Linden Hills by Gloria Naylor successfully creates a chilling argument against suppressive patriarchal societies and families. She vividly exposes the implications of what can happen to a society when cultural traits, morality and close family and neighborhood ties take a backseat to the attainment of material things and status become the driving force for people. “They eat, sleep, and breathe for one thing — making it” (Naylor 39). This quote is from Lester in a conversation with his friends, summing up the people of Linden Hills, of which he begrudgingly is one of.
Although he lives on the outermost circle of Linden Hills, he feels nothing but disgust and contempt for the neighborhood as a whole. This scene early in the book Linden Hills lays the groundwork for a journey through the neighborhood with Lester and his friend Willie that reveals the negative impact when a society focuses on things and status and loses touch with it’s sense of community and family. We will see how Willie, an “outsider” from Putney Wayne with no education and no money, is the one with the greatest amount of character and morality.
As Lester and Willie travel throughout Linden Hills in an effort to make a little money, they encounter residents who have compromised themselves in one way or another in order to belong to Linden Hills. The only way to make it into this coveted neighborhood is to be hand picked by Luther Nedeed. Naylor’s description of Nedeed with his “short squat body” and “protruding eyes” (3) conjures up an evil and almost satanic picture in the reader’s mind. The original Luther Nedeed passed down not only his name to all the subsequent generations of males, but also his disturbing physical characteristics.
The foundation of Linden Hills itself was formed by the original Nedeed who “sold his octoroon wife and 6 children” (Naylor 2) for the money to buy the land. Over the years the subsequent Nedeeds built on this foundation by carefully choosing the residents. The Nedeeds chose only those who were hungry for materialism and status and would not offer any opposition. Ironically, in Linden Hills, moving up meant moving down. Status increased as you moved down the hill, with the most coveted residences being on Tupelo Drive, closest to Luther Nedeed.
Lester and Willie begin their trip into Linden Hills at Lester’s house where the reader meets Lester’s mother, Mrs. Tilson and his sister Roxanne. Both of the ladies of the house give the impression that they are not content being on the outermost circle of Linden Hills and would like to move down the hill. Mrs. Tilson has an over the top propriety to her behavior and states “I was never one for keeping up with the Jones’s but it’s pretty embarrassing to have the worst house on the block and to just settle for that” (Naylor 51).
Roxanne is determined to “marry well – or not at all” (Naylor 53) and to achieve this she “had paid her dues to the Civil Rights Movement by wearing an afro for six months and enrolling in black history courses in college” (Naylor 53). She has also used “a decades worth of bleaching creams and hair relaxers” (Naylor 53). Many of these behaviors deny their unique cultural characteristics, as though in order to make it in this coveted black community, it is necessary to deny what makes them unique and to appear less “black”.
Even Roxanne’s love interest Xavier, a successful black businessman, becomes frightened at the thought of falling in love with a black woman, calling it “one of the most terrifying experiences of his life” (Naylor 97). He even seeks the advice of a coworker on the matter. In his review of Linden Hills, “African American Whiteness in Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills“, Tim Engles describes Roxanne as “an avid social climber interested in marrying rich” who “actively whitens her natural appetites and those aspects of herself that are commonly associated with blackness”.
He also calls her attempts to embrace her race as “superficial and hypocritical”. On their first day of work in Linden Hills, Willie and Lester encounter the wedding of Winston Alcott. Winston is denying a fundamental part of who he is by marrying a woman. In spite of his hidden long term relationship with David, he is turning his back on it all because as Nedeed tells him, “it’s the only way if a man wants to get somewhere in Linden Hills” (Naylor 75). As the boys perform work for Mr.
Parker, who recently lost his wife, a scene plays out in his house as people come to pay their respects. This scene shows how far removed the residents are from their own culture. While discussing a possible housing project near Linden Hills, the unfavorable comments coming from everyone seem to represent a great deal of discrimination towards their own race. Referring to those that would potentially reside in these houses as “people like that” and “remedial cases and trouble makers” (Naylor 133).
Where there should be some sense of community and wanting to help those in their own culture achieve better for themselves, these residents are so far removed from any type of community or culture they instead refer to their own race as “dirty niggers” and vow to keep them out of “their community” (Naylor 135). Nedeed even encourages the residents to align with the Wayne County Citizens Alliance which is full of “some of the most despicable racists on this side of the continent”(Naylor 137). The entire motivation for aligning with them is purely financial.
