Role Of Men And Women In The Piano Lesson English Literature Essay

Published: Last Edited:

This essay has been submitted by a student. This is not an example of the work written by our professional essay writers.

There is a huge difference between the role of men and women in the play by August Wilson, The Piano Lesson. There is a clear conflict between the two major characters, the siblings, Boy Willie and Berniece, who struggle over a piano that is their family heritage. Their diverse reaction toward the piano demonstrates the dissimilar role of men and women in resisting the history of their family and, on a broader aspect, their nation.

The play's epigraph clarifies Boy Willie's dream and plan for the future: "Gin my cotton / Sell my seed / Buy my baby / Everything she need." The lyric emphasizes the importance of ploughing and working on your own land. Owning Sutter's land will assure him about his future economic and social status. Although he may get no money from the piano, and despite the uncertainty of the land still being for sale, Boy Willie is still hopeful and energetic enough to fulfill his dream.

Totally different from her brother, Berniece is afraid of her heritage and her own color and transfers this fear to her daughter, Maretha, encouraging her to adapt to white habits and customs, teaching her to be quiet and modest, and greasing down her hair. While she conveys no clue of her true heritage to the girl, refusing to pass on the family history or any trait she associates with black life, Boy Willie sees this as stripping Maretha of a valid identity. He believes Maretha needs a sense of her family in order to build self-pride and become a viable and valuable member of the black community. [1] 

The repetition of names in the Charles family indicates a strong connection to past generations, but it is a connection Berniece ignoresâ€"her move north seems part of this effort. She does not want her quiet but essentially empty life messed up by her brother's noise and energy. She resists the life he brings, making him inhospitably unwelcome and trying to devalue and denigrate everything he does. Accusing him of crimes, from stealing their truck

to killing Sutter, she is determined his presence can only bring trouble. She prefers to shut out life, mourning her husband, three years dead. Yet there is a flicker of life inside, waiting to be reawakened, which we see when she allows Lymon to kiss her, and kisses him back. She also takes up a gun to prevent Boy Willie from taking the piano. Having regained sufficient spirit to stand up to her brother, she is only a short step from finding the courage to face not only whites but her own heritage.

The major difference between the roles of male and female is shown in the conflict between Boy Willie and Berniece over the piano, which represents an argument over whether to honor their slave ancestors or put the family's past enslavement behind them. Both preserving their heritage and using it to build a better future are feasible options. Boy Willie's wish to sell the piano is his way of respecting his ancestors and building on their heritage. For him, selling the piano does not mean forgetting the past or disrespecting his ancestors, but a guarantee for the future.

Berniece, on the other hand, wants to keep the piano but refuses to pass on its full legacy to her daughter or accept it into her own life, which does no honor to her family ancestors. Berniece has become fearful of her family legacy, seeing the sadness it has brought to the womenfolk, and is teaching her daughter, Maretha, white-community values rather than those values by which her own family has lived and died.

The siblings' reaction toward the piano is totally different. While Berneice does his best to keep the piano as a family heir, Boy Willie tries hard to persuade his sister to sell the piano and buy the land instead. Unlike Berneice, he finds no use in keeping the piano and he wants to sell all his family's past to buy a promising future for him own self. The fact that unlike Berneice, he does not care about the piano is vivid in his threatening statement: "if Berneice don't want to sell the piano…I'm gonna cut it in half and go on and sell my half." This statement evokes the biblical story of King Solomon and the two mothers. There were two mothers who claimed over the same baby, so Solomon proposed to cut the baby in two halves. One woman protested and said that she prefers to lose her child instead of killing him. Solomon found her the true mother. According to this story, it is perceived that Boy Willie is not the true owner of the piano, because he wants to cut it in half. But the hidden part of the Solomon story is that how well the true mother would care for the child if he is so easily claimed by another woman. Berniece is accused to the same suspicion because of neglecting the piano's legacy and not playing it.

Berniece has played the piano for her mother because through its tones Ola could hear her late husband. Since her mother died, being scared by the piano's spirits rather than comforted, Berniece has silenced them by refusing to play. But these are her family spirits she rejects. Maretha's occasional playing is unable to release them because she has been kept ignorant of their presence and relevance to her life. Berniece feels that she is keeping Maretha free of a burden by not telling her about the piano, but it is a necessary burden. The piano's history is a responsibility that should be borne, or the family will lose an important part of its identity and strength. The piano symbolizes the Charleses' history of slavery and freedom, and this is something they need to own. Owning the piano strengthens the family; allowing someone else to own it will weaken them all.

Berniece's feelings and intentions are not as same as the other members of his family especially the men. They are violent, she wants peace. They are seeking murder and fight but she is against all of these because she finds no advantage out of them. As she says:"all this thieving and killing and thieving and killing. And what it ever lead to? More killing and more thieving." She is frustrated because of the violence and crime that exist in the men of her family, and more broadly in the African American society. However she clearly knows that she is dependent to her family and she has to support them in order to survive in this cruel and racist society. According to Berniece's statement it is implied that the role of woman in this community is to support the men and gather the members of the families after they are driven to desperation and violence because of the forces and cruelty of the white society who are dominant over them.

The sibling's attitude toward their color is somehow different; while Berniece is ashamed of her color, their family resident and anything related to her past and her nationality, Boy Willie is proud of them and tries to make advantage out of the things he owns as an African American man. Boy Willie does not need the piano to connect him as he is quite literally a re-embodiment of his father, as Berniece herself recognizes. Also, Boy Willie has neither left the South nor tried to hide from the past. Boy Willie takes this claim one step further by trying to claim the original family property from Sutter's heirs. But Boy Willie must learn that it is not always wise or necessary to sell off any part of your heritage, and better to progress by other means. Fortunately, Wilson presents him with the strength and the willpower to do so. Rather than view his color as limiting, Boy Willie sees it as liberating. He uses his family history as a source of strength and pride, unlike Berniece, who can see that same past only as a source of shame and anguish.

However, despite his strength, Boy Willie cannot win the battle against the ghost aloneâ€"he needs the help of his sister and the support of his family. A lesson the piano teaches them is that they must be united before they can turn their former bondage into a full sense of freedom. Who gets the piano is less important than the family's need to exorcise Sutter's ghost, which represents white dominance. The piano leads brother and sister to team together against their real enemy, Sutter, rather than fight each other. Berniece creates a song that draws on her past and her heritage to chase off the ghost. She sings:"I want you to help me/ I want you to help me/ Mama Berniece/ I want you to help me/ Mama esther/ I want you to help me/ Papa Boy Charles/ I want you to help me/ Mama Ola/ I want you to help me". Her playing releases the piano's spirits, as it acknowledges and embraces their presence. Since Berniece has rediscovered how to use the piano, Boy Willie is content to leave it with her as he heads back south. The play closes triumphantly with Berniece singing "Thank you" in celebration of her reconnection to her past and her family, and through these, a stronger and more fulfilling life. [2] 

Finally it is Berniece who finds out that in order to protect the Charles family, they must unite and leave their prejudices to overcome Sutter’s ghost which is the representative of the dominance of white race. Berniece realizes that the key to their triumph is bonding together. She, as the only mature woman in the family, brings together all the family members and she even summons the souls of the dead to fight against the white race. So Berniece as a woman plays the most important role in her family reconciliation and their success against the white race.