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Thomas Library

Honors Thesis Archive

Author Vanessa Earley
Title Using the Past in the Present Struggle: Paule Marshall's The Chosen Place, The Timeless People
Department English
Advisor Carmiele Wilkerson
Year 2004
Honors University Honors
Full Text View Thesis (187 KB)
Abstract The concept of looking to one's history as a means of healing and forming a positive identity is a common one in Pan African tradition. It is in this common tradition that Paule Marshall's writing takes part: "One of the themes which absorbs me so that I find myself returning to it again and again is the question of identity. And as part of this, a concern for the role the past – both the personal and historical past – plays in this whole question" (Shaping 106). Marshall's works, which include Brown Girl, Brownstones, Praisesong for the Widow, and The Fisher King, incorporate the theme of returning to one's roots to find a sense of identity.

Marshall's second novel, The Chosen Place, the Timeless People, is no different, as it explores history as a means to building a sense of identity. What makes it different from her other works, and why I chose to focus on this single novel, is that it is not only someone of African descent going through this process; the tradition is stretched to a person of European descent, as well as a person of Jewish descent, to show the effects that the process can have on those who are not necessarily of African descent or a member of an oppressed group. In regards to Marshall's choice, Leela Kapai wrote, "Self-questionings are not the prerogative of only the members of a particular group based on race, sex, or age; therefore, Miss Marshall concerns herself with people of all ages, of all races, and of all strata" (49). While Marshall had varied in her characters' age and gender in her other works, race was not necessarily a variable that she had worked with in portraying the relationship between the past and identity. It is in The Chosen Place, the Timeless People that she does so.

In the novel, the physical and spiritual journeys of two women, Merle Kinbona, an Afro-Caribbean, and Harriet Amron, an Anglo-Saxon, are portrayed. Each goes on a journey through her personal past as well as through the history of her respective cultural group. Through these journeys, they come to terms with their identities and attempt to redeem their cultural groups. Binding these women together and articulating their journey is Saul Amron, a Jewish man, who serves as the prophetic voice of the novel and who undergoes a similar process as the women.

Through the journeys of these characters, one can see the place that Marshall takes in the Pan-African and African American tradition, but also the way in which she appropriates it to apply to other groups. She shows that it "is crucial for members of all ethnic and minority groups, not just for Blacks, since the same process of recovery is operable for all oppressed peoples...Furthermore...through...Harriet, that memory is equally important for the oppressors" (Meyer 101). Marshall broadens the tradition in order to portray not only the importance that coming to terms with history has on the identity of every individual, not just oppressed peoples, but also the effect that this process can have on the larger population and the interaction between oppressed and oppressor. For her, "the personal is inseparable from the political. One's responsibility also is to work to empower that larger world that is part of your definition of self" ("Black" 31). By using each character as a representation of their respective cultural group, Marshall is able to illustrate the connection between self-recovery and community healing and redemption in all groups, whether they be oppressed, oppressor, or somewhere in between.

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