The residents are willing to sell their souls to the devil so to speak in order to maintain their financial and material gains. The farther they travel down the hill, the greater the display of wealth as evidenced by the increased size of the houses. On Fifth Crescent Drive, they encounter Reverend Hollis. Willie is familiar with the reverend and thinks fondly of him, as he went to the Christmas parties at the reverend’s church as a child. As the reader learns though, Reverend Holllis has lost just about everything important to him.
He may live in a coveted area and preach at the nicest church, but inside he is an unfulfilled lonely alcoholic who has also lost his wife in the process. He doesn’t gain any fulfillment from preaching to his parish. The residents of Linden Hills sit stiff and unmoved in the pews with no sense of community and no spiritual souls. He still has a passion for ministry, however his congregation does not. He tries to inspire his congregation at the funeral service for Lycentia Parker, but the reader gets the sense of the groups discomfort.
They are not comfortable with him calling them out on their materialistic ways and pointing out that none of those things matter when you leave this world. The parish sits in the pews with their rose colored glasses on, unwilling to see things as they really are. Laurel Dumont is introduced to the reader, first as a young child who spends many happy summers with her grandmother in the south. It is during these summers that Laurel finds her love for swimming and diving.
As an adult, Laurel becomes a very successful business woman at IBM, marries well, and winds up living on Tupelo Drive, the most coveted address in Linden Hills. In the process though, she lost herself. The reader sees everything unravel as she realizes she no longer knows her own identity, even making a trip back home to her grandmother’s in the south trying to find herself. She has the money and the address and the high paying job, but no idea who she is or where she fits in. As a result her marriage fails and she ends up committing suicide.
Ironically, she uses her once loved talent of diving to kill herself. Tim Engles in his piece on Linden Hills, points out that “Naylor suggests that the residents of the lower reaches of Linden Hills have repressed so much of themselves and of their former, sustaining communal connections, that they are beyond recovery”. The final and greatest example of Linden Hills as a neighborhood that has put it’s value in the materialistic instead of the spiritualistic takes place at the very bottom of Linden Hills. I believe Linden Hills was created upside down for a reason.
Luther Nedeed lives at the very bottom and can see everything. His position is the most coveted, valued and feared. His being at the bottom is representative of the devil and hell. Through all generations of Nedeeds and their controlling, manipulating, monetary ways, they have created a toxic environment that in the end, leads to it’s demise. Nedeed’s own neighborhood stands by and watches out their windows as his house burns with him inside. The one person who tries to do something to help is Willie, the “outsider” from Putney-Wayne.
He doesn’t have money or a nice house, but he has more compassion and morality than anyone who lives on the hills. They stand at their windows and watch it burn, all compassion and sense of duty to a fellow neighbor non-existent. Whatever doubt Willie had prior to that moment, we see him come to realize what is real and important in life. The reader sees that Willie has figured out how terribly wrong things are in Linden Hills. “There is a man in a house at the bottom of a hill. And his wife has no name”(Naylor 277).
This line from one of Willie’s poems about Nedeed’s wife is representative of generations of Mrs. Nedeeds. The sole purpose of a Nedeed wife was to produce a son and by doing so, perpetuating generations of patriarchal rule by the Nedeed men. The original Luther Nedeed sold his wife and children in order to buy the land for Linden Hills. He eventually brought back a young wife, whose name is not even mentioned, who gave him a son to carry on his father’s work in the morgue and the building up of the land. The story is built around the great great grandson of the original Luther and his wife Willa.
It is through Willa’s imprisonment in the basement/morgue of their home that we eventually are introduced to the previous wives and learn how suffocating the patriarchal rule has been for these women. The reader can see early on in the story Luther’s lack of respect for not only his wife, but women in general. He cannot even recall his own mother’s name “because everyone-including his father- had called her nothing but Mrs. Nedeed”(Naylor18). When his wife bears him a son he feels cannot possibly be his due to the pale coloring of his skin, he locks both the child and his wife in the basement as punishment.
Ironically, it is the generations of previous pale skinned Nedeed wives that passed down this trait through Luther that produced the child’s coloring, not infidelity on the part of Willa. Luther does not recognize his role in this and punishes her supposed infidelity in an attempt to “turn her into a wife”(Naylor19). By locking her in the basement and regulating her food we see his subordination and control over his wife. Luther is attempting to control and break her with his plan that “in a few weeks she would have learned her lesson” and she would then “conceive again and he’d get the son he should have gotten in the first place”(Naylor67).
