Brown Girl, Brownstones

By on March 13th, 2018 in Blog Posts

 

Paule Marshall’s 1959 Brown Girl, Brownstones beautifully tells the complicated story of a young Barbadian woman’s life and relationship with her mother. Marshall’s description of the book indicates that the novel is “drawn from the author’s own experience” and Marshall’s dedication reads “to my mother.” However, their relationship is complex, as is the mother in the novel.

“There was a part of her that always wanted the mother to win,” Marshall writes from the perspective of Selina Boyce, the novel’s main character, after her father spends his inheritance money on frivolous clothing and Selina comes to her mother’s defense (114). Selina was constantly in battle with her mother and developed a close relationship with her father, but she consistently seems to want her mother to prevail. However, in this sentence, Marshall significantly speaks of the mother, not her mother. She is linking her relationship to her own mother to that of all mothers, thereby uniting them in a joint struggle.

Selina also recognizes that her father’s religion teaches men to resist their families, and their mothers in particular, which seems to trouble her. When she joins her father at his house of worship, the priest screams, “The mother of creation is the mother of defilement. The word mother is a filthy word” (145). Marshall italicizes the word mother in this sentence to emphasize the priest’s deliberate effort to distance his followers from the matriarchs of their families. Selina is disgusted with his father’s embrace of such teachings and wonders why he father was “the seduced follower and not the god” (145).

She notices “the mother” and her suffering throughout the novel, and despite the mother’s cruelty and Selina’s skepticism, she sympathizes with her struggle. “Every morning she found the mother at the table, sometimes asleep or simply staring down into a cup that had long since been emptied,” Marshall writes (170). When a man first touches her breasts, she “thought of the mother” (205). It is the mother with whom Selina sympathizes, and it is the mother to whom she ultimately seeks approval and acceptance.

Selina eventually realizes that “The mother might have killed them” because their “small faces reflected her own despised color” (253). She realizes that her mother despised the parts of her that were reflected in herself – her race, but also her weaknesses and her desires. Selina understands that her mother was ultimately no matter than she, and she no better than her. Upon this realization, Selina is made free.

 

 

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5 Comments

  1. Charlene,
    I truly love this response. Bravo. I also suspected something was odd about the repeating def article “the” mother, but I couldn’t quite get a good grip on it, the connect -the- dots- to- subconscious reading of it like in this response.
    (p.s. in the last sentence did you mean “better than she, and she no better than her”? or am I not understanding the “matter than she, and she not better than her”?)
    Your last sentence is deceptively powerful. Thanks,
    Luis

  2. Yes, the question of the mother in this novel is deep. Much to think about and put this into conversation with.

  3. Hi Charlene, I am so pleased someone took on the term “mother” in the book and thanks, Luis, for reminding us it is never “her” or “my” but “the mother.” “The mother” is one of the oldest archetypes in all literature but Marshall deconstructs that archetype, helping us to see its origins, and the way poverty, ambition, immigrant status, reputation, marriage, adultery, and many other factors alter what it means to be “the mother.” Silla’s different relationships to her more passive daughter and her activist, always-on-the-fight daughter is another way for Petry to show “the mother” is actually many things and is herself acted upon not just an actor. Thanks for these insights!–Cathy Davidson

  4. You write: “It is the mother with whom Selina sympathizes, and it is the mother to whom she ultimately seeks approval and acceptance.” This is true of so many of us, whether we wish to admit it or not. Selina’s emotions are real and raw and she is the one of the most honest characters in the novel. You then write: “Selina understands that her mother was ultimately no matter than she, and she no better than her. Upon this realization, Selina is made free.” It is encouraging to believe that in the end, Selina is free. May we all attain freedom.

  5. I agree with you when you state, “It is the mother with whom Selina sympathizes, and it is the mother to whom she ultimately seeks approval and acceptance.” I get a sense a pity also for Silla and I believe it is the same pity that Selina has for her. It’s her mother and, like many of us, she just wants to make momma proud. Additionally, I don’t think we ever lose that connection to our mothers and Selina is no different. She feels for her mother and at some point, realizes, as the audience does, that the brownstone, not Selina’s accomplishments, is the only thing that will make her happy.

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