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The Women of Brewster Place

Gloria Naylor

Important Quotations Explained

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Key Facts

1. If she had seen Ben, nothing would have made her believe that practically every apartment contained a family, a Bible, and a dream that one day enough could be scraped from those meager Friday night paychecks to make Brewster Place a distant memory.

The third-person narrator of the novel expresses this thought in the “Kiswana Browne” chapter, as Kiswana’s mother is approaching Brewster Place for the first time. The thought exemplifies the combination of hope and frustration that defines the lives of Brewster Place’s residents. Ben has lived in Brewster Place longer that any other resident, and he is also the first African-American to have lived in the community. As such, Ben, whose life has deteriorated into a series of drunken stupors, embodies Brewster Place’s deteriorated condition perhaps better than any other resident. His story, like the story of Brewster Place, is more complicated than what is evident on the surface. Despite his alcoholism, Ben is a decent man who has endured more than his fair share of tragedy.

2. She stopped straining when it suddenly came to her that it wasn’t important what song it was—someone was waiting up for her.

As Etta James returns home at the end of her chapter, she finds that Mattie Johnson, her best friend, has waited up all night for her. Etta, who has spent her life running from one home and man to another, is filled with a sense of being loved and being at home in at least one place in the world. Just a few moments earlier, Etta had begun to walk toward Brewster Place, feeling utterly alone and broken. Another man had disappointed her, and yet another dream of finding that long-sought-after sense of security had vanished with him. Fortunately, a different form of security and comfort is waiting for her: it’s the comfort and support that come from decades of friendship and love, and, in the end, that is what will support her.

3. They were now sung with the frantic determination of a people who realized that the world was swiftly changing, but for some mystic, complex reason their burden had not.

This quotation appears in Etta James’s chapter during a church service that Etta and Mattie attend together. The crowd has begun to sing an old gospel hymn, clearly moved by the words that have been sung by one generation after another. The words connect the past with the present. They connect the African-American struggle for freedom from slavery to the current struggle of the present generation to make their way in a world that, on the surface, has changed rapidly, but that in reality remains all too similar to the world their parents and their grandparents inherited. Although the African-American experience has changed drastically over the years, there is still so much that remains the same. Yet another generation remains disenfranchised and burdened by poverty. They sing the same hymns, hoping for the same relief and finding the same solace.

4. The young black woman and the old yellow woman sat in the kitchen for hours, blending their lives so that what lay behind one and ahead of the other became indistinguishable.

Shortly after Mattie Michael and Eva Turner meet for the first time in Mattie’s chapter, they begin to share their life stories with each other. They are separated not only by age but by experience. The content of their lives varies in almost every regard, from the fact that Eva has had a number of different husbands while Mattie has had only one brief lover, to the differences in the quality of their lives. Eva is a relatively prosperous woman with a large, beautiful house, while Mattie is poor and homeless. Their differences are highlighted even more by the contrast in their skin tone and age. Yet as the passage stresses, these differences are only superficial. The women are connected to each other by their gender and color. The quote also foreshadows what lies ahead for Mattie. After Eva dies, Mattie inherits her house, and just as Eva’s children eventually abandoned her, so too will Mattie’s son Basil abandon Mattie. The hardship and joy that Eva has experienced during her life will come to mirror Mattie’s own experiences.

The ability to connect to another human being is an essential idea throughout the novel, touched upon again and again in every story that unfolds. Mattie and Eva’s connection is the first in a series of life-altering relationships that have the power to restore hope to an otherwise hopeless situation. Mattie finds Eva shortly after she flees her rundown apartment, Etta finds Mattie waiting up for her when she is her lowest point, and Lorraine finds Ben when it seems as if no one else in the world understands her.

5. Ya know, you can’t keep him runnin’ away from things that hurt him. Sometimes, you just gotta stay there and teach him how to go through the bad and good of whatever comes.

Eva, upon first meeting Mattie in Mattie’s chapter, offers Mattie this simple piece of advice on how to raise her son, Basil. Mattie is ferociously protective of her son. He’s all she has, she wants to be there to comfort and protect him from any injustice. Eva’s words are prophetic. As Basil grows older, he never learns to deal with life’s hardships. He is unable to accept any responsibility for his actions, and when finally called on to do so, he selfishly runs away, forfeiting his mother’s house as a result. In this regard, Basil is exactly like his father and many of the other men who appear in the novel. In the face of adversity or challenge, they run away. Butch Fuller is the first male character in the novel to openly maintain that running away is his life philosophy. He indirectly passes this legacy on to Basil.

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