Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Paule Marshall is the daughter of Barbadian immigrants who came to the United States after World War I. Marshall was born in Brooklyn, New York, in the tightly knit, hard-working community of Bajans and has spent most of her life in the New York area. Problems of acculturation and racism that she experienced as a black woman and as the child of immigrants became parts of her stories. Many of these stories were based on those she heard in her mother’s kitchen. The language used there became an integral part of her writing, particularly in Reena and Other Stories.

Reena and Other Stories consists of six short stories: “The Valley Between,” “Brooklyn,” “Barbados,” “Reena,” “To Da-duh, in Memoriam,” and “Merle,” which is adapted from Marshall’s novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People. Included also is an essay, “The Making of a Writer: From the Poets in the Kitchen,” which was first published in The New York Times. In several stories, Marshall introduces the reader to an infrequently encountered area of African American literature: the immigrant experience. The major themes in this collection of short stories are a search for identity in an oppressive environment and the importance of history and tradition for African Americans, especially women.

The stories deal not only with West Indian immigrant women but also with African American women and women in a Caribbean setting. These women are in...

(The entire section is 607 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

“Reena,” “To Da-duh, in Memoriam,” and “Merle” are unusual stories. These are among the few literary works that examine the black woman’s experiences as an immigrant. The dominant culture views these women, because they are blacks and immigrants, as marginal and powerless. For this reason, another of Marshall’s themes is the acquisition of power. Not only does Marshall stress obtaining power and the female immigrant experience, but she also underscores female relationships and the need for women to define themselves. In their search for self, her women characters insist on not being defined by men or by European American society. Additionally, stereotypical depictions of the black woman appeared frequently in earlier literature: the mammy, the loose woman, or the tragic mulatta. Marshall is primary among contemporary writers who eliminate the stereotype and create fully developed black female characters.

Moreover, with her tripartite vision of African, African American, and Afro-Caribbean women, Marshall connects all black people worldwide. This international bond illustrates that black people share a common history and must share a common future. Marshall, who has been described as an “unfortunately better kept secret,” has, with her emphasis on fully developed black female characters and the importance of history, become an important twentieth century writer. Nevertheless, much of her work was ignored when it was first published, although her artistic vision has earned for her the Guggenheim Fellowship, the Rosenthal Award, Ford Foundation and National Endowment for the Arts grants, and the MacArthur Fellowship. Some of the stories in Reena and Other Stories were published at a time when African Americans were beginning to question and to understand their unique place in American history. Marshall’s perspective as a first-generation American was distinctive and thus was overlooked.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Brown, Lloyd W. “The Rhythms of Power in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” Novel: A Forum on Fiction 7, no. 2 (Winter, 1974): 159-167. Brown suggests that Marshall’s primary interest is power. Her analysis of power is complex and imaginative not only because it is the political goal of ethnic and feminist groups but also because it shapes racial and sexual roles.

Christol, Helene. “Paule Marshall’s Bajan Women in Brown Girl, Brownstones.” In Women and War: The Changing Status of American Women from the 1930s to the 1940s, edited by Maria Diedrich and Dorothea Fischer-Hornung. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1990. Christol asserts that Marshall’s insistence on women as complete individuals and as part of the black community prefigured such themes in the works of Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, and Ntozake Shange.

Cook, John. “Whose Child? The Fiction of Paule Marshall.” CLA Journal 26, no. 1 (September, 1980): 1-15. Cook maintains that Marshall’s primary theme is not the race problem or the importance of history in the lives of African Americans. He believes that Marshall’s dominant theme is sexual politics.

Kapai, Leela. “Dominant Themes and Technique in Paule Marshall’s Fiction.” CLA Journal 16, no. 1 (September, 1972): 49-59. Kapai writes that Marshall’s dominant themes are an identity crisis, the race problem, the importance of tradition for African Americans, and the need to share in order to achieve meaningful relationships. Her technique blends the best of the past tradition with recent innovations.

Spillers, Hortense J. “Chosen Place, Timeless People: Some Figurations on the New World.” In Conjuring: Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, edited by Marjorie Pryse and Hortense J. Spillers. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Spillers, using reader-response theory, suggests that Merle Kinbona, the principal character in “Merle” and The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, may be confusing to many readers. Spillers additionally posits that Merle is both the history of her island and the shaper of that history.