Brown Girl, Brownstones
By Paule Marshall
CAPE Literatures in
English Unit 2
By Lyniss Pitt
The Author: Paule Marshall
Paule Marshall (born April 9, 1929) is an American author. She was
born Valenza Pauline Burke in Brooklyn to Barbadian parents and
educated at Girls High School, Brooklyn College (1953) and Hunter
College (1955). Early in her career, she wrote poetry, but later returned
to prose. She was chosen by Langston Hughes to accompany him on a
world tour in which they both read their work, which was a boon to her
Marshall has taught at Virginia Commonwealth University, the
University of California, Berkeley, the Iowa Writers' Workshop, and Yale
University before holding the Helen Gould Sheppard Chair of Literature
and Culture at New York University. In 1993 she received an honorary
L.H.D. from Bates College. She lives in Richmond, Va.
She is a MacArthur Fellow and is a past winner of the Dos Passos Prize
for Literature. She was designated as a Literary Lion by the New York
Public Library in 1994.
Marshall was inducted into the Celebrity Path at the Brooklyn Botanic
Garden in 2001.
Her memoir, Triangular Road, was published in 2009.
The setting for Brown Girl, Brownstones
is Brooklyn, New York, in the 1930s and
1940s. Selina's family, and many families
like them, lease or own brownstone
houses, having moved in after wealthy
white people decided that the area was
too rough. There are quiet areas, like the
street where Selina lives, but the city is
teeming with all different sorts of people
engaging in all different sorts of activities.
New York's urban juxtaposition of the
beautiful and the ugly can be seen in
descriptions like, "But despite the ruin,
spring stirred and, undaunted, arrayed
the trees, hung its mist curtain high and,
despite the wine-stench, sweetened the
air" (Book 4, Selina, chap. 11, p. 309).
This also indicates the spiritual setting of
the book, in that despair and pain come
to the characters, but they can still grow
in such harsh circumstances.
Brown Girl, Brownstones-Plot Summary
Selina Boyce is the younger daughter of a family of immigrants from Barbados. In the 1930s, the Boyce family lives in a
brownstone house in Brooklyn, which they share with several other tenants. Like other immigrants from the West
Indies, the Boyces hope to someday buy a house as the ultimate status symbol that they have made it in America.
Ten-year-old Selina does not get along with her harsh, shrewish mother, Silla, who is always yelling and complaining
about everyone. Instead, Selina enjoys spending time with her happy-go-lucky father, Deighton. Deighton is charming
and fun-loving, and he is always half-heartedly training for some career, which never seems to work out. Silla works
hard cleaning houses, complaining that her husband is a lazy adulterer, her daughter Ina is a sneak, and Selina is
tomboyish, loud, and contrary. Years ago, they also had a baby boy who died, and Selina always feels that her mother
wishes Selina were her son. One day, Deighton receives news that he has inherited a plot of land in Barbados. Silla
immediately urges him to sell it so they can buy their house, but Deighton wants to hold on to the land. They argue for
months, and finally, Silla vows that she will find a way to get that money.
When World War II breaks out, Silla goes to work in a defense factory. She forges Deighton's signature and sells the land
behind his back. When the money comes from the sale of the land, Deighton blows all of it in a shopping spree for his
family, buying fine clothes and toys. Silla is enraged. One day, Deighton is in an accident at the factory where he works,
and he loses the use of his arm. When he returns from the hospital, he seems detached from reality, and he only talks
about Peace. Eventually, Selina discovers that her father has joined a cult called the Peace Movement, who worship a
man named Father Peace as God. Deighton tells his family that he is moving out to live with the Peace Movement. Silla
is so angry that she sends the police after him in order to deport him as an illegal alien and send him back to Barbados.
On the way there, he jumps overboard and drowns.
Silla tries to get Selina to go to college, become a doctor, and join the Barbadian Association. Selina hates the hypocrisy
and clannishness of the Association, but she meets a man there named Clive and loses her virginity to him. Selina
decides that she will work hard for the Association's scholarship and will use the money to run away with Clive.
Although she wins it, she refuses to accept, knowing she does not deserve it. Instead, she decides to let her dancing
skill and her wits support her, and she embarks alone into the world as a young woman.
A Coming of Age Novel
"Brown Girl, Brownstones" can be classified as a bildungsroman.
The Bildungsroman or "formation novel" is a genre of the novel which focuses
on the psychological and moral growth of the protagonist from youth to
adulthood. Change is thus extremely important.
