Paule Marshall Analysis

Discussion Topics

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

How is Paule Marshall’s great theme, the search for identity, shown in her work?

Are Marshall’s characters always aware of their history? Does learning more about their history necessarily affect her characters?

Compare any one of Marshall’s West Indian characters with a corresponding African American character. Do you notice any significant differences between them?

How does Marshall transcend traditional stereotypes in her characters? Does she ever use stereotypes? If so, what effect do they produce?

Discuss the role of the ancestor figure in Marshall’s work. Is one always present?

Does Marshall’s frequent use of West Indian dialect or fragments of other languages (French, for example) add to or detract from her story?

Other Literary Forms

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Paule Marshall is best known for her 1959 novel Brown Girl, Brownstones, which tells the story of Barbadian immigrants striving to surmount poverty and racism in their new home, as seen through the eyes of the young heroine, Selina Boyce, daughter of a hardworking, ambitious mother and an easygoing, romantic father. Ten years later, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People (1969) was published, followed by Praisesong for the Widow (1983), Daughters (1991), and The Fisher-King, (2000). Marshall has also written a number of essays on African American woman writers and her own experience as an artist.


(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

Paule Marshall was awarded a John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation Fellowship in 1961, the Rosenthal Award from the National Institute of Arts and Letters in 1962 for Soul Clap Hands and Sing, a Ford Foundation grant for 1964-1965, a National Endowment for the Arts grant for 1967-1968, and the Before Columbus Foundation American Book Award in 1984 for Praisesong for the Widow. She also received the Langston Hughes Medallion Award (1986), the New York State Governor’s Award for Literature (1987), the John Dos Passos Award for Literature (1989), and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1992).

Other literary forms

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In addition to her novels and the four novellas contained in Soul Clap Hands and Sing (1961), Paule Marshall has written a number of short stories, the most important of which are “Reena,” “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” and “Some Get Wasted.” In “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” a young girl growing up in Brooklyn discovers her Barbadian roots on her first trip to Barbados. Her struggle to integrate the two sides of her heritage is a theme that Marshall develops more fully in her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones. In “Reena,” the middle-aged, middle-class woman who shares her experiences with a friend at the wake of her aunt seems the woman that Selina of Brown Girl, Brownstones might have become. Each of these stories reveals a stage in Marshall’s development of character analysis and theme. The major theme that runs through all Marshall’s novels is the search for identity—the idea that individuals cannot really know who they are until they know who they were, and that it is only as they become connected with their ancestral heritage that they are able to become whole and complete human beings. In her short stories, the author also introduces some of the minor themes—marriage and family relationships, interracial relationships, and political issues—developed in her novels.


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Only in the 1990’s did Paule Marshall’s work begin to receive the critical attention it deserves. While most of her novels have received high praise when they were first published, they have not always been commercially successful. Marshall nevertheless has received the Guggenheim Fellowship (1960), the Rosenthal Foundation Award (1962), a Ford Foundation Grant for poets and fiction writers (1964-1965), and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship (1984). She has also received the Langston Hughes Medallion Award (1986), the New York State Governor’s Award for Literature (1987), the John Dos Passos Award for Literature (1989), and the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Fellowship (1992). In 2001, she was awarded the Black Caucus of the American Library Association Award for Fiction.

Marshall’s major contribution to the novel is her deep understanding of the human psyche, which allows her to create characters that are movingly sympathetic. She gives careful attention to female characters—especially the black female, whom she feels has been long neglected in literature. She destroys stereotypes, creating black women who are neither “sensual, primitive, pleasure-seeking, or immoral, nor sinner, siren or matriarch (strong, humble, devoutly religious and patient).” Her women are complex, with deep reservoirs of strength that can be called upon when needed.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Alexander, Simone A. James. Mother Imagery in the Novels of Afro-Caribbean Women. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2001. Compares Marshall’s representation of mothers and the mother-daughter relationship with those of Jamaica Kincaid and Maryse Condé.

Brown, Lloyd W. “The Rhythms of Power in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7, no. 2 (Winter, 1974): 159-167. This essay focuses on Marshall’s short story “To Da-Duh, in Memoriam,” tracing Marshall’s concern with the problems of African American women, tied to her commitment to feminism and racial equality. Brown argues that Marshall sees power as both a political goal of ethnic and feminist movements and a social and psychological phenomenon that affects racial and sexual roles, shapes cultural traditions, and molds the individual psyche.

Collier, Eugenia. “The Closing of the Circle: Movement from Division to Wholeness in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” In Black Women Writers, 1950-1980, edited by Mari Evans. Garden City, N.Y.: Anchor Press/Doubleday, 1984. Collier finds in Marshall’s writing a movement from the separated, segmented self to a discovery of wholeness and completion; this healing and wholeness is found within the context of the community. Contains good discussions of the short fiction. The first of two essays on Marshall in Evans’s collection, which should be required reading for anyone interested in African American woman writers. Contains a bibliography of criticism on Marshall and an index.

Coser, Stelamaris. Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Paule Marshall,...

(The entire section is 709 words.)