Jubilee by Margaret Walker: The Symbolic Importance of the Lady in Black and of the Two Lovers
An important theme in Jubilee by Margaret Walker (Walker 1-490) is freedom. The three important characters in the story, Vyry, Randall Ware and Innis Brown, are constantly engaged in the quest for freedom. This entails not just their political liberties, but also the freedom to choose one’s marriage partner and the freedom to configure interpersonal relations in ways they see fit. Walker wrote Jubilee a century after the end of the Civil War and at the outbreak of the Civil Rights movement. To this extent, the range and scope of freedoms that Vyry and the two men in her life are seeking is representative of the aspirations of blacks in America. What Walker also suggests is that the feminist strivings are not exclusive of a broader political search of equality. Indeed, the two causes are intricately connected and partly explain why Vyry and her two lovers are showcased in the same scenes in the novel (Graham 96). Apart from this symbolic display of solidarity, another reason why these characters appear together is to contrast their different mindsets and attitudes. In other words, there seems to be some diversity of personality and character within the larger common objective
One crucial way in which the genre of slave narrative is revised in Jubilee is the attention paid to the personal (especially the romantic) facets of Vyry’s difficult life. This is accomplished by showcasing the relationship between Vyry and her two lovers at several points in the work. Vyry’s loyalties are thoroughly tested as she is made to choose between “her loyalty to her first husband and her white family and loyalty to her second husband and her children. She is guided by her Christian ethics in arriving at a practical rather than radical resolution of the conflict” (Bell 289). Her great virtues are best illustrated when she bravely sets about resolving these conflicts. As she successfully resolves these conflicts, the reader understands the personality gestalt of Vyry, that she is a
pillar of Christian faith and human dignity, she commands our respect first as an individual and then as a symbol of nineteenth-century black womanhood. Shaped by plantation culture, she realistically embodies its strengths and weaknesses and she is neither bitter nor political in her philosophy of life. Her major strengths are integrity, resourcefulness, pragmatism, and songs. Her weaknesses are caste prejudice, fidelity to former white owners, and political naivete. (Bell 289)
There is an interesting symbolism in the fact that Vyry marries Innis Brown and not Randall Ware. Though she was passionately in love with Ware, circumstances do not permit their marriage. But the author’s choice of Innis Brown as her destined match has connotations beyond the practical. Randall Ware, for all his righteous thoughts and actions is a man born into freedom. He belonged to that rare species of freed blacks, and he is also literate. He has established himself professionally as a blacksmith and has carved out a respectable life for himself. But his condition is atypical of the status of the larger black community. People of his ilk are an exception rather than the rule. He is legally on par with white folks and his demeanour reflects a sense of superiority. Vyry, on the other hand, is a mulato and, hence, legally a slave, although her fair skin can potentially pass her off as white (Dieng 118). Analysing their romance from political, social and legal backgrounds, it is fair to conclude that Randall Ware and Vyry have fundamental dissimilarities. Apart from the nominal distinctions between them, their core principles and objectives in life are also divergent. In this scenario, it makes no literary sense for the author to take their relationship to fulfilment in the marriage. For the same reasons, there is a common ground between Vyry and Innis Brown’s life causes, despite the contrasting backgrounds that they originate from. So, Walker employs the sentiment of predestination in bringing Vyry and Innis Brown together (Lowery 21). Still there is social and political congruence in this outwardly unexpected event in the story. It is for implicitly presenting these facts, concepts and events surrounding Vyry’s life that Walker describes the relationships between Vyry and her two lovers in connection. For example, Randall Ware and Innis Brown are antithetical types. Born into a family of free black artisans who served in the Union Army, as well as being a Reconstruction politician, Randall
is the voice of black nationalism and radicalism in the novel. It is he who plants the idea of freedom in Vyry’s head, giving concrete social reality to the sermons and prayers that God would send a Moses to free her and her people. He is bitter because whites do not respect his rights as a free citizen, and he resists their efforts to cheat, terrorize, and emasculate him. Born a slave, Innis is hard-working and courageous in his protection of Vyry and as naive, conservative, and practical as she is. All he wants in life is a farm of his own where he could raise his own crops and family. (Bell 289)
In order to better understand the significance of the romantic triangle between Vyry, Randall Ware and Innis Brown, the historical veracity of the story has to be taken into account. In Walker’s own words, an important purpose for writing the novel was “to substantiate my material, to authenticate the story I had heard from my grandmother’s lips” (Lauret 198). In this sense, Jubilee stands on par with the slave narratives by Frederick Douglass and Harriet Jacobs. The reminiscence of these vital historical works are found in details such as Vyry’s cruel mistress, her first severe punishment, “daily life both at work and after hours in the Quarters, the thirst for freedom and the despair Vyry feels when the dream seems unattainable” (Beaulieu 16). Other features of slave life given by the author include “slave auctions (Vyry herself is put up for sale once), public beatings ( Vyry witnesses the execution of two enslaved women who were accused of poisoning their masters, along with other enslaved persons as part of the Fourth of July festivities), the ever-present patrollers, and a failed escape attempt” (Beaulieu 16). Yet, a crucial area where Jubilee differs from the preceding works of the genre (as well as later works such as Dessa Rose, Beloved, and Family) is its emphasis on the protagonist’s love life.
In conclusion, Margaret Walker attaches substantial importance to the relationship between Vyry and her two lovers. Consequently, she features them together at several points in the novel. Through these excursions into the interpersonal realm of the protagonist’s eventful life Walker is able to offer some value beyond the merely political and historical one. Moreover, this intertwining narrative structure employed with respect to Vyry and her two lovers brings out the contrasting character types of the two male protagonists. This literary manoeuvre lets itself to be read in terms of symbolisms of love, politics, and society.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Black Women Writers and the American Neo-Slave Narrative: Femininity Unfettered. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1999. Print.
Bell, Bernard W. The Afro-American Novel and Its Tradition. Amherst, MA: University of Massachusetts, 1989. Print.
Cash, Floris Barnett. “Kinship and Quilting: An Examination of an African-American Tradition.” The Journal of Negro History 80.1 (1995): 30-35. Pritnt.
Dieng, Babacar. “Reclamation in Walker’s Jubilee: The Context of Development of the Historical Novel.” Journal of Pan African Studies 2.4 (2008): 117-123. Print.
Graham, Maryemma. “The Fusion of Ideas: An Interview with Margaret Walker Alexander.” African American Review 27.2 (1993): 279-286. Print.
Lauret, Maria. Liberating Literature: Feminist Fiction in America. New York: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Lowery, Charles D., and John F. Marszalek, eds. Encyclopedia of African-American Civil Rights: From Emancipation to the Present. New York: Greenwood, 1992. Print.
Walker, Margaret. Jubilee. New York: Houghton Mifflin. 1966. Print.