Use of Light in Brown Girl, Brownstones

Use of Light in Brown Girl, Brownstones
Use of Light in Brown Girl, Brownstones

by Julie Lorenzen

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I was intrigued when an instructor pointed out Anne Beattie’s use of light in the story The Burning House. To me, light was the tool of a painter, not a writer. While reading the book, I paid attention to see if, when and how Paule Marshall used light in Brown Girl, Brownstones. I also focused on the lack of light and how Marshall used darkness and shadows.  Delighted, I found that Marshall’s use of light abounded through this tome, and helped her to do a number of things. With light Marshall creating a sense of foreboding and defining characters and relationships.

Marshall created a sense of foreboding on page 96 when Selina was walking to the factory to confront her mother about the plans to sell his father’s land.  “Factories stretched unending down the streets, towered blackly into the sky, their countless lighted windows offering no promise of warmth inside.” Marshall wrote. On page 16, Marshall used light to describe Silla in this way. “…the park, the women, the sun even gave way to her dark force, the flushed summer colors ran together and faded as she passed.” 

So keeping that description in mind when I read the passage about the factories, I got the sense that Marshall was telling the reader that Selena’s confrontation of her mother would not end well—that Selena would not be received warmly and that Silla would dominate the confrontation.
In contrast, Marshall used light in a much different way when describing Selina’s relationship with her father. “The sun on her lids created an orange void inside her and she wanted to remain like this always with the sun on her eyes and bound with her father in their circle.” (9) In other words, Selena felt a sense of warmth when she was with her father. Further, Marshall used the sun in describing Deighton’s eyes. On page nine she wrote “…They were a deeper brown than his skin with the sun in the centers.” 

I found it interesting that when Deighton exited the book, so did most of the sunshine. When Deighton died, Selina was left in mostly darkness. In fact, the book ended with Selina standing alone in the dark although at that time she was illuminated with self-discovery. Further, it was in the darkness when Selena experienced key coming of age moments like losing her virginity and coming up against racism for the first time. 

Out of all the coming of age moments in the book, the moment where Selina came up against racism stuck most in my mind. On page 289, Selina encountered the prejudice of a white woman. The woman was Margaret’s mom who had invited Selina to sit with her at a party celebrating the success of the dance recital. Marshall wrote “But when she looked up and saw her reflection in those pale eyes, she knew that the woman saw one thing above all else. Those eyes were a well-lighted mirror which, for the first time, Selina truly saw—with a sharp and shattering clarity—the full meaning of her black skin.” 

The encounter ends with a lamp crashing to the floor and a flurry of action on Selina’s part. “Just before darkness exploded in the room, Selina was at the door viciously shoving aside the dazed Margaret, then rushing out, veering sharply into the living room, Marshall wrote.” (290) I was impressed with how Marshall punctuated this dramatic moment with the exploding darkness. I felt that “a light” went on in Selina’s head and that she “exploded” with realization of what had just occurred.

On page 291 there was a dark clarity in Marshall’s words.  “What Clive had said must be true. Her dark face must be confused in their minds with what they feared most; with the night, symbol of their ancient fears, which seethed with sin and harbored violence…Like the night she was to be feared, spurned, purified and always reminded of her darkness…” Selena had a great realization here—that in the minds of white people she was darkness. She was the metaphor for night. I think it was this realization that helped to form her self-identity and to figure out what she was up against in the world. As written on page 320 in the afterward by Mary Helen Washington, Selina found illumination in the darkness.



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