Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 536
With the eye and the language of a poet, Brooks offers a surface of social realism within which the psychological realities of Maud Martha’s thoughts are probed. The opening paragraph describing the pastor watching the departure of the funeral procession has already suggested the shallow reality of surfaces. “It was impossible to tell just what he was thinking,” Brooks reminds the reader as she re-creates him; her suggestions range from thoughts about death or its accoutrements to the irrelevance of “strawberries.”
Even language can be as shallow as visual surfaces if one does not plumb its depths, and Brooks forces one to read every word of her story thoroughly before exhausting it of meaning. Again, the first paragraph introduces this stylistic density as she describes the quiet closing of the casket lid “to avoid jarring the family.” Not only does this shift the reader’s focus from the dead man to the surviving family, where it belongs, but it also contains the double meanings for “jar” of upsetting or enclosing. Maud Martha has been “jarred” in her marriage and is about to be “jarred” out of it.
In a story thematically concerned with the limits of physical reality, Brooks also conveys the power of that reality as she personifies the fire as an “invader” eating the trapped “flesh” of the streetcar passengers. The emotions of the women are similarly given physical reality as “ripped-open wounds” and “sores.” However, already the reader is offered the values that negate physical realities, as what is considered physical beauty or ugliness becomes its opposite through the intense grief of the women. Establishing physical correspondence for the nonphysical realities with which she confronts the reader allows Brooks to reveal a physical world inseparable from the spiritual. On the other hand, the spiritual is so independent of the physical that when a man is loved, “his physical limits expand, his outlines recede, vanish.”
Brooks is not, however, writing a poem here, whatever poetic demands she makes on language. She is telling a story, and her setting provides the backdrop for the inner and outer dialogues that convey the story. Mrs. Phillips is revealed culturally through her dialect as she describes her “boy” as “a-laughin’” and “a-jokin’”; she is revealed psychologically as she qualifies her “praise” of Maud Martha in every sentence until it becomes blatant criticism. Belva Brown reveals her character by what she does not say, and by the struggle she has to keep from saying it.
To understand Maud Martha, the psychological center of the story, however, one must go into her thoughts, even before she has had them. Brooks carefully stretches the limits of the third-person limited perspective to anticipate the realization that is rising in Maud Martha and to trace its growth. Even when Maud Martha has had her epiphany, Brooks phrases it ambiguously: “She felt higher and more like a citizen of—what?” Whereas the physical can reach its final expression in death, the spiritual reality comes in hints. If physical limits seal one in a jar where one can be destroyed by fire, spiritual realization offers one choices. It promises Maud Martha neither approval nor success—merely that “a road was again clear before her.”
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 163
Brooks, Gwendolyn. Report from Part One. Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972.
Bryant, Jacqueline, ed. Gwendolyn Brooks’ “Maud Martha”: A Critical Collection. Chicago: Third World Press, 2002.
Kent, George E. A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1990.
Lanker, Brian. I Dream a World: Portraits of Black Women Who Changed America. New York: Stewart, Tabori & Chang, 1989.
Madhubuti, Haki R., ed. Say That the River Turns: The Impact of Gwendolyn Brooks. Chicago: Third World Press, 1987.
Melhem, D. H. Gwendolyn Brooks: Poetry and the Heroic Voice. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1987.
Mootry, Maria K., and Gary Smith, eds. A Life Distilled: Gwendolyn Brooks, Her Poetry and Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987.
Washington, Mary Helen. “Plain, Black, and Decently Wild: The Heroic Possibilities of Maud Martha.” In The Voyage In: Fictions of Female Development, edited by Elizabeth Abel, Marianne Hirsch, and Elizabeth Langland. Hanover, N.H.: University Press of New England, 1983.
Wright, Stephen Caldwell, ed. On Gwendolyn Brooks: Reliant Conversation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996.