(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Plum Bun is a bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, about Angela Murray, whose romantic illusions about the advantages of “passing” as white are shattered by a succession of cruel experiences. The format of the novel is based on the old nursery rhyme “To Market, to Market/ To buy a Plum Bun;/ Home again, Home again,/ Market is done.” The “plum bun” represents all the advantages Angela hopes to obtain by using her charm and talent to enter the upper-class white world.

In the first section, entitled “Home,” sixteen-year-old Angela is introduced, along with her sister Virginia and their parents. The family lives in a poor but respectable black neighborhood in Philadelphia. Junius and Mattie Murray are hardworking, thrifty, religious-minded parents who have tried to teach their daughters the highest moral standards. Virginia is happy in this humble domestic setting, but the restless, ambitious Angela can hardly wait to be old enough to escape to New York, where she hopes to use her talents as an artist to find a more stimulating life, even if this means denying her own race forever.

“Market,” the second section, deals with Angela’s early experiences in New York in the 1920’s, after both her parents have died, leaving her enough money to move to the big city. “Plum Bun,” the third section, deals with Angela’s affair with the white playboy Roger Fielding, who represents all the comfort, security, prestige, and sophistication she desires. Fielding, who believes Angela to be pure white, falls in love with her but is afraid to propose marriage, because his domineering father will permit him to marry only a woman with wealth and family background. The charismatic Fielding persuades Angela to...

(The entire section is 714 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Most of the narrative focuses on the life of Angela Murray, from her early childhood in a black, working-class area of Philadelphia to her late twenties, when she achieves some success as an artist in New York City. The novel is divided into five parts, each part based on one portion of the well-known children’s verse: “To Market, to Market/ To buy a Plum Bun;/ Home again, Home again,/ Market is done.”

In the first part, “Home,” the Murray family is introduced: a father, a mother, and two daughters, living on Opal Street in Philadelphia, a residential area of small, cramped houses. The race of the family immediately becomes an issue as the focus moves to Angela, the older daughter, who feels at a very young age the constraints placed upon her life by the fact of the family’s color. Angela, like her mother, has a “creamy complexion” and can pass as white; Virginia, like her father, is dark. Angela’s youthful yearning is for freedom, and she very soon realizes that she and her mother, when in the city alone, have access to the rewards of life, the glamours and pleasures of the marketplace, that are closed to her father and to Virginia. Mattie Murray often plays at being white and finds it a pleasant pastime, but she always professes her color when principle demands it. Angela, however, is keenly aware of the disadvantages of color and deeply hurt by the rejection of her white friends when they learn that she is black. The family is a close and caring one, but the tensions brought on by color are only relieved on Sunday afternoons, when they are alone and isolated from the color-conscious world of the city.

The two sisters are left truly alone, however, when both parents die within weeks of each other. The father dies of a heart attack, seemingly brought about by a racial confrontation in which he has to deny his husbandly relationship to Mattie. Mattie dies shortly thereafter, her heart more with her husband than with the tribulations of the world. Angela’s inheritance, three thousand dollars, is, she believes, her golden opportunity for freedom; she flees Philadelphia for the glamour and promise of New York City; Virginia decides to stay with her inheritance, the parents’ home, in Philadelphia.

In part 2, “Market,” Angela becomes an art student in New York City, changes her name, establishes herself in Greenwich Village, and, after some inner debate, determines, as she did in Philadelphia, that to refrain from announcing her race will afford her the freedom to reach for the riches and pleasures of life. In New York City, she can rely on the fact that nothing will betray her race; she can even hope to marry a rich white man who can give her the entrance into the good life she so desires.


(The entire section is 1126 words.)