"Brown Girl, Brownstones" by Paule Marshall
The theme of unclear national identity was rather popular among Afro-American writers. But each of such works became unique and incomparable. Analyzing Paule Marshall’s novel I’d like to explain its main idea. It tells of a girl who had to decide between two different life views. Selina was born in a family of first American immigrants. Her mother was an ambitious woman, who strived for better life and reliable future for children. On the contrary her father was quite conservative and didn’t accept changes in life. He wanted to return to Barbados, which was his native land. The story is based on the conflict between these two sides. The very title reveals uncertainty. The girl is neither American nor Barbarian. The novel contains autobiographic elements and reveals problems of living in society.
Paula Marshal admitted that her literary works were mostly influenced by family atmosphere. Her mother and friends used to talk about radical black activist Marcus Garvey. He stood up in favor of nationalism. The book of Paula Marshal however showed other view on ethnicity. Nationalists considered it the leading motive of human actions. Marshal both criticizes and approves Barbarism. It shows that nation is not the most important element. Individual outlook plays more significant role. The story is based on the contrast between material and spiritual values, old and new understanding of life, black and white ethnicities.
I’d like to analyze the novel from several points of view. Firstly I want to characterize main heroine. Selina Boyce is an individualist whose outlook contradicts social requirements. Selina is given an opportunity to decide what is better: old life or new one. People are always afraid of uncertainty and duality of future. Not all of us dare to make a firm decision. The structure of the novel is similar to many other works of Afro-American writers. Migration, psychological tension and struggle for wholesome life. The author was influenced by personal impressions of Barbados, which she visited still being a child. Marshall makes her characters solve life-changing problems. Selina observes relationship between her parents and makes individual choice. She tried to persuade mother not to sell husbands land. Having read the book, I don’t’ blame girl’s mother. Silla is seems to be strong and ambitious. She struggles not for herself but for daughter’s sake. Silla had a painful experience living in Barbados and didn’t want Selina to undergo sufferings. Mother tried to haul her daughter out of former crucial life. Selina however kept to her own opinion. Not understanding true state of things, her mother steadily believed in American Dream. She even enrolled to Barbarous Association which would help to mix with American mainstream. She conformed to social claims, struggling for better life.
On the other hand Selina had own ideas about her family, Barbarian Association and future life. She managed to unite greater community consisting of Suggle Skeetes and Miss Thompson (Johnson, 2003). Selina refused with her mother’s ideas and becomes a strong personality with individual outlook by the age of seventeen. She decided to leave Brooklyn and become a dancer. I think it shows that despite parental advice, young generation define individual life way and overcomes former limitations.
Speaking about main characters of the novel I can’t help mentioning Deighton, who represents Barbarian nation. He is a kind and easy-going person, who doesn’t care about better life. He is more likely to be satisfied with what he has and return to his homeland. In this way we see three different characters, which form the composition of the novel. Young Selina has to decide between her hardworking mother of great ambitions and dreamy father with plain understanding of life. Difficulties help people move forward. We always have to make decisions, which would define our future success or failure. "Brown girl, Brownstones" is deeply psychological, as it makes us ponder over the destiny of a young girl who hesitates between two worlds and finally creates her own. She is forced to identify her culture under parental pressure, especially from mother’s side. I remember having read that Selina is the youngest character of Marshall’s stories. I should admit it is the most complex one too.
Another aspect of my research is analysis of language and symbolism. Many critics consider the description of main heroes to be symbolic. For example thinness and fragility of Selina reveals her inner spiritual world. Despite her weak outward appearance, she shows undoubted strength to resist social pressure and other life calamities.
…a ten-year-old girl with scuffed legs and a body as straggly as the clothes she wore… (Marshall, 1981).
That’s how the author describes her. It shows dual side of human nature. One may have mature figure, but be a coward. On the other hand spiritual world can offset the lack of physical strength. At the same time the difference between Selina and her mother reveals from the very beginning. “A wide full mouth” contrasts with Selina’s appearance. Silla obviously had a haunted idea of buying a house as a symbol of prosperity. She evidently paid much attention to material values, unlike her husband. Selina didn’t want her mother to get into a mess and was inspired to interfere with her attempts. She understood she was no longer a little girl and had full rights to express her opinion freely. Her reaction characterizes her as a resourceful and initiative person.
Selina didn’t want to conform to community’s requirements and expectations. She also stood up against the predominance of material values. She desperately tried to show people that there are things which can’t be purchased anywhere. Love, friendship, honesty, courage, care and other eternal values are of greater importance than material well-being and money itself. If a person feels unhappy to return home, material values are unlikely to bring harmony and return inner balance to him. Selina formed her own system of values, because she disliked her parents’ life vision.
…those men from Bridgetown home are all the same. They don’t know a thing ‘bout handling money and property… (Marshall, 1981).
This is how one of community leaders characterized Deighton. The latter combined the character of a conformist and individualist as well. Percy Challenor as a trustworthy and competent representative of community has a negative attitude to Selina’s father. It symbolizes that such people as Deighton are not accepted by society and would remain outsiders until they start living according to social requirements. A peculiar thing about Marshall’s novel is that she wrote it in a typical language of Barbarian people, who often can’t express their thoughts clearly. Selina sometimes uses this language in talks with her mother for example. At the same time it gives readers an opportunity to understand Barbarian ethnicity better and feel its true atmosphere.
I think that one more symbol is destiny of Deighton and Suggie. Suggie was a best friend of Selina, but she didn’t accept her ideas to full extent and didn’t conform to society either. Suggie said she would spend money in the way she liked. There’s no sense in saving every penny. It shows that her outlook is close to Selina’s views. But unlike Selina, Suggie didn’t’ expose her opinion openly. She ends up as uncertain as she was. Nobody knows what her future life was. Deighton’s suicide proves that communal outsiders can’t survive among people, until they obey public rules.
Selina understood she had much in common with her mother, but didn’t want to put up with it. Instead Selina decided to rebel against her mother. Even her boyfriend was very much like Deighton (an outsider to some extent). Clive was a thoughtful and rebellious artist, who also opposed Barbarian community. In spite of desperate struggle, Selina took much after her mother, and sometimes reminded her in manners and behavior. Selina wanted to escape together with Clive and start an independent life. But this ambition would never be fulfilled. At first she tried to find necessary finances for her plan, winning a scholarship in Barbarian Association. Regardless to certain problems, she firmly decided to get money. In this way she resembles her mother, who strived to get husband’s land. This example shows that parental influence is inevitable. Later Selina begins to treat her mother in a more tolerant way. I consider it a sign of maturity. Attempts to change an adult person will be of no use. I know it from personal experience. That’s why the best way out is to accept people as they are, never trying to change something.
In conclusion I’d like to say that it’s up to us to decide whether to conform to society or keep to personal life views. The book of Paule Marshall supports the idea of individualism and rebel against conformity. The main heroine is young girl with out of ordinary thoughts and plans. My research paper analyses this novel from several perspectives: plot, characters, composition and language. I tried to explain the social role of each character and analyze relations between them. I think that this novel is intended for wide range of readers. I recommend it to those who are interested in ethnic struggle.