Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Waiting to Exhale is an odd yet brilliant fictional representation of issues and concerns affecting middle-class African American women in the late twentieth century. The novel is odd in that the four protagonists are so intensely preoccupied with their relationships with men. However, because McMillan explores in minute detail what is on the minds of these educated and successful women, no matter what it is—men, careers, families, or the African American community—the characters’ preoccupation with their relationships helps to tell their stories. Black men are important to them; in this sense, the novel, beyond merely presenting the women’s frustrations and heartaches, presents a blueprint for what healthy and committed relationships between black women and black men must be.

Moreover, Waiting to Exhale is not about black women in general. It is, rather, about four particular middle-class black women whose friendship, as far as the narrative space is concerned, takes place within a specific locale. These four black women are not necessarily representative of anyone other than themselves. The narrative denies readers the luxury of easy generalizations.

Personal and social struggle intermingle in the novel, as the four women use one another for support both in their personal ups and downs and in their efforts to make the world a little better for other African Americans. Affirmation, of self and other, is present at...

(The entire section is 471 words.)

Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Toward the end of Waiting to Exhale, during a celebration of Gloria’s birthday, Savannah asks: “Whatever happened to the good old days?” Gloria demands to know what good old days she is talking about, but the question is well put and the answer clear. Men of the “buppie” generation apparently feel no need to court women in the old-fashioned way—no need to commit or to be faithful during a relationship. Women, apparently as open in their sexual needs as men and as willing to participate in sex before commitments are made, are readily available. The problem appears to be that women still seem to need commitment; they still seem to be looking for the good old-fashioned man. Gloria finds such a man in Martin; kindness and admiration lead to love before sex in their relationship. Bernadine too is lucky to find such a man.

It would be a mistake, however, to define Savannah and Robin, and to a lesser extent Bernadine and Gloria, solely in terms of their need for a relationship with a man. They have overcome odds and are doing better than their parents did. They are competing in the real world and making their way themselves. They participate in worthwhile projects and support them with both time and money. They are caring and questioning in a world where human values are not as clearly defined as they once were. Ultimately, Waiting to Exhale is an examination of what women of the baby-boom generation—particularly African American women—experience as they carve out new roles and lives for themselves.


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Savannah, Bernadine, Robin, and Gloria are on quests for self-realization. Each believes at the outset that fulfillment is to be found in a...

(The entire section is 841 words.)