The Modern and Control in "God works in a mysterious way" and Brown Girl, Brownstone

Spring 2012
Daniel Baldwin

Daniel Baldwin is a junior English Literature and Language major at the University of Maryland, College Park. His critical interests include modern and postmodern American and European literature as well as creative writing.

In her poem, “God works in a mysterious way,” Gwendolyn Brooks reflects on how religion has been subverted and replaced by a growing focus on the material world in the modern age. She even suggests this movement towards the modern is a necessary consequence of religion's inability to provide any kind of physical security or aid, and is representative of humanity's denial of external controls in favor of “assuming sovereignty” for itself. In Paule Marshall's Brown Girl, Brownstone, Silla addresses this notion by serving as the personification of this modernity. She moves away from her traditionalist Barbadian culture and assimilates into American society, attempting to exercise her own agency by extending her authority. She does this in several ways, including obtain property and upsetting traditionalist notions of parenting, religion, and gender roles. This effectively addresses Brooks's hypothesis by demonstrating the means by which an individual may achieve sovereignty from the external controls of religion and traditionalist cultures. This idea of taking control of one's situation and appropriating agency perpetuated by both authors is strongly tied to capitalistic values, specifically the notion of private ownership, a goal which Silla strives for throughout the novel.

In Brooks's poem, the lines, “And many an eye that all its age had drawn its/Beam from a Book endure the impudence/Of modern glare,” note how modernity is replacing traditional religious belief (Brooks lines 3-5). Although the “modern glare” is impudent in the sense that it lacks the capacity to provide the same kinds of answers religion promises, it is still able to supersede religion because religion fails to deliver on those promises. Modernity's usurping of religion is revealed through the metaphors of light and vision, which are played off of throughout the poem. The light produced from the Book is simply a beam, a thin shaft of light that does not illuminate anything that is not directly in its path. Modernity, on the other hand, produces a glare, a source of light that is able to overpower this thin beam. This is an appropriate comparison that depicts the modern as a force which is able to supplant religion. However, “glare” also connotes  blinding, implying that, while modernity is able to overcome religion, it cannot hope to provide the same kind of clarity that religion promises. Given this, the opening lines can be put into context, “But often now the youthful eye cuts down its/Own dainty veiling. Or submits to winds” (Brooks, ll. 1-2). The “youthful eye” in the first line represents the emerging modern world that chooses to focus its attention on the secular and the material. This eye is described as cutting down its “dainty veiling,” a metaphor implying that religion obscures one's vision and distorts reality. Rather than continuing to live behind this veil, the youthful eye chooses to “submit [sic] to winds” suggesting that, rather than rely on religion for direction, the modern instead elects to submit to chance.

This idea is reinforced by the image of the modern directing “Chancing feet across dissembling clods” which suggests that man is ultimately subject to chance (l. 8). The line also acknowledges that all modernity is capable of doing is helping man to navigate the “dissembling clods” of religion that seek to delude him and instill external controls. The next lines emphasis this notion again as the modern is described as “undiluted light” that enables man to leave “Thy shadows” and “Thy pleasant meadows” (ll. 9-10). This is an allusion to Psalm 23 and the valley of the shadow of death that Brooks constructs with the intent of undermining the verse itself. The shadow of death becomes God's shadow and only the “undiluted light” of modernity can lead man out of it.

In the closing lines of her poem, Brooks issues a direst challenge to any divine entity that may exist, “If Thou be more than hate or atmosphere/Step forth in splendor, mortify our wolves./Or we assume sovereignty ourselves” (Brooks lines 12-14). In these lines, Brooks notes the inaction of any divine presence to aid humanity with the problems facing it. She therefore concludes that man must take control of his own fate and not rely on religion for help or for answers. This notion is drawn from capitalist values as Brooks advocates the idea of exercising one's own agency over conforming to various external influences such as religious, cultural, or societal pressures. This view is one strongly tied to the idea of private ownership.

In Marshall's text, Silla embodies this same idea through her desire to extend her own control and in her rejection of traditional and religious values, both Barbadian and Christian. From the beginning of the novel, Silla is constantly fighting for ownership and control (of Deighton's land, of her home, of Selina) as she has become discontent with her lack of influence. Frustrated with Deighton's refusal to sell his land, Silla commits to doing it herself, “Be-Jesus-Chirst, I gon do that for him then. Even if I got to see my soul fall howling into hell I gon do it” (Marshall 62). These lines represent Silla's denial of both patriarchal as well as religious convention. Not only does she seek to subvert Deighton but she is also unconcerned with the state of her soul, choosing to disregard traditional notions of sin in favor of pursuing the material. Silla undermines Deighton's control again later in the novel, this time of Selina. After Deighton moves out of the house, Selina beings spending much of her time with him at his restaurant. Disgruntled with her husband's control of their daughter, Silla goes to his restaurant with a police officer in order to have him deported, thereby taking full control of Selina. However, despite her attempts to control Selina, Silla admits that total control over her children is not possible, “'You best watch that heavy hand,' Silla said, 'cause this is New York and these is New York children and the authorities will dash you in jail for them'” (Marshall 56). These lines demonstrate Silla's acknowledgment of the approach of the modern. She realizes the new generation will not conform to the traditions and ideals of the previous generation, and that they will instead be fully assimilated into modern American society. Silla cannot hope that her daughters, Selina specifically, will remain within the confines of the cultural bloc created by the Barbadian immigrants. She knows that her children, raised in an individualistic, American culture, will attempt to exercise their own agency and break away from any convention. In addition, Silla respects their autonomy, represented by her refusal to adhere to the patriarchal tradition of physically punishing her children.

