Paule Marshall Long Fiction Analysis
Being of both African American and Caribbean ancestry helped to shape Paule Marshall as a woman and as a writer. She first visited Barbados as a nine-year-old child. When she visited the island as a young woman just starting out on a writing career, she began to develop a deeper appreciation for the West Indian culture—its rituals, its customs, its people and language—and a greater sense of pride in her West Indian heritage. She was most impressed with the strength and character she observed in West Indian women, qualities she saw reflected in the women of the Brooklyn community where she had grown up.
The lives of these women, whom Marshall has called her “literary foremothers,” were to become the major focus of her novels. They were primarily domestic workers who would sit around her mother’s kitchen table in the evenings after a hard day’s labor, talking endlessly about everything from the white women for whom they worked to politics to their own husbands and families. Because of their creative use of language, Marshall considered these women poets, though they had never written a line. They had their special cadences and rhythms, they played with syntax, and they introduced certain Africanisms into their speech and sprinkled it with a generous smattering of French Creole expressions, biblical quotations, and colorful proverbs.
Their use of language and their storytelling skills influenced Marshall’s style, and their strength and deep sense of pride are the essential qualities of the female characters she creates. Theprotagonists of Marshall’s novels are almost always women and are the products of dual cultures. In her characterization of these women, Marshall explores the ways in which their psyches are affected by their cultural heritages and by the societies in which they live. She also focuses on the difficulties that they encounter in trying to integrate their two worlds.
Brown Girl, Brownstones
In Brown Girl, Brownstones, Marshall begins to develop the self-identity theme through the character of Selina Boyce, a girl moving from childhood into adolescence in Brooklyn and caught between two cultures, the American culture in which she lives and the Barbadian culture of her ancestors, the customs of which are carefully observed in her household. The novel treats the problems that Selina encounters in trying to reconcile these two disparate parts of herself. She is a “divided self,” feeling little connection with either the “bajan” community or the larger white community. She rejects her Barbadian heritage and its “differentness” and yearns to be a part of the white community, which rejects her. The sense of isolation that she feels is the source of all her problems.
At theclimax of the novel, the “divided self” is integrated as Selina finally accepts her heritage and discovers that with acceptance comes wholeness. She resolves her conflict with her mother, makes peace with the Barbadian Association, and leaves Brooklyn to begin her travels. As she passes through her old neighborhood, she feels psychically connected to all the people who helped create her integrated self. As a final symbolic act, she tosses behind her one of her two Barbadian bangle bracelets and retains the other as a reminder of her link with the past. Selina has finally learned that true selfhood begins with the acceptance of one’s own history.
The Chosen Place, the Timeless People
Marshall’s second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, is set in the West Indies, specifically Bournehills, a remote part of one of the Caribbean islands. Here, Marshall expands the identity theme, focusing not on the individual self but rather on the collective self of a community of people in search of a common bond. Although Merle Kimbona—a mulatto who has returned to Bournehills after many adventuresome years in Europe to become mistress of a large estate left her by her white father—is the protagonist of the novel and a strong female character, she is really not the central figure of the novel. At the center of the novel are the people of Bournehills, who, having been oppressed first by slavery and then by their own people, search for some common thread of unity. They discover this in Carnival, an annual ritual in which the people reenact the story of Cuffee Ned, who led a slave revolt against the slaveholder Percy Byram.
The plot turns with a visit by a team from an American philanthropic organization sent to Bournehills to provide aid to this underdeveloped country. The team consists of a Jewish American social scientist, Saul Amron; his wife, Harriet; and two returning natives of Bournehills, Allen Fuso and Vere. During their stay on the island, the outsiders interact with the natives,...
(The entire section is 1970 words.)