Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

When Avey was a girl, her Aunt Cuney called her to pass the cultural heritage from one generation to the next. Aunt Cuney would take Avey to the Landing and tell the story about the arrival of a shipload of Ibo slaves. At first, Avey answered her calling and told her brothers, but once her trips to Tatem Island stopped and after her adult attention shifted to achieving the American Dream, Avey sublimated what she had learned. The breach between Avey and her cultural heritage widened, and Avey stopped identifying with the struggles and concerns of other African Americans. She, along with her husband Jay, focused attention on material possessions and social status. Avey wrapped herself in her mink stole, attended social functions with her husband, and after his fatal stroke took Caribbean cruises with her friends. Voyages on a luxury liner and then on a flimsy schooner finally take Avey on a difficult yet successful journey back to her cultural origins.

During one voyage, aboard the Bianca Pride, Avey begins having troubling dreams about Aunt Cuney, and she remembers the early years of her marriage when she and her husband, though poor, were happy. She cannot recognize her image in mirrors, and the rich foods that are served, especially a peach parfait à la Versailles, are nauseating. Avey tries to regain her composure by seeking solitude. Despite her efforts, she cannot escape the crass materialism of the shipboard environment, which becomes overwhelmingly repulsive. She is horrified and outraged by one symbol of American society, a skeletal old man wearing red and white striped trunks and a blue visor who tugs at her skirt and invites her to have a seat beside him. Neither her friends’ protests nor the loss of the $1,500 fare for the cruise are enough to dissuade Avey from her decision to leave the ship and return to New York.

Avey thinks that she will be able to return to the comfort and familiarity of life in North White Plains. Her return is delayed because she arrives in Grenada too late to catch a plane that leaves once a day for New York City. While determining where she...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

The feminist movement of the 1970’s and its demands for social equality increased an awareness of and interest in novels written by women. Coming after the civil rights and black power movements, this increased feminism led to the publication of novels that focused on the experiences of African American women. In the 1980’s, several novels written by black women demonstrated that islands of black feminine existence were not separate from an understanding of the communal African American experience. Female-centered novels such as Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place (1982), and Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) underscore the significance of women to the black community. These novels also show that there is a community of women who understand one another, who protect one another, and who, like Avey, assume the responsibility of teaching black children about their cultural heritage. These authors are models for other African American women, such as Bebe Moore Campbell (Your Blues Ain’t Like Mine, 1992), Thulani Davis (1959, 1992), and Rita Dove (Through the Ivory Gate, 1992).


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Busia, Abena P. “What Is Your Nation? Reconnecting Africa and Her Diaspora Through Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow. ” In Changing Our Own Words: Essays on Criticism, Theory, and Writing by Black Women, edited by Cheryl A. Wall. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Maintains that the journey Marshall presents is not just that of Avey Johnson but also a journey on which readers must embark to recognize the cultural signs and symbols that would lead to a reunification of the African diaspora. Avey’s quest is that of “all New World diaspora children.”

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. “Paule Marshall’s Women on Quest.” Black American Literature Forum 21 (Spring/Summer, 1987): 43-60. Demonstrates how Marshall’s first three novels make use of Joseph Campbell’s universalist mythos, Robert Stepto’s racially based journey patterns, and Carol Christ’s gender-specific heroic patterns.

Sandiford, Keith A. “Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow: The Reluctant Heiress, Or Whose Life Is It Anyway?” Black American Literature Forum 20 (Winter, 1986): 371-392. Sees the novel as presenting a character who must confront the antagonism between history and myth, between the diachronic view of history and the synchronic view of myth and ritual.

Scarboro, Ann Armstrong. “The Healing Process: A Paradigm for Self-Renewal in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow and Camara Laye’s Le Regard du roi. ” Modern Language Studies 19, no. 1 (Winter, 1989): 28-36. Finds six elements in the model for self-renewal in both Marshall’s and Laye’s works: “the decision to depart, psychological disorientation, interaction with a mentor, episodes of purification, psychological reintegration and arrival home.”

Wall, Cheryl A. Worrying the Line: Black Women Writers, Lineage, and Literary Tradition. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2005. Examines the representation of family generations in Praisesong for the Widow and the importance of Marshall’s relationship to her literary forebears.

Waxman, Barbara Frey. “The Widow’s Journey to Self and Roots: Aging and Society in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow. ” Frontiers 9, no. 3 (1987): 94-99. Maintains that Marshall’s novel, along with others written by contemporary women, traces the “young-old” widow who undergoes a transformation of soul and spirit through the rediscovery of her racial and cultural heritage.