Identity Themes in Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall and Confessions of a Mask by Mishima
As marginalized people from around the world gain their voice in print, contemporary interpretations of identity become especially timely and relevant. Indeed, in an increasingly globalized world where multiculturalism is the norm rather than the exception, an analysis of how identity is perceived by these diasporic peoples is timely and relevant. To this end, this paper provides a comparative analysis of the identity themes in Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall and Confessions of a Mask by Mishima, including an examination of these issues in the peer-reviewed and scholarly literature. Finally, a summary of the research concerning these identity themes and important findings are presented in the conclusion.
Review and Analysis
Praisesong for the Widow by Paule Marshall
Although people form an individual sense of identity over time, this sense change can as their experiences and circumstances change in ways that promote an improved understanding of their personal cultural heritage. In some cases, this process can be fueled by an epiphany wherein people realize that their former perceptions of self-identity must be reconsidered and reevaluated in view of these recent events. Although these types of epiphanies are achieved in different ways by different people, in some cases, profound loss can serve as the catalyst for people and this was the case with the protagonist in Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow. For instance, Fister advises that, "The story of a woman's recovery of her past and her connectedness to her community. While on a Caribbean cruise, Avey Johnson, a well-to-do black widow from White Plains, is driven by dreams and unexpected feelings to leave the cruise ship at Grenada and return home" (248). Going home metaphorically and literally, Johnson achieves her epiphany during the cruise in ways that compel her to reconstruct her real self-identity from the lost images of the past. In this regard, Fister adds that Johnson "does, indeed, return home, but in a spiritual sense as she relives her life in flashbacks, remembering how her grandmother told her stories of the slaves landing at the offshore island, where her people lived, and how they turned around and walked across the water back to Africa" (248). Indeed, it is reasonable to suggest that few slaves would have wanted to complete the trip at this point, but given the impossibility of this alternative, the grim realities of their actual experiences formed the collective basis for Johnson's reevaluation of her own self-identity in light of these revelations. For instance, Fister notes that Johnson is "persuaded by an old islander, Lebert Joseph, to go with a group of people to the little island of Carriacou, where they will celebrate their roots in an annual festival, and there she participates in a Pardon Dance, and then in the dances of the nations of Africa, remembered from the time they were brought over as slaves" (249). Although the experience is always unique, it can promote further intergenerational sharing of memories that can help sustain a recovered sense of identity among displaced peoples. For example, Fister also points out that the widow "recovers a memory of her ancestry and resolves to relive the storytelling with her grandchildren so that the threads of connection will not be broken" (249).
The epiphany is also part of Johnson's self-actualization journey, the part of life where people try to sort out what is fact from fiction and unlearn what was assumed to be true for much of their lives. When this reevaluation has been completed, the next step in forging a new sense of identity is to share it in culturally appropriate ways with younger members. In this regard, McDaniel reports that, "Praisesong for the Widow envelops a grand travel metaphor of personal transformation brought about by the sudden insight and the reflection of Africa in the musical forms and dances created by the wanderings of Africans. Marshall's novel suggests that knowledge imposes duty -- the duty to remember and perpetuate the sensibilities acquired by the 'journey'" (3). While the epiphany experienced by Johnson served as the catalyst for the reevaluation of her identity, it is clear that the process was not static but was rather a "journey" that fortunately had a definable destination. For instance, according to Alexander (2001), "Praisesong for the Widow, is "symptomatic of an unwavering acceptance and celebration of the spiritual mothers and the homeland, a celebration of cultural unity within the diaspora among diasporic peoples. Spiritually renewed and rejuvenated, a new self is born. This rebirth, of course, is initiated by the mother, the 'true' ancestress, and is accordingly staged on the mother's land" (27). This is not to say, though, that the self-actualization process that results in reformed perceptions of identity is completed by simply telling some stories and letting it go at that; rather, the culminated self-actualization process results in an entire nation being reminded of their true sense of authentic identity. For example, Alexander also notes that, "In Paule Marshall's Praisesong for the Widow, the sage Lebert Joseph speaks about the importance of ancestral worshiping and of being able to 'call your nation.' When one can 'call [her] nation,' the search for self is complete" (27).
Just as Johnson had recently experienced the loss of her life partner, the profound loss of her origins and the homeland it provided became manifest following the epiphany that resulted from the experience. When people are forcibly removed from their homeland, the sense of loss can be as poignant as any other human experience perhaps, including the loss of a spouse and it was this enormous sense of loss that defined her reevaluation of her identity. In this regard, McDaniel points out that, "The geographical reality of the new population was Caribbean, but Africa persisted in memory, creating a concept of nation in which familial links remained intact despite linguistic and regional displacement" (50). In a sense, this reevaluation was not necessarily a late-in-life event for some people because the epiphany is reached at different times by different people, or not at all, but it would seem that for those who succeed in developing this enhanced sense of self are motivated by many of the same factors as they relate to their origins that have been lost and are only recently being recognized. For instance, McDaniel reports that, "Like the duality created in the foremother in Praisesong for the Widow, who witnessed the reembarkation of the Igbos, the concept of nation persists in some persons, for their bodies might be in Carriacou, but their minds were 'long gone with the Ibos'" (50).
In the first critical response to the ritualistic processes contained in Praisesong for the Widow, the point was made that Marshall makes it clear "how a visceral understanding of their history and rituals can help black people transcend their displacement" (Rogers 77). Learning about people's heritage and culture is certainly a good way to facilitate the self-identity reevaluation process, and it is this focus that likewise forms the basis of Johnson's journal to self-discovery and a sense of national identity. For instance, Rogers adds that, "Their concern with a return to wholeness and a sense of integrated identity is related in terms of a search for unity" (77). Although the journal is lifelong and complete only when a sense of national identity has been forged and sustained, an important point made by Rogers concerns the fluidity of the process and how iterative analyses can further redefine self-identity. For instance, Rogers writes that, "The text conveys the message that there can never be a return to wholeness that erases knowledge of the divisions encountered along the way" (77). Indeed, Rogers suggests that the reevaluation process is never truly complete, even once a sense of national identity has been recovered that can provide the basis for a renewed sense of self-identity. In this regard, Rogers concludes that, "The incongruities in the novel, whether presenting diaspora identity in terms of a mind-body dichotomy or in terms of a state of embodied knowledge, signify that, for a descendent of the African diaspora, reconciliation with a culturally specific self will forever contain its own contradictions" (77). While the journal described by Johnson concerns diasporic people, other marginalized people have also struggled to regain a sense of identity in a changing world as evinced by Confessions of a Mask by Mishima which is discussed further below.
Confessions of a Mask by Mishima
While the Widow Johnson sought to reunite her lost identity and share her experiences with others, Yukio Mishima's first novel Kamen no Kokuhaku ("Confessions of a Mask") describes what it is like for people in general and men in particular to essentially live a lie in order to conform to mainstream strictures concerning sexual identity. This search for a true identity within while comporting in different ways behaviorally and physically without makes Mishima's empirical observations timeless and relevant for anyone who is struggling with gender identity in a…