Critical Overview of Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place

Gloria Naylor’s The Women of Brewster Place won the American Book Award in 1983. The success of her novel lies in her rendering, in rich, sensuous, rhythmic language, a sense of reality of Afro-American women’s lives while including serious examination of racial and sexual politics. Naylor manages to make the reader understand how the economic and social situation of black lives becomes one with personal lives, with the relationships between men and women, women and women, and parents and children, without diminishing the humanity of the individuals involved. The novel exposes the special bond that exists between women characters, including women of different generations. In this novel, a community of women emerges-sustaining, enabling, and enriching the lives of each other. In The Women of Brewster Place, Naylor indicates the women’s sense of isolation, their mistreatment by men and their search for identity through shared experiences. The Women of Brewster Place is almost entirely about women. In this “novel in seven stories”, Naylor focuses on a number of black women who share the common experience of living on a dead end street called Brewster Place. Brewster Place is largely a community of women; men are mostly absent or itinerant, drifting in and out of their women’s lives, leaving behind the pregnancies and unpaid bills. The women who live in Brewster Place are drawn together because they live on the same dead end street and also because they share a common fate. The dreams of Brewster’s inhabitants are what keep them alive. The dreams unite them and provide a context of sharing and connection.

In Brewster Place, a friendship based on the shared experience of black womanhood exists, occasionally in the form of the mother-daughter relationship. Mattie Michael, the protagonist in The Women of Brewster Place, suffers at the hands of her father, Samuel. Early in the novel, we find Mattie as a young virgin adored by her father. She had expected an explosion when her mother told

Samuel that Mattie was pregnant; instead, he didn’t speak for two days but then he was unable to express his anger and disappointment at her pregnancy, except through violence because he was unaccustomed to using language or logic. He brutally attacked his daughter and began to beat her trying to force her to tell who the father was, but Mattie refused to say. At the same time, there was no expectation that Butch shows responsibility for Mattie or their baby. As a young, single mother, Mattie places all of her dreams on her son. She leaves her boarding house room after a rat bites him because she cannot stay “another night in that place without nightmares about things that would creep out of the walls to attack her child.” She continues to protect him from harm and nightmares until he jumps bail and abandons her to her own nightmare. After her ejection from home, Miss Eva, with whom she later shares a household and whom she regards as a surrogate mother, helps her but finds Mattie’s excessive mothering unnatural. When Mattie sleeps with her son Basil and channels all her needs into mothering him; in fact, she renders him irresponsible and also dependent on herself. When she puts her house up for Basil’s bail and he skips bail, she loses her home, faces a tragic awakening and ends up in Brewster Place.

Etta Mae Johnson’s relationship with Mattie is mentioned as another story of the novel. After many negative experiences that Etta had in her relations with men, now she longs for lasting love; when she meets Reverend Moreland Woods she convinces herself that she has finally found someone to settle down with. After the sex act, Reverend Woods leaves Etta; he has no intention of establishing a stable relationship. Then Etta returns again to Mattie, as to a center. When she reaches the stoop, there is a light under the shade at Mattie’s window: “Etta laughed softly to herself as she climbed the steps toward the light and the love and the comfort that awaited her” (74). Etta yet has the deep friendship, support and even moral judgment of Mattie in warding off loneliness and despair. In this community, Mattie is concerned about improving Brewster Place; she becomes a survivor and giver of advice only after she is befriended by Miss Eva. Mattie becomes the backbone of Brewster Place, she counsels the women on the street. In an interview with Carabi (1992), Gloria Naylor notes that, “what is extraordinary about Mattie is that, in spite of having many problems, she is generous and calm—almost magic yet very human. She allows people to feel free in her presence. Like an earth mother, I guess.” Etta Mae, like the indomitable, classic blues singer she epitomizes, is, with Mattie’s assistance, able to transcend the near-tragic night world of Brewster Place.

Another story of the novel Kiswana Browne shows mother daughter relationship. The story is that of Kiswana Browne who is healed in her conflict with her mother by coming to identify herself with her mother as a woman. Kiswana rejects the bourgeois upbringing of her parents and embraces the political ideology of the ‘60’s. She changes her name, shifts from Linden Hills to the ghetto, in Brewster Place. When her mother tells her she lives in a world of fantasy, Kiswana says that she is proud of her heritage and accuses her mother of being “a white man’s nigger who’s ashamed of being black” (85). Mrs. Browne gives her daughter a short history lesson of her family’s proud heritage. The clinching moment for Kiswana comes only when she notices for the first time her mother’s bright red toenail polish, like her own. Mrs. Browne relates to Kiswana a personal testimony of a mother’s love.

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