Later in the text, Silla is again dismissive of religion, commenting to Ina: “But who put you so that you must sit up in a church morning noon and night, nuh?” (Marshall 164). In this line, Silla seems to be implying a mild disapproval of Ina's churchgoing. From the first description of Silla in the text, one can infer that she believes that the time spent at church would be better utilized working to advance one's position in life: “Not only that, every line of her strong-made body seemed to reprimand the women for their idleness and the park for its senseless summer display. Her lips, set in a permanent protest against life, implied that there was no time for gaiety” (Marshall 13). Religion, as a pursuit of the immaterial, is a fruitless endeavor in Silla's opinion as one's focus should always be on the material.

Besides her rejection of religious, Christian influences, Silla is also dismissive of traditional Barbadian superstitions. While conversing with Iris and Florrie in her kitchen, Silla denounces Florrie's belief in obeah: “Silla said, 'Florrie, I gon tell you like the old people home did say. What you believe in you die in. If you believe there's a duppy walking 'pon the roof, than one is there” (60). Like any religion or mythology, obeah is a belief constructed with the intent of enforcing specific conventions or norms onto a society. Therefore, in her rejection of obeah, Silla is once again rejecting external control in favor of her own power. She refuses Florrie's proposal of using obeah to force Miss Mary and Maritze out of the house and instead waits until she owns the home herself to attempt this, in an exercise of her own influence. In addition to her dismissal of certain aspects of Barbadian culture, Silla also effectively commodifies other features of it: “On Saturdays the kitchen was filled with fragrances, for Silla made and sold Barbadian delicacies” (55). Even before she enters the workforce, Silla engages in capitalist pursuits, such as selling Barbadian food, in an attempt to earn the money she needs in order to buy her house and extend her control.

Silla's speech after Cecil Osborne's presentation at the Association most explicitly reveals her capitalist ideas: “The terrible thing is that Florrie makes sense. People got to make their own way. And nearly always to make your way in this Christ world you got to be hard and sometimes misuse others, even your own” (192). Silla notes how one must exploit people in order to advance themselves and realize their own desires, perpetuating the idea that social mobility is not possible without this kind of exploitation. She herself exemplifies this view through the treatment of her boarders. Most notably, Silla forces Miss Suggie out of the house in order to find new boarders and charge them a higher rent.

Silla continues on to elaborate that this is not something which the Barbadians choose, but rather something forced on them by the capitalist society they are attempting to assimilate into:

We would like to do different. That's what does hurt and shame us so. But the way things arranged we can't, if not we lose out. And another thing, Iris. It's true the roomers is our own color. But if they was white or yellow and cun do better we'd still be overcharging them. (Himes 192)

Silla also highlights an interesting juxtaposition present in her society by establishing that the only way to survive in this “Christ world” is to undermine the values perpetuated by Christianity. Instead of aiding those in need, the Barbadian landlords are forced to take advantage of whoever they can in order to satisfy self-preservationist instincts and ensure the survival of their families. Silla notes that capitalism has subverted Christian values in American culture and experiences inner turmoil from upholding a value system that encourages exploitation of other people.

These passages seem to indicate that Silla's pursuit of control and her desire to extend her influence are actually not an exercise of her own agency; rather, they arise out of necessity as she attempts to integrate into a capitalist society. This same idea is briefly presented earlier in the novel when Silla and Selina are on the trolly together. During their conversation, Selina proposes that the immaterial (love, breath) may be more desirable to some people than anything one could buy in a store. Silla condemns this view as foolish, although her rebuttal is suspect: “Her fingers twisted tight around the straps of her pocketbook. 'Love! Give me a dollar in my hand any day!' she cried in a voice that was too loud to be convincing” (Marshall 88). This passage, when presented alongside her speech at the Association, reveals the underlying anxieties Silla is experiencing. Her hands twisting the straps and her too loud voice show that Silla doesn't fully agree with what she is saying. It seems that she only takes on this view because she is attempting to integrate herself into a capitalist culture, and therefore must try to conform to its ideal of valuing the material over the immaterial.

