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The Achievement of Paule Marshall in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People      (part II-Conclusion)

by Leela Kapai, English

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Introduction by Mary Brown, Director of the Book Bridge Project
Every semester the Book Bridge Project has faculty scholars who prepare papers and lectures for its public forums.  The following is the second of a series of papers delivered by Prince George's Community College faculty for the Book Bridge Project.  Dr. Kapai has been an admirer of Paule Marshall ever since reading her first novel, Brown Girl, Brownstones (1959) and has anxiously awaited each new book by Marshall. For Leela's earlier research in the College Language Association Journal, XVI, No. 1, read "Dominant Themes and Technique in Paule Marshall's Fiction" (1972) reprinted in the Book Bridge Reader's Guide 2001.

The following is the conclusion of Leela Kapai’s paper for the Book Bridge Project.

Saul Amron, director of the project, is another troubled soul. A Sephardic Jew, he knows first hand the pain of discrimination, but a greater source of pain in his life is the guilt he carries for the death of his first wife.  She was a Polish Jew, who survived the concentration camp (Birkenau), only to die of a miscarriage in the jungles of Honduras.  Saul had then turned away from field investigation, his true love, and had sought shelter in the groves of academia.  Harriet has succeeded in drawing him to this project, but a part of him is afraid of failing once again those for whom he cares.

In Saul, Marshall portrays a kind, empathetic American, someone who begins to love Bournehills and has an instinctive understanding of what would be acceptable to the inhabitants—just enough technical assistance to ease their existence but allow them to retain their way of life.  He would have perhaps succeeded too as his effort to get the canes transported after the sugar mill is closed reveal. Unfortunately, he is entangled with another force—the exploitative power of the West, represented by Harriet.

According to Marshall, the Harriets of the world are descendents of the Americans who, directly or indirectly, played a part in exploiting the colonies. Harriet's ancestors had been involved in the slave trade and even now the "modest inheritance" she has comes from a corporation, UNICOR, involved in the trade of importing goods for daily consumption of the island.  Harriet wants to be of help to the islanders but she has yet to confront her latent racism.  The portrayal of Harriet is yet another remarkable achievement of Marshall.  She shows us the root of Harriet's maladies.  Growing up, Harriet had seen the disintegration of the life of her mother—a Southern belle, who felt useless when her husband shut her out of his life. Harriet's obsession is in proving that she is not like her mother at all.  That means she must constantly find someone to depend on her entirely to reassure her of her worth.  She ended her first marriage to a nuclear scientist when he became established and she felt she could no longer guide his life.

Harriet represents the spirit of the white man's world.  She may think that she is helping the poor and the unprivileged but her latent racist attitude comes to the surface repeatedly.  When she fails to comprehend why a woman would sell eggs to someone rather than feed her own family, she takes it to be another backward streak of the incorrigibles.  Her impotent anger and frustration come out vividly in the Carnival scene where she realizes that the reign of people like her is over and a new generation is emerging.  Her death seems to be a symbolic end of all that white America stands for and the ever-mourning waves of the ocean perform the ablution of the sins of the past.

Marshall captures Harriet's complexity as a character but also makes another use of her in the novel.  Harriet is to be the means of Merle's healing.  For all this period, Merle has been in a state of inertia.  When Harriet offers Merle money to move away from the Caribbean to remove a threat to her marriage, Merle recognizes Harriet as another face of the powerful West; she is just another version of the rich woman in England who had exploited her vulnerability and ruined her life in the process.  She has finally learned her lesson and has the strength to say no to Harriet.

While exploring the themes of lingering influences of the colonial past and portraying lovingly a gallery of memorable characters in a carefully delineated setting, Paule Marshall never forgets her vision of a wholesome future. Perhaps a new race of active and sympathetic men like Saul and Allen will bring about a better understanding between the races.  The new World, the writer feels, will be created only through an acute awareness of the past.  Saul echoes her thoughts explicitly: "It's usually so painful though: looking back and into yourself; most people run from it. . .  .  But sometimes it's necessary to go back before you can go forward, really forward.  And that's not only true for people—individuals—but nations as well."

The overnight flowering of the seemingly dead acacia in her yard is a symbol of Paule Marshall's belief in the regenerative power of life.  Despite the tragedies in the lives of the characters, she leaves us with a sense of affirmation: Merle is on her way to Africa to seek a reunion with her child; Saul decides to take an active role in overhauling the present system of rendering aid to developing countries instead of dealing with theoretical analyses of the problems.

A novel is more than the sum total of its elements.  Characters inhabit the world of fiction—its setting—and we learn about them through their actions, thoughts, and relationships with others.  Done deftly, the writer succeeds in creating a rich, multi-layered world in which there are characters whose complexity engages us, situations that we can see through the writer's eyes, and ideas that enlighten us and enrich our understanding of human nature and the larger issues of the universe.  Paul Marshall succeeds in creating just that work in The Chosen Place, The Timeless People.


The Instructional Area Newsletter, Volume 17, No. 2

Fall 2001