In Jessie Redmon Fauset’s second published novel, Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (published 1928), one woman struggles to finding her own identity racially and sexually in New York City during the vibrant years of the Harlem Renaissance.
Artist Angela Murray is a light-skinned “coloured” woman in the transitional years of the late 1910s and 1920s. When she gets an opportunity, she leaves her home town in Philadelphia for a life of “passing” as a white person in New York City. The novel follows her subsequent life and choices, creating a complex portrait of her life in an era of conflicting identities. She struggles with her role as a woman, with her choices as a sexually free individual, and also with her challenges to come to terms with her race in a time of both intense racial discrimination and racial contentment in Harlem.
In many ways, Plum Bun reminded me of Nella Larsen’s contemporary novella, Passing (published 1929; thoughts here), in which Irene, another light-skinned woman who occasionally “passed” for white, struggled with her repressed sexuality and her racial identity when she met one of her long-past friends, Clare, who had married a racist white man and always “passed.”
Plum Bun deals with similar issues, but the narrative focuses rather intensely on Angela herself, who is much younger than Nella Larsen’s middle-aged women. Angela’s story is a coming-of-age story, and in many ways I found it more satisfying as a whole because of the intense emotional components developed in the novel as Angela and her sister and their friends aged and experienced the consequences of their choices. Plum Bun is a wonderfully written and developed story that sits solidly in the historical context of the Harlem Renaissance but remains highly relevant to readers today.
From this point, this post may contain thematic “spoilers” of Plum Bun.
The title is based on a nursery rhyme:
To Market, to Market
To buy a Plum Bun;
Home again, Home again,
Market is done.
The five sections of the novel directly relate to this rhyme (“Home,” “Market,” “Plum Bun,” “Home Again,” and “Market is Done”) and such was the nature of Angela’s progression as a developing character and individual. The analogies are unlimited: Is Angela herself the sexually alluring “plum bun,” or is her happiness dependent on finding symbolic satisfaction in life (the “plum bun” of life)?
In some senses, “market” was only open when Angela was willing to sacrifice her past and her racial heritage and pride (and subsequently her relationship with her sister and other “coloured” persons) by dabbling in “passing” on a constant basis in New York City. Once she found satisfaction in herself as a “coloured” woman (her “home”), she no longer needed to consider being a part of the market.
This analogy objectifies Angela: and such was her experience in sacrificing her racial and sexual pride. With Roger, it ultimately became clear to her that she was a lesser object, not because she was “coloured” (which he did not know), but foremost because she was a woman.
“I can’t have women calling me up all hours of the day, making me ridiculous ….”
Surprised, bewildered, [Angela] could only stammer: “But you call me whenever you feel like it.”
“Of course I do, that’s different. I’m a man.” (“Plum Bun” chapter 4, page 583)
Shortly thereafter, Roger pointed out that Angela had lost her pride in herself from the beginning because of their casual sexual relationship.
“You knew perfectly well what you were letting yourself in for. Any woman would know it.” (page 585)
This passage appears at the approximate middle of the novel, and it provided a turning point for Angela. Although Roger’s attitudes here were steeped in sexual chauvinism and not racial discrimination (which intolerance is of course also a part of his personality elsewhere in the novel), Angela began to see the ways in which her sacrifice of her racial past (as well as her sacrifice of her sexual morals and her womanly pride) has compromised her character.
I loved the last half of the novel for the understandings she gained as she chose to embrace her heritage. Throughout the novel, her mother’s comment that “life is more important than colour” had been a confusing guide for her. By the end, it makes sense to Angela.
In Nella Larsen’s novel, the three main women had chosen three different ways to approach the racial question as they “passed,” but their morals had been decided decades earlier; in Fauset’s novel, one woman had to come to terms with which identity she wanted to embrace. Fauset subtitled Plum Bun “A novel without a moral.” I think Fauset meant that once on her own in New York, Angela approached life without her background of morals. As in a typical bildungroman, Angela had to learn for herself which morals and identities were most important to her personally.
In Plum Bun, I was pleased to see Angela’s ultimate satisfaction by the end (I’m a sucker for a happy ending). As she struggled to find her place and identity, however, her story was a poignant and engaging one, even for a reader almost a century after Ms Fauset penned her novel.
Page numbers come from Library of America edition of Harlem Renaissance: Five Novels of the Harlem Renaissance. Plum Bun is the fourth novel in the collection.