by Julie Lorenzen
For my response to Brown Girl, Brownstones I wrote about Paule Marshall’s use of light throughout the novel and described how she used shadows to define Selina’s mother, Silla, as foreboding and sunlight to define Deighton, Selina’s father, as warm and sensual. In the Fisher King, Marshall rarely used light in reference to a character and instead used Sonny’s sense of smell to describe a character. For example on page 47, Sonny noticed that his Great-Uncle Edgar has “a man smell. A different, more powerful aura that wasn’t about creams and lotions.”
Mostly, however, Sonny’s sense of smell seemed to kick in whenever he was around his elderly great-grandmothers whom he referred to as Ulene and Florence Varina. Sonny met Ulene first and noticed that she had what “Hattie would have called a B.O. smell mixed together with the damp mustiness of her basement.” (20) In contrast, Sonny noticed that his other great grandmother, Florence had a pleasant smell. “He right away liked her smell. It made him think of Hattie’s when she finished her toilette before leaving for the work at the Club Violette in the evenings. The combined drift through the apartment of her scented soap, creams, lotions, dusting powder, and cologne was an aura that lingered long after she kissed him […].
I found it interesting that although the two old ladies were exact opposites in terms of smell (hygiene) and appearance, they weren’t exact opposites when it came to character. Both women possessed a mean streak. Ulene yelled at Sonny during his visits and had beaten Sonny’s grandfather, his namesake, because she didn’t like the kind of music he played. Florence Varina demonstrated a mean streak when she talked about Ulene and Sonny’s Great-Uncle Edgar. On page 38 Florence Varina said, “Her and all those other old W.I.s! Came flooding in here years ago and ruined the block. That’s why I don’t go out anymore, you know. Can’t bear to see what they’ve done to Macon Street and all the streets around here. And now here comes Mr. Big Shot (Sonny’s Uncle Edgar) trying to undo the damage. For a profit naturally.”
One would think that Florence’s pleasant smell, lady-like appearance, and well kept home might make her Sonny’s favorite over Ulene, who smelled bad, dressed slovenly and had a filthy home. However, after Florence Varina ranted about Ulene and his Great Uncle Edgar, Sonny decided his other grandmother, Ulene, “might not be so bad after all.” In fact, he seemed to treat them with the same respect, visiting one just as often as the other.
The odor Marshall assigned to each grandmother is more of a physical description of them rather than a definition of their personalities. If that were the case then Florence Varina would probably smell a little stinky too. However, both women had likeable qualities as well as unlikable ones. Ulene appealed to Sonny by showing him how her player piano worked. Florence Varina appealed to her great-grandson by talking to him about the seed that her father brought from Southern Georgia that became the grand Magnolia that people paid to see in her backyard. Both women gave Sonny a part of his heritage by sharing music and family history with him respectively. The great-grandmothers became a great resource for Sonny, who until the moment up to his visit to Brooklyn had been isolated from all family members, except for Hattie who served as what Sonny often referred to as “motherfathersisterbrother.”
In conclusion, I started this response thinking about how Marshall used
smells to describe her characters—especially Sonny’s two great grandmothers.
After thinking about it some, I realized that the smells of Ulene and Florence
Varina had no influence on how much Sonny liked his great-grandmothers.
Florence Varina’s pleasant smell did not make her more likeable than Ulene,
who had body odor. I think that maybe a combination of meanness and kindness
displayed by each grandmother helped to balance out Sonny’s opinion of
the two old ladies. Both grandmothers demonstrated an act of kindness by
sharing a part of Sonny’s heritage with him. Sonny seemed to respect both
grandmothers equally and took pains to spend equal amounts of time with
each of his elders. Smells didn’t matter to Sonny because each great-grandmother
was important to him. They both were a part of his family from which he
had been isolated his entire life.