Paula Eckard in her piece “The Entombed Maternal in Gloria Naylor’s Linden Hills” writes “By crushing her personal will and reproductive prerogative, Luther hopes to restore patriarchal order and control”. Our first introduction to Willa is a bleak one. The reader learns that the child has died while in the basement. Willa is feeling doomed and riddled with grief, willing herself to also die. What began as a search for something to wrap her son in, so when their bodies were discovered people would know he was properly mourned, leads to Willa’s discovery of generations of women before her.
She discovers a wedding veil and a bible belonging to Luwana Packerville. After wrapping her son in the wedding veil, she sits down to figure out why Luwana wrote “There can be no God”(Naylor93) in that bible. What began as a mere curiosity, takes Willa on a journey through three generations of Nedeed wives. As she digs deeper, she uncovers the forgotten and suppressed identities of these wives and comes to the realization that she has also become a faceless, nameless casualty of the Nedeed patriarchy.
The women; Luwana, Priscilla McGuire, Evelyn Creton and Willa all entered into a marriage that they thought would bring them security and even a freedom of sorts. After all, they were marrying a successful man who could offer them everything. Luwana thought the fact that she was sold to Luther was merely a formality. She quickly learned once she gave him his son that this was not the case. In her writings she says “Luther told me today that I have no rights to my son”(Naylor 117). This leads to her realization that “I had only exchanged one master for another”(Naylor 117). She was property. She had no rights, no freedoms, no individuality.
She is isolated and takes to writing letters back and forth to herself as a way to cope. Willa discovers through the readings of Evelyn Creton’s recipes that she attempted to regain some control over her life through her cooking. The reader discovers that Evelyn began concocting recipes for her husband using “shame-weed”(Naylor 147) in and effort to counter his sexual and emotional coldness towards her. When these things did not work she concocted creams in an attempt to bleach her skin. Finally, we see how tortured and lonely she is as she begins to concoct laxatives as she describes what sounds like a bulimic pattern.
As she describes “her face was becoming sunken, her arms skeletal”(Naylor 190) and it becomes evident that she starves herself to death. It is after discovering Priscilla McGuire that Willa undergoes a transformation – a rebirth. Through pictures we discover that Priscilla entered into her marriage to Luther Nedeed happily and eagerly full of expectations. But as the pictures progress, body language and facial expressions tell the story of a woman who has suffered the same fate as her predecessors. As the pictures progress she slowly fades from them, and becomes insignificant and non-existent.
It is here that Willa has an epiphany. Through these women she has decided that she can have a different outcome. “Now that she had actually seen and accepted reality, and reality brought such a healing calm. For whatever it was worth, she could rebuild”(Naylor 268). This knowledge gives her an inner peace and sets the stage for her rebirth, her reentry into the real world. Willa’s march up the basement stairs while carrying her dead son is one of a fiercely determined woman. Naylor uses the symbolism of comparing Willa to “a lone army ant, marching in defiance of falling rocks and rushing water along the great Amazon”(300).
Paula Eckard writes “This maternal image, wrecked and battered, also hints at the power and will that she still possesses”. By marching back upstairs, Willa is attempting to take back control of her own life, inspired by generations of repressed Nedeed women. Christopher Okonkow in his piece on Linden Hills points out that “Willa is reaffirming her importance in the Nedeed controlled family, a domain which would seek to bastardize and depreciate the incalculable worth of a good wife and mother”.
Willa’s journey in the basement with the other wives illustrates the importance of female camaraderie and value. The evidence of their resistance of patriarchal oppression is what gave her the strength to persevere and in the process bring down the patriarchal house of Nedeed. Willa is a heroine for sacrificing herself with the fire that brought Luther(Satan) down. It is only by exposing and bringing down generations of evils, that rebuilding can begin. Throughout Naylor’s novel we see the detrimental effects of a materialistic and patriarchal society.
When people sell “the mirror in your soul”(Naylor 59) it leads to an empty existence. This novel teaches the lesson that things and status do not bring true fulfillment in life. A happy and healthy society needs neighborhood and cultural ties with strong spirituality and morality. By illustrating the negative implications of a patriarchal society, Naylor impresses upon the reader the importance of a strong and positive maternal presence for the child, the family, the individual and society as a whole.