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.