Dorothy L. Denniston
Classroom Issues and Strategies
One strategy for approaching Marshall's fiction is to explain the "Middle
Passage" to illustrate the placement of blacks all over the world
(African diaspora). It might also be helpful to discuss the notion of traditional
African cyclical time, which involves recurrence and duration, as opposed
to Western linear time, which suggests change and progress. The cyclic
approach applies thematically (Da-duh's symbolic immortality) and structurally
(the story comes full circle). Also important is the traditional African
view of the world as being composed of dualities/ opposites that work together
to constitute a harmonious moral order. (For a more complete explanation,
see Marshall's "From the Poets in the Kitchen" in Reena and
Other Short Stories.)
Consider also discussing the African oral tradition as a recorder of
history and preserver of folk tradition. Since it is centered on the same
ideas as written literatures (the ideas, beliefs, hopes, and fears of a
people), its purpose is to create and maintain a group identity, to guide
social action, to encourage social interaction, and simply to entertain.
The oral arts are equally concerned with preserving the past to honor traditional
values and to reveal their relevance to the modern world. Marshall's craftsmanship
is executed in such a dynamic fashion as to elicit responses usually reserved
for oral performance or theater.
Students readily respond to similarities/differences between black cultures
represented throughout the diaspora. Once they recognize African cultural
components as positive, they re-evaluate old attitudes and beliefs and
begin to appreciate differences in cultural perspectives as they celebrate
the human spirit.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
A major theme is the search for identity (personal and cultural). Marshall
insists upon the necessity for a "journey back" through history
in order to come to terms with one's past as an explanation of the present
and as a guiding post for the future. For the author, in particular, the
story becomes a means to begin unraveling her multicultural background
(American, African-American, African-Caribbean). To be considered foremost
is the theme embodied in the epigram: the quality of life itself is threatened
by giving priority to materialistic values over those that nourish the
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
Questions of form and style include Marshall's manipulation of time
and her juxtaposition of images to create opposites (landscape, physical
description, culture). This suggests an artistic convention that is, at
base, African as it imitates or revives in another form the African oral
narrative tradition. In fact, Marshall merges Western literary tradition
with that of the African to create a new, distinctive expression.
All audiences find Marshall accessible. It might be interesting to contrast
her idyllic view of Barbados in "To Da-duh" with her later view
in the story "Barbados." The audience may wish to share contemporary
views of third world countries and attitudes toward Western powers.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Both Toni Morrison
and Paule Marshall deal with ancestral figures (connections to the past)
to underscore cyclical patterns or deviations from them. Morrison's Song
of Solomon (1977), Tar Baby (1981), or Beloved (1988)
might be effectively compared to Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow
(1983), Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959), The Chosen Place,
The Timeless People (1969), or Daughters (1991).
Questions for Reading and Discussion/Approaches to Writing
Discuss the use of African and Caribbean imagery and explain why it
is essential to Marshall's aesthetic.
Barthold, Bonnie. Black Time: Fiction in Africa, the Caribbean and
the United States. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.
Christian, Barbara. Black Women Novelists: The Development of a Tradition,
1892-1976. Westport: Greenwood Press, 1980.
Denniston, Dorothy. "Early Short Fiction by Paule Marshall."
Callaloo 6, no. 2 (Spring-Summer, 1983). Reprinted in Short Story
Criticism. Detroit: Gale Research Co., 1990.
--. Forthcoming volume on the complete works of Paule Marshall to be
published by the University of Tennessee Press.
Evans, Mari, ed. Section on Paule Marshall in Black Women Writers
(1950-1980): A Critical Evaluation. Garden City, New York: Anchor,
Marshall, Paule. "Shaping the World of My Art." New Letters
Review especially the following:
Marshall, Paule. "From the Poets in the Kitchen." In Reena
and Other Short Stories, 3-12. Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist
Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophies. New York:
Doubleday and Co., 1970.