Symbology in The Women of Brewster Place

EWRT-1A: English Writing and Composition
Prof. V. Ross
Copyright © 1996 B. A. Collie Collier

Initially, Gloria Naylor's book The Women of Brewster Place seems to be stories of various women struggling under the inequities of poverty and racism. However, due to her use of symbology, thoughtful study can reveal a deeper hidden meaning in her writings. This book is not so much about racism or poverty as it is sexist. One example is Mattie's dream, in the chapter titled "The Block Party." Naylor portrays women as passive victims, their spirits so completely subjugated that they refuse to see the truth before them, so thoroughly vanquished that they no longer wish to escape their fate. Another example is Naylor's treatment of men: "Man" as an active force, that accomplishes, but that also destroys and victimizes women in the process of doing.

The symbols in Mattie's dream that show women as passive, compliant victims include the rain. People avoid the rain as they avoid openly discussing the ugly reality of the situation. Interestingly enough, it is Ben's death (at Lorraine's hands) that people state is bothering them -- but it is Lorraine's metaphorical death (through insanity caused by her brutal gang rape) that is the true cause of restiveness to the women on the street:

...every woman on Brewster Place had dreamed that rainy week of the tall yellow woman in the bloody green and black dress... Little girls woke up screaming, unable to be comforted by bewildered mothers who knew, and yet didn't know, the reason for their daughters' stolen sleep (176).

Furthermore, the symbolism of active, destructive man and passive, accepting, victimized woman is quietly, insidiously introduced before Mattie's dream even starts:

The women began to grow jumpy and morose, and the more superstitious began to look upon the rains as some sort of sign, but they feared asking how or why and put open Bibles near their bed at night to keep the answers from creeping upon them in the dark (176).

Thus Naylor presents her view of women's helplessness. No woman can openly acknowledge this. It is expressed inescapably in dreams and the Bible. The Bible is used here as a historic symbol of superstition and comforting lies. Naturally enough, the truth is revealed in nightmares to the afflicted women. As Goya put it, "The sleep of reason produces monsters," and the monsters of helplessness and victimization that these women fear and flee from are terrible truths indeed.

The rain during the day of the block party symbolizes the metaphorical washing away of the comforting lies, an exposure of the ugly realities. During the block party, Kiswana and Ciel can both see the coming rain. Kiswana, the self-professed activist, is the one woman who has chosen to be there, and doesn't really understand the apathy and hopelessness of Brewster Place, and Ciel is a past victim of Brewster Place who fled its pervasive hold. Unfortunately Ciel also symbolizes the inability of any woman to truly escape victimization. Her dreams have called her back to the street, and she identifies with the raped girl, Lorraine ("And something bad had happened to me by the wall -- I mean to her -- something bad had happened to her" [179]). Every other woman doggedly refuses to see the rain. Thus it is ultimately easier for these two (the only hold-outs from this horrible fantasy) to give in, to accept the other women's self-deception concerning the rain.

In the dream, the rain comes, despite the self-imposed blindness of the women. The men and children head for shelter, but the women converge to destroy the wall by which Lorraine was gang-raped and remove any bricks with blood on them -- to remove the symbolic truth of the victimized woman. Again Kiswana can see reality -- she cries out, "There's no blood on those bricks!" She is despairingly answered by Ciel, "Does it matter? Does it really matter?" (187). This emotional appeal shatters Kiswana's control -- and she too becomes a part of this desperate, hopeless hiding from the truth of Lorraine's rape and her own (and symbolically, all women's) helplessness. The dream ends with the wailing of police sirens. The police are strong symbols of imposed order -- and so Naylor shows us that the women in her stories are unable to control the male forces that hammer their lives.

Naylor's image of 'Man' is symbolized by all her developed male characters. Invariably, they are the doers and accomplishers in the story -- and they always destroy what is around them. Thus for Mattie we have her father, the leader of the family, who also beats his daughter (almost to death, when she won't tell him who the father of her unborn child is) and who loves his religion more than his family ("[Mattie] thought of the unbending old man who would sit with his Bible clenched in his fist and watch [Basil, his bastard grandchild] grow up. 'I can't put you through that,' she whispered" [27].). There's also Mattie's lover, Butch Fuller, who says with brutal honesty, "Mattie, I don't run after a lot of women, I just don't stay long enough to let the good times turn sour" (16). Finally, there is Mattie's son, Basil, who casually destroys the work of her entire lifetime, so that he will not be inconvenienced.

Ciel's man also victimizes her. The story starts with his return from an extended departure. In a futile effort to keep him she has an abortion, and when her other child dies he abandons her yet again. He does not even come to the child's funeral -- his desire to show kinship with his gender ("...a man's gotta be a man" [90]) is stronger than his feelings (if any) for Ciel. Cora Lee's men are the most abstract -- to her a man is merely a "shadow" (127), giving her what she wants (six babies, each by different fathers, and another pregnancy on the way) and then disappearing from her life as smoothly as a dream leaves her mind upon waking. To Lorraine (the lesbian) the men in the story are most brutal: although she wants nothing to do with them, they perceive her as a threat and destroy her:

C.C. Baker [the initiator of the gang rape] was greatly disturbed by a Lorraine ... he knew how to please or punish or extract favors from [women] by the execution of what lay curled behind his fly. It was his lifeline to that part of his being that sheltered his self-respect. And the thought of any woman who lay beyond the length of its power was a threat (161-2).

Kiswana and Ben highlight the distinctions between man as doer and woman as victim. When Kiswana attempts to be a doer, her efforts prove futile: her family supports her financially, her attempt to push Cora Lee out of apathy fail, and the street itself is destroyed rather than bettered by Kiswana's efforts to organize the inhabitants. Kiswana is an anomaly -- a woman trying to act like a man. In Gloria Naylor's stories, women ultimately fail, and so Kiswana must also. In the case of the alcoholic street bum Ben, it is Ben's wife who acts in a "manly" fashion: he recalls her in memory, metaphorically emasculating him by taking control due to his lack of decision, shoving him into the "woman's" place. His own subsequent ineffectiveness and self-victimization is compounded by his knowledge that as a consequence of his earlier inability to act he prostituted his daughter. This leads to his drinking habit in an attempt to wipe out that ugly truth. Ultimately he is murdered by an insane, raped woman -- an ugly piece of symbolism in its own right.

These two extended examples of symbolism in Naylor's book seem to show that only one framework for male-female relationships may exist. It is not clear whether Naylor's symbolism is deliberate or not, but either way it portrays destruction and despair as the norm for relationships between men and women. The effect of this symbolism is subtle, pervasive, and poisonous. Ben Okri, from The Joys of Story-Telling, says:

To poison a nation, poison its stories. A demoralized nation tells demoralized stories to itself. Beware of the story-tellers who are not fully conscious of the importance of their gifts, and who are irresponsible in the application of their art: they could unwittingly help along the psychic destruction of their people [italics mine].

The Women of Brewster Place is an elaborate Trojan horse of attempted social commentary on racism, hiding within it an ugly and insidious message of hopelessness, sexism, and hatred.


Last Updated: Mon, March 27, 2000