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“The fight raged on. Brawling like fishwives! Like proverbial niggers on a Saturday night! With the fur stole like her hard-won life of the past thirty years being trampled into the dirt underfoot” (45). Avey Johnson, the main character in Paule Marshall’s novel Praisesong for the Widow, is haunted by this dream of her Great Aunt Cuney. This nightmare awakens in her an emptiness and longing for something that she can not initially explain. Her life up to that point had seemed successful, especially in the eyes of others, almost akin to the American Dream. However, her nightmare becomes an indication of the arduous journey and struggle that she will have to undergo in order to rekindle her forgotten identity. Avey has to journey back through her past in order to reconnect herself to the roots that had been severed by her pursuit of a “better life” for herself and her family. There are three key elements in the novel that are essential to understanding how Avey’s transformation takes place. First of all, it is important to understand why she begins to experience a mild form of hysteria while vacationing on the cruise ship. Her
peculiar habit of referring to herself and others by using their first and last names is also of particular importance. Finally, an understanding of the dream and how her great aunt’s memory shapes her true identity will relinquish the final piece to Avey’s puzzle. After Avey dreams about her great aunt she is no longer content with her affluent surroundings. She becomes annoyed, not only by her two companions, but also by the other passenger’s shallow conversations. “It had to do with the expression in their eyes, which seemed to pass cleanly through them whenever they glanced across, and even, ironically, with the quick strained smiles some of them occasionally flashed their way” (47). Avey isn’t impressed by the blank formality and empty politeness the other passengers exhibit. She also has an immediate distaste for the immaculate parfait that is served for desert. Her discontentment stems from the fact that money and luxury had never brought her happiness. She doesn’t come to this realization until she’s reminiscing about her husband Jay while staying at the hotel on the island. Thinking that she would escape the disappointment and confusion associated with the cruise, Avey cuts her trip short and checks into a hotel while awaiting her flight home. The ritzy hotel
accommodations only serve to bring back the same feeling of dread that she experienced on the boat. “Whatever rebel spirit it was that had put her up to abandoning the cruise had skipped out on her, leaving her to face the sudden flood of doubts and misgivings alone” (83). She starts remembering the fight she had with her husband when she was pregnant with her third child and desperate. Money had forced Jay to work overtime and in her loneliness she began to speculate that he might be cheating. The fight that ensued forced a reckoning which made it obvious that the pressures of Halsey Street were warping her with their bitterness. The need to find some level of security became all consuming. Looking back on the effort that Jay put into finding a job, putting himself through school, and ultimately creating his business she laments, “What kind of bargain had they struck? How much had they foolishly handed over in exchange for the things that they had gained?–an exchange they could have avoided altogether had they been on their guard” (139). Gone were the small daily pleasures that had existed during the first part of their life on Halsey Street. They were replaced by a relentless desire to achieve, that only wound up bringing emptiness; the same kind of emptiness that she sees in the passengers while aboard the Bianca Pride. She elaborates on this saying, “that (they) seemed determined to draw her down into the hollowness of their talk, to make her part of it,” and that it, “began to have a familiar ring. They were the same voices she could have sworn she had sought to escape the last place she had been, as well as the place before that” (55). The type of emptiness that she sees in these people relates directly to her habit of
calling them by their full names. She talks about Jay’s transformation after the fight they have on Halsey Street, saying that when he became obsessed with his work and started berating other Negroes, “it was Jerome Johnson who spoke. While continuing to call him Jay to his face, she gradually found herself referring to him as Jerome Johnson in her thoughts” (132). This nothingness that had infected her husband inevitably crept into her soul. Even their friends started teasing them about how much they had started to resemble each other by referring to them jokingly as twins. As the years past it had become
increasingly difficult for her to refer to herself by her first name because, “The names “Avey” and “Avatara” were those of someone who was no longer present, and she had become Avey Johnson even in her thoughts, a woman whose face, reflected in a window or mirror, she sometimes failed to recognize” (141). This void that infected both she and her husband resulted directly from their denial of the past. They were no longer worried about who they were or where they came from but rather where they were going in life. Even though they were improving their financial situation, they were also sacrificing the
