Themes

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Maud Martha has never felt beautiful. As a child, she loved dandelions because she found them both somewhat "everyday" and pretty.

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She liked their demure prettiness second to their everydayness; for in that latter quality she thought she saw a picture of herself, and it was comforting to find that what was common could also be a flower. And could be cherished!

Like the dandelions, Maud Martha feels herself to be somewhat "everyday," especially when she is compared to her sister, Helen. The narrator says of Maud Martha, "She did not want fame. She did not want to be a star." While Maud Martha is, in the words of one boy, an "old black gal," Helen is the "ranking queen." Maud Martha thinks, "Helen was still the one they wanted in the wagon, still 'the pretty one,' 'the dainty one.' The lovely one." Helen's appearance may be more attractive to society, but Maud Martha finds a way to think of her own self as good and worthy, too. Her ambitions are not grand, her beauty is more subtle, and she finds a way to be happy in her life. She saves a mouse, she sticks up for her daughter, she welcomes her brother home from war, and she finds a lot for which to feel grateful in the end. From this, the story conveys the idea that even an "everyday" life lived by an "everyday" person can be beautiful and meaningful.

When she attends her Uncle Tim's funeral in her youth, Maud Martha contemplates the meaning of life in general. She is disturbed by his appearance, thinking that he looks like "a gray clay doll." She thinks,

It all came down to gray clay. Then just what was important? What had been important about this life, this Uncle Tim? Was the world any better for for his having lived? A little, perhaps. . . . But how important was this, what was the real importance of this, what would—God say?

She fears that no one will get the "Answers" until they have already finished living their lives. Maud Martha learns that the answers to these important questions do come. She learns to protect her daughter's innocence, to appreciate the "commonest flower," and to keep hope alive so that she can bring another child into a chaotic and imperfect world. We may become like gray clay dolls in the end, but that does not make our lives less significant or reduce the positive impact we have on other people.

Themes and Meanings

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Maud Martha is a celebration of black womanhood. At the same time, the book examines the difficulties and trials of growing up African American and female. Such trials include both the universal problems of life and those specific to Maud Martha’s race and sex: race and color prejudice (the first from Caucasians, the second from her own people, including her family and her own husband); expectations rooted in racism and sexism; and the difficulties experienced by a sensitive, intelligent woman when there is no outlet for her abilities and talents.

The novel moves between inward-looking chapters to those that stress the outside world. For example, following the birth of Paulette, which allows Maud Martha a moment of recognition as she gazes at her daughter, Brooks describes the other people who live in the building. It had been a difficult birth, attended to by a neighbor, Mrs. Cray, whom Maud Martha had not even known before, and by her mother, who prides herself on the fact that she manages to last out the whole experience without fainting. Paul returns with the doctor only after the birth is over, when Maud Martha is already feeling “strong enough to go out and shovel coal.” The chapter serves the purpose of establishing the environment in which Paul and Maud Martha live, but it also shows, from her point of view, Maud Martha’s reactions to these people and perhaps, in a limited way, a broadening of her interest in the world outside her own small space.

This is followed by the chapter in which David McKemster...

(The entire section contains 1711 words.)

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