(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Waiting to Exhale tells the story of four college-educated, middle-class black women who rely on one another to overcome a number of personal and professional crises. As a record of a year in these women’s lives, the novel goes back and forth in time to chart the paths that have led each woman to Phoenix and to become the sort of woman each is. In addition to telling the story of the women, the novel explores the social and cultural contexts of African American life in the 1990’s. McMillan focuses on a number of political and social issues that are in the background of these women’s lives.

Through the story of Savannah Jackson, McMillan provides some sense of the struggles many black women must endure to have successful careers. Savannah often telephones her mother and sister, who live in Pittsburgh. Her mother lives on Social Security benefits and food stamps. Savannah’s sister endures a troubled marriage and has often been on the run, taking her children to cheap motels but always returning to her husband, on whom she is dependent but whom she perhaps does not love. Savannah, knowing the difficulties her family faces, often does not tell them of her own problems, and she of all her siblings is the only one to send her mother money every month to supplement the meager Social Security benefits.

Robin Stokes’s relationship with her family creates an additional burden for her. Her father suffers from Alzheimer’s disease, and her mother remains firm in her resolve to...

(The entire section is 617 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

In Waiting to Exhale, the four central female characters are members of an organization called Black Women on the Move (BWOM). The problem is that these bright, attractive, and loving women have themselves been on the move too long. They see themselves coming near to middle age fearing that they will not be able to find or sustain a sexual relationship with a black man whom they consider to be eligible. Savannah, with her mind set on a career and upward mobility, has been in three live-in relationships over a period of nine years, and she is holding her breath (waiting to exhale) until the time when she can locate someone whose interests are reasonably close to hers who is faithful, attractive, knowledgeable, and a good lover, attributes evidently extremely scarce among men.

As the novel opens, Savannah is planning a move from Denver, where she holds a well-paying but dead-end job, to Phoenix, where she has accepted a less well-paying job but one that fulfills her creative needs and one that she thinks promises more upward mobility. While in Phoenix, Savannah stays with her college roommate, Bernadine, whose “successful” marriage has just collapsed, her husband having left her for a younger white woman. Bernadine is left to cope with two children, a large house, and considerable stress over money at a time when she should be receiving benefits from her husband’s successful career. Not only does he leave her, but he also carefully hides all of his assets so as to try to...

(The entire section is 611 words.)


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Waiting to Exhale, Terry McMillan’s third novel, was an instant popular success when it was first published in 1992. The book found wide acceptance, both critical and public, largely because of the honesty of its character portrayals and the timeliness of its themes. All four main characters in Waiting To Exhale are seeking the acceptance of culture and family but are also determined to escape their limiting influences. The conflicts that arise in the lives of the characters reflect the concerns of black feminist writers in general, and critics generally regard McMillan as having a finger on the pulse of 1990’s educated black women. The novel’s popularity is a reflection of the growing number of middle-class young African Americans who wish to participate in black cultural life and preserve its heritage.

The title of Waiting To Exhale is a metaphor for the tension in each of the novel’s four protagonists’s lives. All are waiting breathlessly to find the right man, and are figuratively holding their breath until he comes along. Each protagonist’s story delineates a different type of coping strategy for the alienation and anxiety each suffers. In the face of criticism from their families, their culture, and themselves, the four women develop a friendship that enables them to stand fast against the many temptations to “settle” for an unhealthy relationship. The novel’s setting, Phoenix, implies the possibility of glorious rebirth, but the symbolic implications are muted and ultimately unfulfilled; still, the characters achieve integration and a new sense of identity through their relationships with one another.

Savannah takes a cut in pay to move to Phoenix, where her old roommate from college, Bernadine, is living the perfect life. By the time Savannah completes the move, Bernadine’s marriage is in shambles, her husband and the father of their two children having deserted her with his young blonde bookkeeper. Robin, a mutual friend, is frustrated, self-conscious, and anxious, looking for self-esteem through the eyes of the men she meets. Gloria, their hairdresser, is the single mother of a sixteen-year-old son, whose emerging sexuality creates fear in her and hostility in him. Savannah moves, Bernadine spends, Robin casts horoscopes, and Gloria eats; ultimately all their defense mechanisms crumble under one anothers’ affectionate but witheringly, relentlessly honest scrutiny.