Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

Brewster Place

Brewster Place. Neighborhood in a large, unnamed northern city, possibly New York, possibly Chicago. New York seems more likely since, aside from its being Gloria Naylor’s hometown, there is mention in one episode that the state of “Maine ain’t far” away. Chicago is also a possibility because one character, Etta Mae Johnson, went home to Brewster Place “with a broken nose she’d gotten in . . . St. Louis,” suggesting the distance between the two was not so great. However, the actual identity of the city is not explicitly revealed.

Brewster Place was originally conceived in the story as a way for crooked politicians and businessmen to resolve some of their personal concerns to their political and financial advantage. First Irish, then Mediterraneans, and finally African Americans came to inhabit the district. Though the neighborhood was relatively inviting at first, its streets and buildings were allowed to decline; its one through street was soon walled up to make a dead end, basically isolating the inhabitants from the rest of the city.

The dreariness of the gray tenement buildings, the oppressiveness of the wall, and the segregation make the women of Brewster Place racial, social, and economic victims. Yet they come together finally to tear down the wall, which increasingly seems a manifestation of their oppression, using “knives, plastic forks, spiked shoe heels, and even bare hands” to dismantle it. With this one symbolic act, they demonstrate their determination to change their lives for the better.

Miss Eva’s house

Miss Eva’s house. Home of Miss Eva Turner in Asheville, North...

(The entire section is 693 words.)

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

The Women of Brewster Place offers a realistic account of the lives of seven African American women of various ages. Framed by opening and closing sections that point to political and economic forces affecting life in Brewster Place, the novel is a series of vignettes about the major characters and how their lives connect to one another. Although set in the 1970’s in an urban ghetto, the range of lives explored offers a broad spectrum of social and cultural experiences. Gloria Naylor neither romanticizes these women nor downplays the oppressive forces arrayed against them. Instead, she reveals the dual need for social justice and personal responsibility in a wonderfully written and powerful book.

The novel proper begins with the story of Mattie Michael— appropriately, because Mattie becomes the loving mother-figure of Brewster Place. Despite being betrayed by her son, Mattie keeps her ability to love, and she offers emotional sustenance to others, especially Etta and Lucielia. Both of their stories depict the pain and suffering that are common to many black women—being rejected by mainstream society and struggling with men who are not successful or loving. Both women recoil from the world to find solace in the glow of Mattie’s love.

The second half of the novel explores members of a younger generation who have had different opportunities. Kiswana, Lorraine, and Theresa are all educated African American women who have taken a...

(The entire section is 472 words.)

The Women of Brewster Place

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 13)

Gloria Naylor, whose The Women of Brewster Place won the American Book Award for a First Novel in 1983, is already numbered, with Alice Walker and Toni Morrison among the freshest and most vital voices in contemporary American literature. In the fiction of Morrison, Walker, and Naylor, history comes alive: the regional and the individual become the source of rich narrative exploration which moves forward as well as back in time.

Perhaps even more than in the fiction of Morrison and Walker, history and place are motive forces in The Women of Brewster Place. Naylor’s characters are connected by social bonds which they recognize, depend on, and struggle to keep alive for the future. They share with the characters of Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) and Morrison’s Sula (1973) an unusual strength that comes from the communion of women—a communion not “mythic” or “mystical,” but spiritual in the sense that it is a shared psychological stratagem, developed in response to oppression and isolation.

The Women of Brewster Place is, as its subtitle indicates, a novel comprising seven linked stories. Six of the stories concern individual black women—except in the case of “The Two,” the story of a Lesbian couple—while the seventh, “The Block Party,” unites the women in defense of the street which provides the visible link between their lives. These seven stories are framed by two brief passages set in italics: “Dawn,” which recounts the birth of Brewster Place at the end of World War I, “the bastard child” of a corrupt deal between city aldermen and a local contractor, a political sop to the then-Irish neighborhood; and “Dusk,” which recounts the death of Brewster Place in the present, when its last, dark children are evicted from its derelict buildings.

As the women remind one another, Brewster Place is a dead end, the end of the line, a ghetto behind a wall which was erected to separate the street from the clogged main artery of the town. But if their lives are cut off from the mainstream of the city’s life, they nevertheless retain signs of vigorous communal health—in their work, in their children, and, most especially, in their conversation. Using a language of banter, insult, and affection which relishes its own brashness and inventiveness, they speak to one another in words that are robustly alive and often outrageously funny.

Foremost among these vital characters is Mattie Michael, whose experience and friendship remain after her chapter, the first in the book, as a kind of ground bass to the rest of the stories. She enters the novel as an elderly woman recalling the time when she was a naïve young girl on a small farm in Tennessee. Although she was overprotected by her stern though adoring father, Mattie was easily seduced by the pleasure-loving, cinnamon-red young Butch Fuller, who believed that you should spit out what tastes good before it turns to straw in your mouth. When she recalls the one time they lay together, it is the mossy, cool place with its wild, dark basil and thyme that she remembers instead of Butch. She associates the place, not the man, with the son she bears, and she names him for the wild herb that grew where he was conceived: Basil.

