Summary and Analysis
Bethrah's appearance in response to the advertisement for a maid causes a small stir in the Willson household. Dymphna is stunned, as is her mother, but Missus Caliban is pleased when Bethrah presents herself for the job. Each character's reaction is based on a convention enforced by the black-white relationship within the novel. Dymphna is "stunned" because Bethrah does not fit the stereotyped image of a black woman. Dymphna cannot believe that there are black women who do not have thick accents and who are not "very dark." This has always been Dymphna's idea of black maids, and she never imagined that black women could have features much like her own. She is puzzled because Bethrah doesn't look "colored." In short, Bethrah is well-dressed, self-assured, slim, and has dark red hair.
Camille Willson is startled for many of the same reasons that puzzle Dymphna. Her reaction, the immediate desire to hire Bethrah, is motivated by the fact that she will be able to show off her "odd nigger." It is an added plus to discover that Bethrah was a college student and hopes to earn enough to return to school and finish her degree. This allows Camille to feel good about helping a "colored girl" through school—a situation that Kelley uses to criticize what he would term the paternalism of white liberalism. As for Missus Caliban, she is pleased because she sees respectability in Bethrah's actions. As Dymphna reports it, "Missus Caliban was really glowing and proud to see a colored girl going to college and willing to work as a maid." Although very little more is said about Missus Caliban, this one short sentence shows that she has assimilated the white indoctrination which the novel’s blacks have long been subject to.
In Bethrah, Dymphna gets to know her first black person even though she has had blacks taking care of her all of her life. And in knowing Bethrah, Dymphna begins to understand that their relationship is, despite their friendship, awkward; she tries to resolve this by instructing Bethrah to address her by her first name only. Dymphna has been raised in what is thought of as a progressive white household, but she still harbors certain racist attitudes and stereotypes prevalent in the white mind. Her attitudes manifest themselves more subtly than those of the common folk, but they nevertheless remain. At one point, Dymphna comments that she found it strange to ask Bethrah's opinion in matters about her personal life-after all, Bethrah was black. It didn't matter that the two girls were supposed to be friends and that Bethrah was older and better educated. What did matter was that Dymphna was white and was consulting a black person for advice. The novel’s implication here is that blacks are not intelligent enough to discuss white matters. Further, this points up the difficulty in developing real friendships between blacks and whites within the novel.
The friendship that develops between Bethrah and Dymphna is characterized by an exchange of influence on each other's life. Dymphna goes to Bethrah for advice, and Bethrah enlists Dymphna's help in getting Tucker to notice her. Even though their friendship has clear-cut limitations, the two girls become emotionally bound together. In fact, their relationship is somewhat like that between David Willson and Bennett Bradshaw some twenty years earlier. Dymphna points out that she can be friends with Bethrah because there is no danger of social complications. David and Bennett were unable to become close friends, in a social sense, while they attended Harvard. Obviously the time is not yet right for interracial mingling, a sentiment expressed by Bennett when David suggested that they double-date with their girlfriends. It is worth noting here that the fifteen-year-old Dymphna is more aware of and more sensitive to blacks than is Dewey, who is three years older. This suggests that the younger the person is, the better suited that person will be to live in the new society that Mister Leland represents. Conversely, the older one becomes, the more bigoted he remains.
It is ironic that Bethrah eventually marries Tucker since she was hired because no one dared ask Tucker to do housework. When Missus Caliban needed help with the housework, the only solution was to hire another maid. Tucker would only do things that were considered man's work — that is, lifting heavy objects, taking out the garbage, and so forth. It wasn't that the Willsons felt that black men should not do housecleaning, but they knew better than to ask Tucker. Evidently men servants have helped with the housework before, for Dymphna points out that John is no longer any help to Missus Caliban now that he is so old.
Bethrah, a confident, determined, educated, and proud black woman who can "cope with anything," according to Dymphna, falls in love with Tucker. She does not share Dymphna's concern that Tucker is short and not well educated; she recognizes that there is something unique and powerful about him. In a sense, their marriage is symbolic. To it, Tucker brings innate intelligence, rugged individualism, a determination to act on his beliefs, and the desire to free himself. Bethrah fills in the areas in which Tucker is lacking. She brings physical stature and formal education. Together they have all of the attributes which the white society claims are necessary for the blacks to become free citizens.
After a year of marriage, a baby, and several unexplained incidents, Bethrah admits to not understanding Tucker. She can't understand him because he does confusing things and never talks them over with her. He doesn't merely think about things; he does them. Tucker is his own man. He consults no one — not even God — about what he must do. During the party scene, Bethrah realizes that Tucker doesn't believe in something she feels very strongly about — that is, the civil rights movement. Tucker, instead, believes that each individual must free himself and that no one else can do that for him. This is the essence of Tucker's character. He believes that one must fight his own battles and either "beat them or they beat you." It is this belief that motivates him to buy the farm when he has no intention of becoming a farmer. This is one of the first steps he takes to free himself. He realizes that no one else can free him and that he must do it himself. This knowledge motivates him to take the steps necessary to liberate himself from the shackles that have bound him to the Willsons, the land, and the South.
Bethrah fails to understand Tucker because she has not yet realized that it is better to act than to think and never act. She has not yet realized that to be free means making an individual effort. Once she takes time to think about the things that Tucker does, she begins to see that his grasp of life is superior to that of the so-called educated elite.
The final conversation between Bethrah and Dymphna returns to the idea of people losing important parts of themselves. Earlier in the novel, Tucker told Mister Leland that he had lost something. That loss was his manhood, his pride, and his dignity because of his long background as a servant. At another point, Dymphna mentioned that her parents had lost something. She was referring to the happiness and peace of mind that could have been theirs had they been more compatible. Bethrah too is cognizant of the possibility that she has lost something. She has lost a confidence in her own abilities. She points out that Dewey and David have suffered this loss also, but Tucker, in contrast, has retained his self-confidence.