Besides attempting to exercise her influence throughout the novel, Marshall also establishes Silla as a representation of modernity through her characterization. The most explicit example of this depiction occurs when Selina visits her mother at the defense factory:

Silla worked at an old-fashioned lathe which resembled an oversized cookstove, and her face held the same transient calm which often touched it when she stood at the stove at home. Like the others, her movements were attuned to the mechanical rhythms of the machine-mass. (84) 

The beginning of this passage compares Silla working with the lathe and her working in front of the stove at home. Not only is the lathe itself described as resembling an “oversized cookstove,” but Silla herself is depicted as maintaining the same appearance as when she is cooking. The intent of this selection is to present Silla's duality of breadwinner and homemaker. Having already usurped Deighton's position in the family as the provider, she is able to simultaneously occupy both parental roles for Selina. This subversion of Deighton's role is made more explicit by the descriptions of both him and Silla. Deighton is often depicted in feminine terms: he is described as sighing “like a girl,” wearing silk clothing, and primping himself before going out (18, 132). Conversely, Silla is described in masculine terms: “Silla, the barred sunlight and shade on her face, was imprisoned within this contradiction of dark and light. Indeed, like all men, she embodied it” (Marshall 63). By achieving this role reversal, Silla is able to break away from more traditional concepts of a gender hierarchy. She is not confined to the role of home-maker, but allowed to exercise her own authority in accordance with shifting societal views on gender roles. In this way, through supplanting Deighton's position, Silla effectively asserts herself as the embodiment of modernity. 

Also, in the passage concerning the factory, Silla's movements are described as being in tandem with the movements of the machines encompassing her. She is represented as the personification of the machines themselves, and this description continues on in the passage:

She fitted the lump of metal over the lathe center and, with a deft motion, secured it into the headstock and moved the tailstock into position. The whine of her lathe lifted thinly above the roar as the metal whirled into shape. Then she released the tailstock and held the shell up for a swift scrutinizing glance before placing it with the other finished shells.    Quickly she moved into the first phase of the cycle again. (84)

All of her actions are portrayed as mechanical, even robotic, as the distinction between Silla's identity and that of the machines slowly becomes blurred. Aside from mimicking their movements, Silla also mirrors the machines as both are described as embodying contrasting qualities. Early in the text, Silla is described as both desiring Deighton and begrudging him:

A helpless admiration. A burst of passion stronger than [Deighton's] even. A possessiveness that reached out to claim him despite all. But at the same time her resentment shaded all this from him, and he saw only her eyes hardening and her face shutting like a door slammed on him. (19).

Later on, she is once again described with contrasting features as Selina feels both dismissed by Silla as well as beckoned by her embrace (43). In this same manner, the depiction of the factory's machines contains a sense of contradiction:

This machine-mass, this machine force was ugly, yet it had grandeur. It was a new creative force, the heart of another, larger, form of life that had submerged all others, and the roar was its heartbeat – not the ordered systole and diastole of the human heart but a frenetic lifebeat all its own. (83)

As the passage continues, the description of Silla attempts to distinguish her apart from the machines: “Watching her, Selina felt the familiar grudging affection seep under her amazement. Only the mother's own formidable force could match that of the machines; only the mother could remain indifferent to the brutal noise” (Marshall 84). However, Silla's force is only able to “match” that of the machines and not wholly overcome them. The description of the lathe's whining being “lifted thinly above the roar” in the earlier selection also demonstrates how the text tries to assert Silla's identity (84). Although the whine lifts above the roar of the machines, it does so “thinly,” barely distinguishing itself from the rest of the atmospheric noise. This lack of distinction between the two appears again later on: “A feeling nudged [Selina] and fled: the mother was like the machines, some larger form of life with an awesome beauty all her own” (85). The effect of these passages is to blur the distinction between Silla and the machines that envelope her, thereby characterizing her as the physical embodiment of modernity.

Silla affirms this idea herself later on in the same chapter while talking with Selina on the trolly. “I read someplace that this is the machine age and it's the God truth. You got to learn to run these machine to live. But some these Bajan here still don understand that – that Suggie and yuh father and them so that still ain got a penny to their name...” (87). Here Silla separates herself from other Barbadians who have failed to successfully assimilate into American society while also asserting herself as a representation of the modern. This distinction is highlighted by the fact that Deighton is injured by a machine at the mattress factory: “They start up some new machine and he ask to work on it without knowing what it gave and the arm got caught. The nerve gone, they say. Crush so” (132).

Through metaphors of light and vision, as well as through a satirical implementation of religious imagery, “God works in a mysterious way.” suggests that man must take control of his own situation and deny the control of outside forces. Unfortunately, Brooks does not elaborate on the means by which to do this, she merely points out the necessity of it. However, through Silla's rejection of traditional religious convention and the extension of her control (albeit a forced extension brought on by the necessity of living in a capitalist society), she demonstrates how to assert one's sovereignty. Marshall also establishes this through her characterization of Silla, portraying her in dual parental roles and comparing her to the defense industry's machines. In this way, Marshall creates a character that effectively echoes and elaborates on the ideas expressed in Brooks's poem. 

Works Cited

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “God works in a mysterious way.” Blacks. Chicago: Third World Press,

2001.  Print.

Marshall, Paule. Brown Girl, Brownstones. Mineola: Dover Publications, Inc., 2009. Print.