Beaten by her father when she refuses to name the man who fathered her unborn child, Mattie is saved by the intervention of her mother—who, like the mother in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1951), threatens her husband’s life in the name of her child. Like Trueblood’s wife in Invisible Man, Fannie Michael takes a weapon to the husband/father, promising to meet his soul in Hell. The similarity between these scenes is resonant, for the sexual assault on the daughter, which Ellison’s Trueblood claims not to have intended, is shown in Naylor’s novel to be equivalent to other forms of violence automatically directed against women by fathers and lovers. Both male sexuality and male impotence too often incite acts of violence from which women suffer. Old Ben, a janitor in Brewster Place, who was too weak to protect his lame daughter from the sexual claims made on her by her white employer, pays with guilt and grief for his complicity in refusing to see what lay behind her bruised eyes. Yet, although the failures of fathers, sons, and lovers are usually counterbalanced in Naylor’s world by the love and comfort which women provide one another, daughters do inherit the weaknesses of their fathers, and mothers—like Ben’s wife and like the women of Brewster Place who turn against the young Lesbians—are often unequal to the enormous task of substituting life for destruction.

The legacy of Sam Michael’s...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)

Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Like modernist author Sherwood Anderson’s Winesburg, Ohio (1919), The Women of Brewster Place is unified by locale (an inner city in the North), and Gloria Naylor uses individual chapters to focus on the lives and affairs of one or two characters. The themes of love and loss, trust and betrayal, hope and despair all help to unify the plot and characterization in a visually appealing portrait of the hard lives and gentle strength of seven black women in the 1960’s.

Each character sketch begins with the present circumstances in which the woman finds herself, and then flashbacks of a few weeks, years, or even decades reveal each character’s story of love and loss. Mattie, the matriarchal figure of...

(The entire section is 475 words.)


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

As Naylor’s first novel, the award-winning The Women of Brewster Place brought her into the realm of serious critical interest. She went on to publish Linden Hills (1985) and Mama Day (1987), which deal with black men and women struggling with the American Dream or being torn between black mysticism and the lure of the big city. Neither of these books met with as much praise as The Women of Brewster Place, although most critics commended Naylor’s talent.

Naylor is accepted as a major contemporary writer, and scholars agree that her language is clear but gritty, like the people whom she portrays, and that her imagery is evocative and her vision consistent and believable. Some say...

(The entire section is 431 words.)

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

The Northern States after World War II
While Naylor sets the birth of Brewster Place right after the end of World War I, she...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Critics agree that one of Naylor's strongest accomplishments in The Women of Brewster Place is her use of the...

(The entire section is 664 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

For a first novel, The Women of Brewster Place shows a sophistication in both formal and stylistic technique. Recently, the short...

(The entire section is 220 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The difficulties faced by the women of Brewster Place are symptomatic of wider social concerns and problems. Furthermore, as the feminist and...

(The entire section is 504 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The Women of Brewster Place, which won an American Book Award, introduces and reaffirms its social concerns and themes with italicized...

(The entire section is 1790 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

In the book, Gloria Naylor: In Search Of Sanctuary, author Virginia Fowler contends that Naylor structured Mama Day after Faulkner's...

(The entire section is 393 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Given Naylor's scholarly pursuits in literature, one would expect a number of literary allusions in The Women of Brewster Place, and...

(The entire section is 425 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

While the works of Hurston, Morrison, and Walker may provide readers with further understanding of the issues raised in The Women of...

(The entire section is 160 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

In 1989, largely through the instigation of talk show host Oprah Winfrey, The Women of Brewster Place aired as a movie shown in two...

(The entire section is 213 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)


Bellinelli, director, RTSJ-Swiss Television, producer, A Conversation with Gloria Naylor on In Black and White....

(The entire section is 696 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Christian, Barbara. “Gloria Naylor’s Geography: Community, Class, and Patriarchy in The Women of Brewster Place and Linden Hills. ” In New Black Feminist Criticism, 1975-2000, edited by Gloria Bowles. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2007. Contrasts the two worlds of Brewster Place and Linden Hills, regards Kiswana as the link between the novels, and places Naylor in a literary context.

Fraser, Celeste. “Stealing B(l)ack Voices: The Myth of the Black Matriarchy and The Women of Brewster Place. ” Critical Matrix 5 (Fall/Winter, 1989): 65-88. Reads Naylor’s novel as a refutation of...

(The entire section is 481 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

King Phoenix Entertainment produced The Women of Brewster Place as a made-for-TV drama in 1989. Directed by Donna Deitch, the movie...

(The entire section is 88 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

Naylor's second novel, Linden Hills, takes place in Linden Hills, a wealthy and privileged neighborhood; it is familiar because it is...

(The entire section is 342 words.)