair and the creaminess of...
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- Critical Essays