A Bildungsroman tells about the growing up or coming of age of a sensitive
person who is looking for answers and experience. In a Bildungsroman, the goal
is maturity, and the protagonist achieves it gradually and with difficulty. The
genre often features a main conflict between the main character and society.
Selina Boyce’s Timeline
Age 18- 21
about the white
family that lived
in the house
where her family
now resides. She
lives within the
cocoon of her
family and close
even with all its
Prospect Park with
her friend Beryl
and they speak of
Neither is very
clear about the
process at this
War breaks out both
struggle over the “land.”
In the end, Silla sells it
through illegal means,
Deighton spends all the
Deighton hurts his arm
on his job, finds “Peace”
and is deported to
Barbados after his wife
reports him as an illegal
alien. He then commits
suicide and Selina is
plunged into mourning.
Selina attends college but in a
“fugue” state due to her grief,
she visits The Association after
promising Miss Thompson
that she would do so. There
she meets Clive and loses her
virginity. She returns to The
pretenses to gain access to the
scholarship so that she and
Clive could get away from
their respective mothers. As
the affair progresses, she also
finds real interest at college
and joins the Dance Club. She
becomes good enough to
perform a solo and meets the
one of the
performers who for the first
time confronts Selina with the
reality of racism. She refuses
the scholarship, breaks with
Clive and her mother and goes
out into the world as an
The Boyce Family
The concubine on
• Edgar Innis
Narrative Technique & Style
Brown Girl, Brownstones is divided into four books and is told by a third-person narrator, who
has access to the inner thoughts of a few characters. Most of the book is seen through Selina's eyes, but
sometimes the view shifts to someone like Miss Thompson, or Suggie. Once in a while, the narrator
foreshadows something that is going to happen by using symbolic imagery, such as emphasizing the end
of spring and the end of the day, to show that Selina and Clive's relationship is nearing its end, but for
the most part, the future is a mystery.
Often Selina's point of view takes a fanciful turn, and she imagines herself as other people.
For example, she identifies with Suggie after they drink rum together, as the narrator says, "On her way
downstairs, the rum coiling hot in her stomach, she felt that she, like Suggie, carried the sun inside her"
(Book 2, Pastorale, p. 52). Selina's imagination enlarges her viewpoint, allowing her to imagine being
Suggie or containing the sun, but also it helps her identify with people from different walks of life, such
as Miss Mary, or Miss Thompson. Selina's point of view is an important combination of Barbadian
immigrant and native-born American. Selina has grown up surrounded by people of her own race, and
until she comes face to face with patronizing racism, she does not realize how many white people view
When her point of view is suddenly expanded, she realizes that "their idea of her was only an
illusion, yet so powerful that it would stalk her down the years, confront her in each mirror and from the
safe circle of their eyes, surprise her even in the gleaming surface of a table" (Book 4, Selina, chap. 9, p.
291). On the other hand, Selina enjoys her West Indian heritage, taking delight in dancing to Barbadian
Most of the text in Brown Girl, Brownstones is written in straightforward prose, with richly
metaphorical descriptions. The Bajan language, its colourful dialect, is used to show the difference in the
mindset between those who have moved to America and are attempting to fulfill the American Dream
and those who are more laid back e.g. Suggie, Deighton…
• Motifs- e.g. War
• Symbols- e.g. The brownstones symbolize confinement,
regimentation (to Selina), attainment of The American Dream
(to Silla and other Bajan families), the land symbolizes a
return to the homeland and traditions of Barbados
• Imagery- architectural-houses, rooms, the brownstones…;
• Allusions-literary, mythological, Biblical, musical…
Immigration/Making a new life
Loyalty to self, family, community
Generational conflict between mothers and daughters/sons
Coming of Age
Dreams v/s Reality
Identity/Individuality and how it is created/developed
The Dance of Life-Birth to Death
Selina’s dance is an expression of her quest
to prove her uniqueness and individuality.
Her dance is an affirmation of her response
to Clive’s viewpoint that “he comes alone
from birth and goes alone to death. So
while he’s around he wants his share of the
bread and circuses, and above all he wants
something to hide under. He says to hell
with autonomy. He says take that crap
about individuality and shove it.”
Her dance and her choice of it in the end
is a symbol of her loud protest that
“…there are some who don’t say that” and
who choose instead to make their own way
in life and to carve out their own niche.