Trapped Behind a Mask

In Gloria Naylor’s novel, The Women of Brewster Place, Etta Mae Johnson is a woman who has always seen herself as trapped in a lower status. She is described as “a black woman who was not only unwilling to play by the rules, but whose spirit challenged the very right of the game to exist” (Naylor 59). Etta is clearly portrayed as a strong and independent woman, however, she does not adapt to her surroundings sufficiently to grow as a person. Psychologist Kenneth Gergen states that is it dangerous when one’s identity becomes too stable. When one’s reactions are always the same, one will never change as an individual (Gergen 54). In Naylor’s novel, this becomes evident when Etta goes to church with Mattie to look for “settle-minded men” (Naylor 61). Etta has been trying to “catch” a man who can keep her in luxury, but the promiscuous role she has played for most of her life makes her unattractive to the type of man seeking a committed relationship. It is not until after her one night stand with Reverend Woods that she realizes she is trapped in the role she plays and she sees any alternatives.

Etta is desperate to settle down with a prosperous and respected man because she has become middle aged and feels she is running out of time to be able to attract such a man. The type of man Etta usually spends time with is either into illegal behavior, married, or just looking to fool around. In Etta’s most recent relationship, the man she was seeing was married and obviously no good. She had also been involved with white men who just wanted her for sex. Johnny Brick was one such man, a “horny white bastard” whose family burned down her father’s barn when she fled the county (Naylor 60). All this time Etta had been looking for a way to become affluent, and it obviously was not working. Etta is so desperate that she fools herself into believing that Reverend Woods is the man that she is looking for, even though deep down she sees the type of man he really is. She had seen “talent like that in poolrooms, nightclubs, grimy second-floor insurance offices, numbers dens, and on a dozen street corners” (Naylor 66). Etta feels that the Reverend is different from the other men she has been with because he is the most respectable seeming man that she has ever tried to attract. He is not married, has a job that society treasures for its morality, and looks incredibly prosperous. She wants to change her role by attracting a this type of man, but she is unsuccessful. Not only did she react the same way to Reverend Woods, but he is also attracted to her because he is the same type of man that she has been enticing for so long.

When Etta Johnson went to church with her best friend Mattie, she was determined to change the mask she was wearing into one that would be pleasing to a respectable man. Despite her efforts, she failed. Perhaps she thought she was changing her actions, but if she was then it was not enough to make a difference. She still dressed like she was going to a nightclub, in a skimpy red dress, glittering beads, and too much mascara. Etta could have thought she was presenting herself as marriage material, but to a churchgoing man she must have looked like a loose woman. Mattie asked Etta if she “planned on dazzling the Lord” (Naylor 62). Etta saw nothing wrong with her dress, and because of that she ended up attracting Reverend Woods instead of a man who wanted a relationship.

When Etta met Reverend Moreland Woods, she immediately saw how he could “move her. . . off of Brewster place for good. She would find not only luxury but a place that complemented the type of woman she had fought all these years to become” (Naylor 66). She did not even consider that he could be a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or that he could only be attracted to her because she looked like the type of woman out for a good time. The only thing Etta saw was her ticket out of Brewster Place and into comfort and admiration.

The illusion that Etta will eventually marry Woods goes on for a very long time, up until the two of them are in the dingy motel room Etta is so familiar with. It is not until then that she stops trying to deceive herself, and she understands that this is just another one night stand. When this happens, Etta’s world crashes down around her. According to Maxine Montgomery, author of “The Fathomless Dream: Gloria Naylor’s Use of the Descent Motif in The Women of Brewster Place,” the characters in Naylor’s novel must leave behind “money, property, and title” to attain a wholeness as people that is impossible in “mainstream society” (2). It is necessary for Etta to descend in this manner so that she can begin the path to self-knowledge and happiness.

After Woods drops her off Etta realizes how futile her entire life has been. All at once she knows what others think about how she dresses and acts and she comprehends how unsuitable it is. She knows that she will get nowhere in life playing the role she has been trapped in for so long, and is afraid she cannot change. Brewster Place “crouched there. . . like a pulsating mouth awaiting her arrival” (Naylor 73). Etta perceived Brewster Place as predatory, lying in wait for her so it could swallow her up and never let her go. All the time she spent trying to marry a well-to-do man and escape Brewster Place was in vain, and Etta finally realizes that she is trapped. Etta thought, to herself, “If I walk into this street, … I’ll never come back. I’ll never get out” (Naylor 73).

Etta does not know that even though she has lost all hope, she is on her way to happiness. She enters Brewster Place “with a broken spirit,” resigned to the fact that she will live out the rest of her days alone (Naylor 74). When Etta reaches Mattie’s stoop, she realizes that there is an alternative to chasing after men, and to dying alone and miserable. Mattie is waiting up for her and listening to Etta’s records, even though Mattie considers them “loose-life music” (Naylor 74). Her lifelong friend, who has been there through “all the important events in their lives and almost all of the unimportant ones,” is waiting for her to come home (Naylor 58). It is only in Mattie’s presence where she feels she can come out from behind her mask. It is then that Etta understands that all she really needs is a good friend, and she has been right under her nose the entire time.

Etta changes from a proud and independent lady to a broken-spirited woman to an individual with self-knowledge in a short period of time. The descent to a broken spirit was painful, but in the end it made Etta a better and wiser person. She broke out of the role she was trapped in by Reverend Woods, and it was her friend Mattie who unwittingly saved her from going back. After her tryst with Woods, Etta can grow as an individual and try on new masks, and, according to Gergen, that will make her a happier and healthier person.

Works Cited

Gergen, Kenneth J. “The Healthy, Happy Human Being Wears Many Masks.” Psychology Today May 1972: 31-55).

Montgomery, Maxine L. “The Fathomless Dream: Gloria Naylor’s Use of the Descent Motif in The Women of Brewster Place.” CLA Journal 36.1 (1992): 1-10.

Naylor, Gloria. The Women of Brewster Place. New York: Penguin, 1982.

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