Praisesong for the Widow Summary
by Paule Marshall

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Praisesong for the Widow Summary

Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall is a story about Avey Johnson, a 65-year-old black woman, who goes on a Caribbean cruise with her friends. She lost her husband and is now a single mother. Her daughter constantly complains about her marriage, which went through financial hardship and was broken as money took the center stage instead of love.

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Avey is on a Caribbean cruise with her friends. However, upon reaching Grenada, she feels the need to go back home. She has been constantly thinking about her childhood and the time she spent with her great-aunt in a small isle. Avey wonders if these thoughts are triggered by the stories about slaves who were ferried using ships that her great-aunt used to tell her. While at Grenada, Avey reminisces about her marriage. When she got married, her life changed from living in a low-class neighborhood to a middle-class one.

Avey goes to a small bar in Grenada and the proprietor, Lebert Joseph, convinces her to stay for one more night so that she can be part of a tour to Carriacou. During the trip, Avey starts thinking about her heritage and the importance of understanding it.


(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.

A dual vision of reality is particularly evident here. The great-aunt tells Avey that “those pure-born Africans was peoples my gran’ said could see in more ways than one.” Modest Avey is also Avatara (incarnation), named for and by the great-aunt’s grandmother in a vision. Her passionate husband, Jay, becomes the severe businessman Jerome Johnson, almost a stranger. When she looks at Jerome’s face in his coffin, to her horror Avey sees another pale, thin-lipped face superimposed on his—the face of some white ancestor. Even the polished splendor of her White Plains dining room reminds her of the museum of the dead at the foot of Mount Pelee on Martinique.

On her sea journey to Carriacou, Avey is violently and symbolically purged. She is placed in the deckhouse, reminiscent of a slave ship’s hold, and senses she is not alone; she must remember and reenact the journey of her African ancestors.

After Avey is ceremonially purified, the enigmatic Lebert guides her through the rituals of the Big Drum, the Beg Pardon, the Nations Dance. One critic identifies him as “the incarnation of the African deity Legba—trickster, guardian of the crossroads where all ways meet.” This beloved figure served as a link between humans and gods and was vital to many rituals. Thus the Big Drum is real but mythic, the Nations Dance is modern but timeless. When Avey joins the final dance, she recognizes...

(The entire section is 1,520 words.)