The Rise of Maud Martha

by Gwendolyn Brooks

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 471

“The Rise of Maud Martha,” a very brief and deceptively simple story, opens as a pastor observes the departure of a funeral procession and closes only a short time later, the moment Maud Martha begins crying as they lower her husband, Paul, into his grave. With the precision of the poet she is and the insight of the sensitive observer of human behavior she has always been, Gwendolyn Brooks joins the procession through the thoughts and observations of Maud Martha as she rides in the first car with her mother, Belva Brown, and Paul’s mother, Mrs. Phillips. Each carefully detailed picture conveys the lifestyle in which Maud Martha finds herself, from the opening details of the “big and little and few” wreaths with “fresh and barely fresh” flowers, through the placement of Maud Martha in “the longest and shiny-blackest of the long black cars,” to the image of an “after-funeral white cake” that closes the story.

Equally vivid are the flashback observations of Paul’s death as one of “30-odd” passengers burned in the crash of a streetcar with a gas truck. Ironically, the streetcar was a new model, and its sealed windows sealed the fate of its unfortunate passengers as well.

The violent tragedy is not, however, the focus of Brooks’s story. Rather, it is “the women in the street”—from the grieving wives to the high school girl in the crowd “enjoying herself. Seeing Life.” Brooks may focus on Maud Martha, but she uses a wide-angle lens, taking in the many faces of grief and contrasting the “’dreadful’ blackness” of charred bodies with the formerly “known and despised” blackness of race.

Next Brooks narrows her lens to the three women in the head car and turns up the sound, as Mrs. Phillips eulogizes her son and patronizes her daughter-in-law. Criticism disguised as faint praise fails to provoke a rise from either Maud Martha or her mother, Belva, although Belva does have to snap her lips shut at one point. Maud Martha’s only response is “I understand,” ambiguously acknowledging Mrs. Phillips’s request for visits and her own growing understanding of the real meaning of Paul’s death for her.

Reminiscent but not derivative of Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” Brooks’s story presents a newly widowed wife who is looking for the feelings that she has been taught to expect from herself but who finds instead inescapable and unpredicted realities. Instead of the self-pity of the abandoned love, Maud Martha discovers in herself only pity for Paul’s loss of the physical beauty he loved so dearly. As does Chopin’s character, Maud Martha feels in herself a release of freedom and power: “She could actually feel herself rising.” The tears that come in time to please the relatives are not for Paul.

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