Symbology in “The Women of Brewster Place” (I of II)
Book authored by Gloria Naylor. Book review originally written in 1996 for an English Writing & Composition class
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” ). 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.