by Dorothy West
In February 1995 Dorothy West, the last surviving member of the Harlem Renaissance, published The Wedding, her first novel in 47 years. Hailed as a triumph by critics and readers alike, the book spent most of 1995 at the top of the Blackboard: African American Bestsellers and Quarterly Black Review of Books bestsellers lists, and was optioned by Oprah Winfrey's Harpo Films.
Set on a bucolic Martha's Vineyard in the 1950s, The Wedding tells the story of life in the Oval, a proud, insular community made up of the best and brightest of the East Coast's black bourgeoisie. Within this inner circle of "blue-vein society," we witness the prominent Coles family gather for the wedding of their loveliest daughter, Shelby, who could have chosen from "a whole area of eligible men of the right colors and the right professions." Instead, she has fallen in love with and is about to be married to Mead Wyler, a white jazz musician from New York.
A shock wave breaks over the Oval as its longtime members grapple with the changing face of its community.
Through a delicate interweaving of past and present, North and South, black and white, The Wedding unfolds outward from a single isolated time and place until it embraces five generations of an extraordinary American family. It is an audacious accomplishment, a monumental history of the rise of a black middle class, written by a woman who has lived it. Wise, heartfelt, and shattering, it is Dorothy West's crowning achievement.
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1. The novel's narrative and dialogue move the story along with a
wealth of descriptive details setting the atmosphere for memorable scenes.
Which details do you recall, and how do they serve their scenes?
2. The Wedding serves as a backdrop for the looming
issues of race, interracial relationships, complexion, class, and an inherent
sense of power and powerlessness. Discuss these issues within the context
of the novel. What points does the author make?
3. The children--Barby, Tina, and Muffin--voice their young views
on motherhood. What effects might their early experiences have on them
as young women and adults? How do their small voices add a lyrical thread
to the setting of the Oval?
4. Gram (Miss Caroline) mentally lives in a place long gone, unreconciled
to her present. What significance does "Xanadu" (from Coleridge's "Kubla
Khan"), hold in literature and how does West use the notion of Xanadu
in its relation to Gram? to Hannibal? to Josephine? Does Xanadu serve
as a metaphor for a larger context in The Wedding?
5. While the author sketches the beauty of the South, she is at
her best weaving the smells, tastes, and sounds of Martha's Vineyard.
Discuss the use of nature in the art of telling the story.
6. Who is Lute? As a father? As a husband? As a womanizer? What
does he want? What does he represent--literally and figuratively? How
does he embody Shelby's worst fears?
7. There are historical references to some of the characters' names
in the novel--Hannibal, Isaac, etc. What messages are conveyed by using
this literary device in the setup of these characters? What are some other
examples in the novel? Think about Sabina.
8. Shelby as a young child gets lost on the Vineyard. Through this
experience she learns she is "colored." Just before her wedding, she is
confronted with the issue of "passing" and her lack of attention to colored
men. How does she react to these insinuations? At what point does she
become clear about her intentions to Meade, and why?
9. Labels (not names) such as Ebony Woman, Butternut Woman, Mr.
White Trash, The Polack, and Mr. President, are devices used to tell a
story with economy. What images do these labels evoke? How do these characters
help move the story?
10. Salvation and redemption are themes that are crystallized in
the relationship between Clark and the schoolteacher. Trace the lines
of development. What other examples of illustrated themes can you point
to in the novel?
11. A wedding does not actually occur in the novel for Meade and
Shelby, but other marriages do. What is the basis for the selection of
a spouse? What are the expectations? What are the factors and expectations
related to your selection of a spouse?
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