Praisesong for the Widow Summary
Praisesong for the Widow is a novel by Paule Marshall following sixty-four-year-old widow Avatara “Avey” Johnson’s spiritual journey as she travels throughout the Caribbean.
- Mid-trip on a Caribbean cruise, Avey Johnson, having suffered nightmares, hallucinations, and physical discomfort, resolves to head home to New York.
- Avey meets bar owner Lebert Joseph in Grenada, who persuades her to visit the island of Carriacou with him.
- In Carriacou, Avey attends a fête that inspires her to reconnect with her family and heritage.
Last Updated on September 16, 2021, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1161
While traveling with two friends on a Caribbean cruise, Avatara “Avey” Johnson, a sixty-four-year-old widow, decides that she must discard her plans for the remainder of the trip. She packs quickly in the middle of the night, her movements undetected by her traveling companions.
Avey has grown increasingly uncomfortable aboard the ship. While attempting to eat a peach parfait, she suddenly felt sickeningly full, even though she had eaten sparingly in order to save room for dessert. She has also had a nightmare about her great-aunt Cuney, with whom Avey used to spend a month each summer in South Carolina. Avey’s dream lacked the warmth she shared with her aunt; instead, her aunt beckoned Avey to follow her, then fought Avey when she didn't obey. To her surprise, Avey awakened with real physical pains from this physical altercation in her dreams. Avey has also begun suffering hallucinations with common themes of death and decay.
All of this prompts Avey to hastily decide that she must abandon her planned itinerary, and she finishes packing her belongings just before the sun comes up. Thomasina, her rather overbearing traveling companion, is aghast when she awakens and learns of Avey’s plans. She proceeds to vent her outrage at Avey, hurling one final and demeaning insult before Avey calmly walks away.
Avey had imagined that returning to her home in North White Plains, New York, would be a straightforward undertaking, but her reality does not match those dreams. When she arrives in Grenada, she is overcome by a festive crowd that continues to swell in numbers. They all speak Patois, which Avey cannot understand, as they stream toward decrepit-looking boats.
Finally Avey is rescued by a taxi driver, who has spotted her and determined the nature of her predicament. He is friendly and helpful, and he tells Avey that the people she saw at the wharf were going on “excursion.” He laughs at their tradition, telling Avey that he has never been able to understand the significance of it.
Avey arrives at a grand hotel and books a flight for the following day, as today’s only flight to New York has already departed. As she sits down in a recliner to rest, her deceased husband, Jerome “Jay” Johnson, appears to Avey in a vision, wanting to know if she really wants to end up where the two of them began.
This vision triggers a series of flashbacks about the life Avey shared with Jay. In their early years, they shared intimacy in the daily routines of life. Jay enjoyed putting on records and dancing with his wife in the evenings, and the two relished quiet Sunday mornings, when Jay always ran out for papers and coffee cake. Their sexual intimacy during those years was invigorating and filled with sweetness.
The tone of their home had shifted dramatically by the time Avey was pregnant with their third child. After unsuccessfully trying to dispel the baby from her body, Avey resigned herself to sacrificing her personal goals once more as she cared for another infant. This sacrifice weighed heavily on her and, thus, on her relationship with Jay. She became convinced that Jay was not working long hours but was instead having an affair with one of the white girls at his business. At first, Jay tried to convince Avey that her fears were baseless and even implausible, considering the time period. Avey would not be deterred.
The tension between them came to a head on one fateful winter evening. When Jay arrived home, Avey began berating him as usual. On this night, however, Jay fought back. Avey’s pent-up fury exploded as she screamed, “Goddamn you, nigger, I’ll take my babies and go!” Jay was flabbergasted and appeared to consider leaving Avey for one brief moment. However, he decided to stay, remaining committed to their marriage. Nevertheless, the argument forever altered the course of their lives.
When Avey awakens in her hotel room the following morning, she eats breakfast and decides to take a walk down the beach. Absorbed in her beautiful surroundings, she fails to pay attention to how far she is traveling as she walks, and she goes much further than she realizes. Walking back, she stumbles into a bar, feeling the effects of dehydration.
It is here that Avey meets Lebert Joseph, the owner of the bar. He is preparing to close so that he can leave on the excursion and initially attempts to rush Avey out. But as Avey begins talking, Lebert shares the details of the excursion with her and even convinces Avey to travel to the island of Carriacou with him.
Deciding to postpone her return to New York for another day or two, Avey makes her way back to the crowded wharf which had so overwhelmed her the day before. Lebert Joseph secures passage for both of them and then finds a spot for Avey to rest during the journey, seated between two older women who immediately begin making Avey more comfortable.
The journey proves incredibly taxing for Avey. After briefly falling asleep and dreaming of a sermon that she heard as a child, Avey awakens with the overwhelming urge to vomit. The two older women position Avey on the bench so that she can vomit into the sea. After a prolonged and painful retching, Avey finds brief relief until she realizes that the gastrointestinal pressure is now headed in the opposite direction. She loses control of her bowels, and the two elderly ladies care for her, shielding her body from the other passengers. One woman uses her own body as a buffer, and the other removes her own shawl and ties it around Avey.
Avey ends up in the home of Rosalie Parvay, Lebert Joseph’s daughter. Rosalie tenderly cares for Avey and bathes her, which Avey is surprised to learn she enjoys once she relaxes. Lebert Joseph comes to check on Avey and wonders whether she will still be attending the fête that evening. Avey assures him that she will; after all, this is what she has come to Carriacou to experience.
At the celebration, Avey watches as the traditional customs are observed. Eventually, the dance floor opens to everyone, and Avey finds herself drawn into the dances. The other dancers bow before her when she finishes dancing, and one older woman asks Avey who she is. Again recalling her great-aunt, Avey introduces herself the way her aunt Cuney had always instructed her to do.
The following morning, Avey boards a plane that will take her back to Grenada and eventually home to New York. Before she even arrives home, she begins making plans to connect younger generations with their own heritage. Part of this plan includes restoring her great-aunt’s house in South Carolina and having her young grandsons visit her there in the summers, where she will tell them the story of the Ibos, which her great-aunt once told to her.