The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Avey Johnson, affluent and ready for retirement from her supervisory job at the state motor vehicle department, lives in a fashionable section of New York. Her late husband, Jerome, literally worked himself to death to attain this affluence. The novel relates an experience on the level of the psyche toward which Avey’s whole life has been pointed. The movement of the novel is a gathering together, the achievement of linkages in time and place, linkages of the disparate elements of the individual self as it merges with the collective self.

In her journey, Avey fulfills the promise of black women in the twentieth century. In Praisesong for the Widow, Marshall emphasizes that the fulfillment of promise cannot be achieved without a true understanding of the past. In the character of Avey, myth and history, place and consciousness unite in her struggles to become fully human.

Jay Johnson, Avey’s late husband, is depicted as a hardworking, dependable family man who spends time with his family and whose wit and sensibility keep the love between him and Avey alive. The novel makes it clear that the confidence and contentment in this marriage comes from acceptance of self and one’s roots. The schism between the couple starts with a slow but steady movement away from all the rituals that held their family life together. Endless work demanded by new ambitions takes Jay away from his family and away from love. The yearly trip south to their relatives and heritage is forgotten, as are old friends and values. At this point in his life, Jay insists on...

(The entire section is 643 words.)

The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Avatara “Avey” Johnson is not a stereotypical African American protagonist. She is middle-aged, middle-class, and widowed. Her material comfort is by no means synonymous with satisfaction, however; Avey is a sixty-year-old woman who does not know who she is.

As her name implies, Avatara (from the root “avatar”) is the incarnation of what has come before her, though she is unaware of that fact. Avey is not merely a flat, symbolic representation of African American culture, however. She is a developing character struggling with her personal and racial past.

Avey’s character is developed through a series of flashbacks, dreams, memories, and even vague, slightly nauseous feelings that she cannot completely identify. The novel traces Avey’s growing awareness of how her childhood in Harlem, her annual trips to South Carolina, and her long marriage to Jerome “Jay” Johnson all readied her for her self-discovery on Carriacou as part of the larger community of African peoples.

Presented only through Avey’s recollections and dreams, Jerome Johnson is a strong, middle-class black man who achieves the American Dream but, in the process, loses his soul. After years of working on a loading dock, selling vacuum cleaners door to door, studying correspondence courses, and eventually earning a college degree, Jerome Johnson becomes a successful accountant, a member of the Elks Lodge, and a respected Mason, but he has sacrificed his...

(The entire section is 552 words.)