individualism and identity that stems from a person’s history, culture, and familial bonds. As Avey spends time with Lebert Joseph, an elderly man who runs the rum shop along the beach, she begins to unravel the mysterious importance of her dream. The lyrical quality of the islander’s language triggers her memories of Tatem, the town where she spent many summer’s with her great aunt. She explains this effect saying, “its odd cadence, its vivid music had reached into a closed-off corner of her mind to evoke the sound of voices in Tatem. She hadn’t even realized what had happened until two nights
later when her great-aunt had appeared” (196). The language of Patois, and the manner that the “off islanders” display, forces her to remember what it was about her great aunt that was so important. The social bonds that she used to experience in the presence of her immediate family during their annual boat rides up the Hudson, as well as the belonging she felt while visiting Tatem, are what she witnesses while attending the excursion with Lebert. She likens this experience of connection with black community to “threads,” saying that while people arrived and greeted each other before the boat ride, “she would
feel what seemed to be hundreds of slender threads streaming out from her navel and from the place where her heart was to enter those around her” (190). The dream mainly consists of her great aunt beckoning to her in an attempt to draw her back into this tapestry of past “threads” that she had been cut off from. Avey talks about the burden that her aunt’s story of the Ibos had instilled in her when she was younger saying that, “the old woman had entrusted her with a mission she couldn’t even name yet had felt duty-bound to fulfill. It had taken her years to rid herself of the notion” (42). The dream reopened that feeling of obligation in Avey, and it isn’t until she partakes in the excursion that she fulfills her duty by celebrating her ethnicity and remembering the
joyous part of her roots. As she’s witnessing the ceremonious part of the excursion she thinks for an instant that the maid is actually her aunt. She winds up passionately reveling in the dancing, instinctually mimicking the stature of her previous ancestors. The ritual unleashes the threads that had been missing from her life; those severed ties that were responsible for leaving her in a state of separated autonomy.
“And for the first time since she was a girl, she felt the threads, that myriad of shiny, silken, brightly colored threads (like the kind used in embroidery) which were thin to the point of invisibility yet as strong as the ropes at Coney Island. Looking on outside the church in Tatem, standing waiting for the Robert Fulton on the crowded pier at 125th Street, she used to feel them streaming out of everyone there to enter her, making her part of what seemed a far-reaching , wide-ranging confraternity.” (249)
Avey’s identity isn’t complete until she acknowledges that part of her past and ethnic background worth celebrating. Earlier in the novel, when she is thinking about what it would have taken to keep she and Jay from selling out, she cites these four essential components: an awareness of the worth they possessed, a vigilance to protect it, the strength to withstand glitter and
excess, and a distance between mind and heart (139). They had forgotten their worth the moment they tried to disassociate themselves with their past. While trying to assimilate to the new lifestyle they had created, the lure of excess became the answer to their emptiness. Avey’s dream of her great aunt makes this discontentment obvious, thereby increasing her distaste for affluent surroundings. Her habit of using full names also gives insight into this
feeling of disillusionment. However, it isn’t until she accompanies Lebert on the excursion that she realizes the quality about her great aunt that she had been longing for. Her great aunt had been able to master the fourth and most essential component of the qualities necessary for maintaining identity. “Her body she always usta say might be in Tatem, but her mind, her mind was long gone with the Ibos…” (139). Avey needed this distance between heart and mind in order to remember the beauty behind her past and the black community . The violent nature of the dream she has about her great aunt symbolizes this equally important side of her identity that has been buried by years of conformity and denial. The social bonds and rich culture of the off islanders teach her what she, and ultimately the black community as a whole, needs the most. “They’s a people sticks together and helps out the one another. Which is why they gets ahead. If you was to stay on the island any time you’d hear a lot of talk against them. That they’re proud” (78). Marshall is trying to say that the pride that comes from their sense of belonging is what often eludes the black community in America. That in order to get ahead they need to mend the threads of their community identity and re-sew their ethnic tapestry by making a journey similar to Avey’s journey; a journey into the revealing nature of their past.
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