Praisesong for the Widow Themes
The main themes in Praisesong for the Widow are the importance of heritage, the cost of materialism, and separation and loss.
- The importance of heritage: In Carriacou, Avey realizes she can no longer ignore her ancestral past and must fully embrace her identity.
- The cost of materialism: Avey and Jerome’s marriage ultimately crumbles due to an increasing focus on the superficial, and Avey learns that simplicity is what truly brings her peace.
- Separation and loss: Over time, Avey has distanced herself both physically and emotionally from her roots, and this disconnect impacts her marriage as well.
The Importance of Heritage
When she is a young girl, Avey accepts the stories of the Ibo people with a sense of wonder. Her great-aunt Cuney repeatedly tells her of their determination and courage, and Avey is captivated by their supernatural powers. Everything shifts when doubt creeps into young Avey’s consciousness one summer; from this point forward, she no longer has a sense of connectedness to the stories of her ancestors. It is Avey’s great-aunt who appears to her in a dream aboard the Bianca Pride and summons Avey to follow her. Aunt Cuney represents the connection to Avey’s ancestors that Avey has dismissed over time.
It is no accident that Avey connects with Lebert Joseph, a man deeply rooted in his heritage, while in Grenada. From the start, the old man offers restoration to Avey, providing a drink when she is nearing dehydration. Realizing that Avey has no sense of her ancestral heritage, he then seeks to restore her soul by inviting Avey to experience the excursion for herself.
In Carriacou, Avey finds the spiritual healing she is desperate to discover. When she stood on the wharf in Grenada, her inability to understand those around her demonstrated her inability to recognize the significance of her ancestors. By contrast, Avey reverently bows her head as the Beg Pardon dance is performed on Carriacou, finally understanding the connectedness of her own “far-flung kin.” In this ritual of repentance, Avey is unsurprised to “almost” see her great-aunt standing beside her when the song concludes. She then focuses on a single thought: “Pa’donẻ mwê.” Avey seeks the forgiveness of those who have come before her, her own Old Parents, for disconnecting from her heritage.
Because of Lebert Joseph’s initial question to her (“What you is?”), Avey is compelled to initiate a journey of self-realization. She can no longer maintain a sense of detachment and can no longer view her heritage as only “something you might hear or read about.” Instead, Lebert Joseph helps Avey to see the way her heritage is intricately woven into her identity. Avey’s renewal propels her to teach others, helping them to heal the fracture between past and present.
The Cost of Materialism
In the early days of their marriage, Avey and Jay find an almost mystical rhythm in their simple lives together. Though they are cramped in their apartment and have disorderly neighbors, the two share a warm intimacy despite their lack of financial prosperity. It is only after their heated argument on that “fateful Tuesday” that Jay becomes more determined than ever to move his family away from the negative atmosphere that has begun to surround them. In doing so, he and Avey forever abandon the couple they once were. Lazy Sunday mornings are replaced with Jay’s focus on building a clientele. Barefoot dance parties for two in the evenings are forgotten as Jay’s determination to secure a house for the family becomes the focal point of their existence. In the end, Jay is able to provide financial security for his family, but that security comes at great cost. He becomes much like a stranger to Avey, who even stops thinking of him as her familiar “Jay”; instead, she mentally calls him by his given name, Jerome. The depth of this loss doesn’t occur to Avey until four years after her husband’s death, and she wonders what it would have taken to maintain their precious intimacy. The loss is “too much.”
As Avey moves forward as a widow, she constructs a ritual of traveling with two “friends,” neither of whom she is particularly fond of....
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In their travels, the group become acquainted with luxurious places while spending weeks pampering themselves with the finest foods and forms of relaxation. Yet it isn’t in these materialistic efforts that Avey finally finds peace; instead, being aboard theBianca Pride causes Avey increasing discomfort. When she abandons her materialistic comforts and steps into Lebert Joseph’s meager rum shack, Avey begins to find the peace that has eluded her.
Separation and Loss
Avey effectively became a widow long before Jay’s physical death, believing that the witty, warm, affectionate husband of her youth had disappeared forever on that fateful winter night. She never mourned this death because she didn’t recognize the reality until many years later. Instead, she and Jay worked to the point of exhaustion in order to complete their duties as parents, never pausing to recognize the loss of themselves or each other.
Avey has also separated herself from the physical location of her heritage—her great-aunt’s house in South Carolina. This is the place where she found deep connections to her ancestors as a young child and where Aunt Cuney insisted that Avey refer to herself as “Avatara,” the name of her grandmother. By refusing to identify as Avatara, Avey also further separates herself from her ancestors.
By participating in the excursion, Avey recognizes the importance of recalling the loss of those who came before her. She realizes that the collective suffering of her ancestors deserves to be heard and recognized. As she listens to the songs of lamentation on the island of Carriacou, Avey connects to the “bruised still-bleeding innermost chamber of the collective heart.” It is this sense of loss that motivates Avey to return to South Carolina and become a voice for those who are no longer living.