To Da-duh, in Memoriam

Paule Marshall

As the suffix to the title indicates, Marshall’s story is a memorial to a remarkable woman and the narrative maintains a balance throughout between the narrator and her grandmother, known as Da-duh.

The Paradox of Da-duh

The opening sentence suggests the grandmother is insignificant: ‘I did not see her at first I remember.’ Yet the final paragraph begins with ‘She died and I lived, to this day even, within the shadow of her death.’ The central part of the narrative presents the only meeting between the two, a few days in which the American narrator visits Barbados where her mother was born and her grandmother still lives. That one meeting is full and tension and challenge, but also in many ways a meeting of minds, one a nine-year-old and the other ‘indescribably old’.

Although her face is ‘drowned in the shadow’ of her hat at the beginning and she is ‘indescribabl[e]’ at the end, Da-duh is portrayed by Marshall in great detail. Some of the detail, seen through a child’s eyes, is shocking. Her face is ‘fleshless as a death mask’, but even worse, one where the ‘maggots might have already done their work’. Her skin is ‘ruined’ and her breasts have ‘collapsed’. The language and imagery are deeply macabre, almost the stuff of horror movies. Such a figure should be frightening, yet the description is also balanced with a very different aspect. Her eyes ‘betrayed a child’s curiosity about the world’. The paradoxical matching of opposites runs throughout this section: Da-duh is associated both with ‘sunlight’ and ‘darkness’ and Marshall explicitly states that ‘she appeared to contain them both.’ The description also pairs ‘the sense of a past’ with ‘the bustling present’. In this way, Da-duh seems in some ways beyond time, a wise, ageless figure even though she stoops ‘under the weight of her eighty-odd years’.

The Challenge

The spark of challenge between the narrator and Da-duh is immediately apparent in their first meeting, but it is Da-duh who identifies it. Having ‘tilted my sister’s face toward the light’, it is highly significant that ‘she did not touch me’. Just as the narrator has been puzzled by Da-duh’s appearance, the narrative makes it clear that Da-duh is struck by the narrator’s. She ‘peered’, suggesting intense scrutiny, and ‘quickly drew back’, intimating pain or shock. Da-duh even seems to ‘shield her eyes’ and the words ‘disturbing’ and ‘threatening’ are used. Without dialogue, there is a sense of battle, a combat of wills between the nine-year-old and the eighty-year-old. The phrase ‘our gaze locked’ sounds like two contestants before a boxing match. Crucially, it is the child who wins the contest; Da-duh is ‘apprehensive’ before the narrator’s ‘fierce look’ and is ‘the first to look away.’ The narrator recognises her victory and ‘smiled to [her]self.’ In this challenge there is also a bond, a kindred spirit in the two characters, which seems to be recognised when Da-duh addresses the narrator as ‘soul’ and takes ‘her hand’. The encounter and the narrator’s victory also foreshadow the narrative’s later challenge and the narrator’s bitter-sweet triumph.

Barbados v America

The visiting American family are unused to the ‘clogged streets’ of Bridgetown, with their ‘cars and open-sided buses, bicycles and donkey carts.’ The Barbadians are also impressed by the visitors’ ‘nice things they wearing, wrist watch and all!’ The tension between modern America and traditional Caribbean is focused in further exchanges between the narrator and Da-duh as the old woman is determined to prove the value of her own environment. She is confident that her list of fruit – ‘breadfruit… pawpaw… guava… mango’ – cannot be matched by New York. The sugar canes are her biggest joy and the narrator is conscious of ‘the weight of her pride.’ The gully on the other side of the field is forbidding territory, alien to the narrator – ‘a place dense and damp and gloomy and tremulous’, the adjectives emphasised by the syndetic list. Marshall’s vocabulary is redolent of conflict: it is ‘a violent place’, the foliage is ‘fighting’, the branches are ‘locked in what seemed an immemorial struggle.’ However, the gully too is paradoxical, the narrator ultimately finding it ‘pleasant, almost peaceful’ and the ‘earth smelled like spring’. It is a story where contraries are frequently resolved into balances.

As a response to the Barbadian challenge, the narrator cites New York snowfalls, which would bury Da-duh’s canes ‘under tons of snow’. Her next riposte is a selection of popular dances and songs, each of which is unrecognisable to her grandmother. The narrative gives a sequence of challenges on either side, comparing ‘those foolish people in New York’ with their ‘towering world of steel and concrete and machines’. A key stage of this is the narrator’s long asyndetic list of twelve modern technologies, all unavailable in Barbados. The narrator’s contributions to the argument are more fully articulated in the narrative and the very weight of her lists tips the challenge in her favour; she also recognises ‘the signs of’ Da-duh’s ‘surrender’. There is a growing sense that Da-duh’s world has already been defeated; the world of rural tradition has been left behind.

The Empire State Building

The climax of these to-and-fro challenges is the narrator’s claim that the Empire State Building is taller than Bissex hill. Da-duh’s incomprehension of a building of such size, her sense of the loss of her bearings, is apparent in her loss of control. She accuses the narrator of ‘lying’, Marshall describes her as ‘trembling with rage’ and ready ‘to strike’ her. The suggestions of such language are that she finally acknowledges defeat. In the context of the story, it is not just her personal defeat, but the loss of her world of tradition. Marshall emphasises this with Da-duh’s walk away, ‘walking slowly, her steps groping and uncertain, as if she were suddenly no longer sure of her way.’ She is walking her own paths, so the sentence is clearly metaphoric and shows how lost she now is in the modern world. The idea is confirmed with the narrator’s interpreting Da-duh’s lack of focus as seeing a ‘huge, monolithic shape… between her and the land, obstructing her vision.’ Again there is a metaphoric reading, as the sentence not only indicates that her literal vision is obscured by her imagination’s Empire State Building, but her understanding and view of the future.

Tainted Victory

The end of the story shows that the modern world’s supremacy is not just a matter of natural evolution. Striking and symbolic is the image of English aircraft responding to the national strike by swooping over the island, ‘flattening the young canes’ and shaking ‘the ripened mangoes from the trees in Da-duh’s orchard’. The threat to her way of life also comes from direct colonial force.

After Da-duh’s death, Marshall suggests that the narrator, though distant from Barbados in modern New York, suffers the same challenges. She paints ‘seas of sugar cane’ and ‘brightly plumed Tutsi warriors’ in ‘a tropical landscape’, but these are mocked by ‘the thunderous tread of the machines downstairs’. The closing image is a direct parallel with the planes over Da-duh’s orchard and the Empire State Building towering over Bissex.

Narrative methods to consider:
  • First person narration
  • Structure
  • Characterisation
  • Metaphor and symbols