Mattie Michael is the most consistent and prominent character in The Women of Brewster Place. As an older woman who has already raised and lost a child, she is a surrogate mother figure to several of the other women. She has endured her share of hardships—losing a child, fleeing her parents’ home, and losing her own home—yet she continues to persevere. Her constant strength is a source of support for women such as Etta Mae Johnson and Lucielia Turner. Her generous heart and deep faith represent the best elements not only of Brewster Place but also of African-American women in general. In many ways, Mattie is the bedrock of the Brewster Place community. When she arrives, she does so knowing that it may very well be the last place she ever lives. However, she is determined not to be broken by that knowledge. She continues to live her life the best way she knows how, and, in doing so, she is able to add a measure of comfort to almost everyone she encounters.
Etta spends the bulk of her life after fleeing the South searching to fulfill some unnamed desire, a mixture of a desire for love, stability, and someone with whom to share her life. She moves from one man to the next, hoping to find in each of them at least a part of what she’s seeking. Like the old blues songs she carries in her head, Etta sees herself as a tragic and lonely figure. Her name, in fact, could even be taken as an invocation of Etta James, the famous jazz singer whose mournful songs have clearly played an important role in defining Etta’s identity. After a long life of disappointments, Etta settles into Brewster Place, hoping that perhaps she can find that long-sought-after security. Instead, she finds more disappointment and failure. Only at the end of her chapter in the novel does Etta realize that she has already found in Mattie at least some of what she’s searching for. Etta is Mattie’s childhood friend, and she is, in almost every regard, Mattie’s exact opposite. While Etta is sexually adventurous and bold with no true religious devotion, Mattie is solitary and devout. In Mattie she finds a true friend, someone who can help make her life matter.
Ben is the first African-American to live in Brewster Place, and he is the most consistent figure in the community. Known mainly for being a drunk, Ben remains a mystery for most of the novel. When he does appear, he is almost always in a drunken stupor. He keeps the source of his sorrow secret until just before his death. Ben’s life, like the lives of many of the women of Brewster Place, has been steeped in loss. Abandoned by both his wife and his daughter, Ben has spent his life trying to run from the ghosts of his past. On the surface, he appears to represent some of the worst elements of life in Brewster Place: he is disheveled and drunk and spends his early morning hours perched on a garbage can in an alley. However, Ben is actually an incredibly compassionate and giving man whose death proves to be an important and tragic loss to the community. Before dying, Ben is able to at least temporarily play the role of a father to Lorraine, providing her with the strength she has needed to stand up for herself. Shortly after Ben’s murder, Brewster Place is shut down, suggesting the significance of both his life and his death.
Lorraine is the primary character in the “The Two.” A thin, light-skinned woman, Lorraine is much more sensitive to the prejudices and judgments passed on her than is her partner, Theresa. Lorraine is the ideal resident in every regard. A kind neighbor and schoolteacher, Lorraine embodies the best ideals of domestic stability. She is a faithful and loving spouse to Theresa, and, despite the obvious bias against her, she still tries to be a part of Brewster Place’s tenants’ association. Regardless of Lorraine’s qualities as an individual, the women of Brewster Place, Sophie in particular, treat her harshly. She is viewed as a threat to her community, not because of any real threat that she may pose but because of her sexuality. Lorraine’s mere presence is able to draw out the deep-seated insecurities the other women of Brewster Place keep buried within themselves. The irony surrounding Lorraine is that her relationship with a woman is more stable and loving than any of the other relationships explored in the narrative.
As a young girl, Cora Lee was obsessed with the newness and freshness of baby dolls, and every year she demanded a new one from her family for Christmas. Cora’s fascination with dolls gradually becomes a fascination and obsession with babies of her own. As an adult, Cora is the mother of several children, all of whom she neglects when they are no longer infants. Cora’s obsession with babies, and her inability to care for them as children, speaks to a larger idea: Cora is unable to face the reality and hardship that comes with children growing up. She wants only the dependency, need, and affection a baby can offer. The harder relationships in life, the ones that demand patience, sacrifice, and compromise, are beyond her capabilities. In this regard, Cora bears a striking resemblance to Butch Fuller, who had a similar perspective toward women, and Eugene, who, when faced with the difficulties of having a family, chooses immediately to leave.