Paule Marshall (b. 1929)

    Contributing Editor:
    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 human spirit.

    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.

    Original Audience

    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, 1983.

    Marshall, Paule. "Shaping the World of My Art." New Letters (Autumn 1973).

    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 Press, 1983.

    Mbiti, John S. African Religions and Philosophies. New York: Doubleday and Co., 1970.