(Masterpieces of American Literature)

In Praisesong for the Widow, Avey Johnson and two friends are in the midst of a Caribbean cruise, which her friends have urged upon her, when Avey suddenly feels that she cannot continue. Without explanation, she disembarks at Granada, knowing only that she must get back to her immaculate home in North White Plains, New York. Instead, she finds herself walking too far down the beach in the heat and seeks refuge in a small bar. Lebert Joseph, the lame and ancient owner, urges her to stay for an extra day to join the annual excursion to his native island of Carriacou. There, the Big Drum celebration is held to honor the Old Parents, the Long-time People: “Each year this time they does look for us to come and give them their remembrance.”

The novel reiterates Marshall’s concern with “the need for black people to make the psychological and spiritual journey back through their past.” On her journey, Avey recalls the hard but rewarding years with her husband, Jay, on Halsey Street in Brooklyn, before they moved to the respectability of White Plains. She remembers her childhood visits to her father’s great-aunt in South Carolina and the old woman’s thrilling story of Ibo Landing, of slaves who turned their backs on the New World and walked home across the sea. Lebert also reminds her of her heritage by pointedly asking her, “And what you is?” He does not mean American but rather wants to know her African tribal heritage.


(The entire section is 538 words.)

Praisesong for the Widow Summary

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Praisesong for the Widow, Paule Marshall explores the dynamics of the West Indian cultural landscape as well as its African heritage. The title of the novel reflects the author’s attempt to celebrate both cultural transition and African continuity.

Praisesong for the Widow is a novel of healing, as its structure emphasizes. Dedicating the work to her ancestral figure, Da-duh (Alberta Jane Clement), Marshall divides the book into four parts that delineate the journey from disease to health for those affected by the contradiction of being “old” in the “New World.”

In the first section, “Runagate,” named for African American poet Robert Hayden’s poem about the flight of a runaway slave, Avey Johnson feels the burden of being a slave to materialism when, on her annual cruise to the Caribbean, she dreams of her great-aunt Cuney. In this first section of the novel, as throughout the work, Marshall uses ritual as an opening to a hidden worldview that is antithetical to the values proclaimed by the elite of the Americas. “Runagate” recalls slavery times, when threats of corporal punishment precipitated slaves into flight.

The first section of the novel opens with sixty-two-year-old Avey Johnson, the protagonist, a black woman widowed one year previously. Avey is frantically packing her six suitcases for flight from her luxury liner, barely five days after setting sail on a two-week cruise in the Caribbean. Agitated and bewildered, she has no concrete reason to offer for her behavior. She can hardly recognize her own image in the mirror. A self-doubt triggered by her daughter’s criticism of the cruise has escalated into hallucinations after a vision of her long-dead great-aunt Cuney, who seems determined to force Avey to confront her past, her roots, and her heritage. Cuney directs Avey to the highly symbolic Ibo Landing in Tatem, which is a key to that...

(The entire section is 785 words.)

Praisesong for the Widow Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Praisesong for the Widow traces Avey Johnson’s journey toward self-knowledge, a process involving not only her own personal identity but also her identification with her family, her past, and her African heritage.

The novel begins in the late 1970’s, during Avey Johnson’s third Caribbean cruise. Suddenly she begins to experience an uneasy, unspecified feeling, not quite illness but a “mysterious welling up in her stomach,” “a clogged and swollen feeling.” Two additional occurrences alarm her: First, she does not even recognize herself in the dining-room mirrors one evening, and then she begins to dream again (something she had not done since 1963). In her dream, Aunt Cuney, whom she had not thought about for years, drags a resistant Avey, in high heels and mink stole, toward the Ibo Landing in Tatem. This dream (so real that Avey’s wrists are sore the next morning) and her vague sick feelings convince Avey that she must leave the ship, and she disembarks at Grenada to await the first flight back to New York.

In a second dream at the hotel, Avey’s dead husband appears to her, accusing her of wasting their money by forfeiting fifteen hundred dollars in leaving the cruise early. Money had become “the whole of his transubstantiated body and blood.” That and his tone of voice remind Avey of a night in 1945 when their lives changed forever. Jay Johnson, Avey’s husband, had always been fun and affectionate. He worked hard as a department-store warehouse clerk while Avey advanced at the state motor vehicles department between her pregnancies. Avey’s third unexpected pregnancy drove a wedge between husband and wife, however; her unsuccessful self-abortion attempts and Jay’s refusal to accept responsibility for the pregnancy led to a...

(The entire section is 732 words.)

Praisesong for the Widow Summary

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

Avey Johnson, a sixty-four-year-old African American woman, now single, is packing her bags. She is aboard the cruise ship Bianca Pride with her friends Thomasina and Clarice, and she has decided in the middle of the night to leave the cruise and fly home to New York. Three nights earlier, Avey had a dream about her great-aunt Cuney, with whom she used to spend summers as a child on Tatem Island off the South Carolina coast. In the dream, Aunt Cuney called Avey to follow her down the path they used to walk together in Tatem, down to the shore where Aunt Cuney would tell the story of a group of Igbo slaves who walked across the water back to Africa. Since the dream, Avey has felt bloated and unsettled.

After quarreling with her friends about her hasty decision, Avey spends the morning trying to avoid the other passengers, but she cannot find a place to be alone. Finally, the ship docks at Grenada, and she gets off with her six suitcases and hatbox. She quickly realizes that she has not thought through her plans for getting home. She has assumed that it would be easy to get a cab to the airport and to get a flight home, but instead she finds herself on a crowded wharf with cobblestone streets, crowds of people speaking a patois she cannot understand, and no vehicles or guides in sight. The people crowding the wharf seem to be locals, dressed up and carrying overnight bags and wrapped presents and boarding an assortment of old wooden cargo ships. Finally, she finds a taxi driver and learns that the one daily flight to New York has already left. As the driver takes her to a large tourist hotel, he explains that the locals are taking their annual excursion to Carriacou Island, a trip he has never understood.

Avey begins to remember her early years with her late husband, Jay, and then hears his voice, challenging her for wasting money on the unfinished cruise. The couple had lived on Halsey Street in Brooklyn, New York. Jay, as Avey moves back to the past, is a hard-working man, dedicated to providing for his family; he works two or three jobs at a time and had completed an accounting degree, but no white men will hire him. Avey does clerical work and is raising three...

(The entire section is 897 words.)