2 August, 2011
Symbolic Value of the Piano in August Wilson’s “The Piano Lesson”
Set in Pittsburg during 1936, The Piano Lesson centers on the conflicting wills of a brother and sister (Boy Willie and Berniece) as they fight for possession of their family’s most important heirloom, the piano. The play explores African Americans’ relationship to family history, particularly to the history of their slave ancestors.
The central symbol of the play is the 137-year-old piano, an object that incarnates the Charles’ family history. It takes on a number of meanings through the course of its life. A gift purchased through the exchange for slaves, it originally exemplifies the interchangeability of person and object under the system of slavery. This traffic in flesh reaffirms a white kinship network at the expense of black ones. Note that the piano is an anniversary present. Carved to placate Miss Ophelia, the piano’s wooden figures indicate the interchangeable nature of slave and ornament for the master. As Doaker notes, “Now she had her piano and her niggers too.” The slave is the master’s gift and accessory.
The piano is a concrete representation of the still-existing conflicts and connections between the past, present and the future. The fate of the piano has a significant effect on Berniece’s and Boy Willie’s future as they start to understand the true meaning of this carved piece of wood.
Summary I American Slavery, American Freedom written by Edmund S. Morgan captures the history of Virginia while keeping focusing on the social and political elements that uplifted the way of slavery. With the focus on Virginia, the book also probes the central paradox of American history: “how a people could have developed the dedication to human liberty and dignity exhibited by the leaders ...
So, why the power struggle over a musical instrument? To answer that, one must understand the history of Berniece and Boy Willy’s family. During slavery, a man named Robert Sutter—the recently deceased Sutter’s grandfather—owned the Charles family. He wanted to make an anniversary present out of his friend, Joel Nolander’s, piano but could not afford it. Thus he traded a full and half grown slave, Doaker’s grandmother Berniece and his father, for the instrument. Though initially Miss Ophelia, Sutter’s wife, loved the piano, she started to miss her slaves and attempted to trade them back. When Nolander refused, she fell desperately ill. So, Sutter called Doaker’s grandfather, Willie Boy, and asked him to carve the faces of his wife and child into the piano. Willie Boy was known as a great craftsman, and thus Sutter kept him when Nolander offered to buy him to keep the family together. Willie Boy complied with Sutter’s order but did not only carve his immediately family, but also his mother, father, and various scenes from their family history. Though Sutter hated the carvings, they thrilled Miss Ophelia, who played the piano until her death. Years later, Doaker’s eldest brother and Berniece and Boy Willie’s father, Boy Charles, developed an obsession over the piano, believing that as long as the Sutters held their family’s history, they held them in bondage. So Doaker, and Wining Boy stole it, storing it in the neighboring county with Mama Ola’s family and which now belongs to Berniece and Boy Willie.
When Boy Willie is released from the Parchman Prison Farm, he decides to visit his Uncle Doaker and sister Berniece. Uncle Doaker is happy to see him but Berniece is not and soon enough starts the fight over the piano between brother and sister. Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy a piece of land his family once worked on as slaves. Berniece doesn’t want to sell the piano as she retorts with the memory of their mother polishing the piano every day for seventeen years until her hands bled—the piano is sacred.
Boy Willie’s talks about his discovery of the “power of death.” As he notes with respect to his father, this power is the only one left to a black man denied property and the tools to build something for himself. The power of death—that is, the power to kill as well as risk one’s life—makes the black man the white man’s rival. As Willie declares: “See, a nigger that ain’t afraid to die is the worse kind of nigger for the white man.” With the power of death, he can look the white man “square in the eye and say, ‘I got it too (Wilson, 933-934).
An African-American Experience AugustAn African-American Experience Essay, Research Paper August Wilson s The Piano Lesson and Lorraine Hansberry s A Raisin in the Sun seek to dramatize the various issues that two African-American families face. Although the dramas take place in two distinct time periods, there exists a comparative and contrastive view of the various issues that arise in these two ...
Willie also fantasizes about becoming the white man’s equal in the purchase of land. As a landowner, Willie will become the white man’s neighbor, stand next to him and talk about cotton, the weather, and whatever else they like.
Berniece wants to keeps the family piano, with its beautiful carvings and dark past. She keeps it clean and dusted, but will not touch its keys. She sees blood on those keys. The piano represents a sad family history. She cannot let go of the memory of the father who died retrieving the piano from the slave owning family that possessed it. She cannot see past the sweat of her slave grandfather who carved the faces of her family on its wooden surface or the tears of her mother as she played it, mourning over her lost husband.
Berniece cannot deal with her family’s tragic past. Berniece only associates pain in the past, which is why she cannot deal with her future. Through her pain, Wilson demonstrates what happens when the past is not shared and understood. It becomes an ugly sore in the lives of those who will not delve its depths for lessons to teach to the future. Berniece is so distraught about her family’s past that she won’t even share the story of the piano with her daughter, Maretha, saying that “I ain’t gonna burden her with that piano” (Wilson, 922).
Only when Berniece embraces the past and finally plays the piano to help relieve the home of Sutter’s ghost, is Berniece free. She then is no longer haunted by the past that she so dreaded and is free to pass it on to the future. Through this example, Wilson shows that the past is valuable, something that needs to be faced and understood and then shared. Without that understanding a person will only find misery.
A Piano's Cost In The Piano Lesson, August Wilson portrays the life of a 30's family in a dilemma over selling an ancestral piano for money to buy land those ancestors worked as slaves. The piano teaches many lessons, among the most important is that you must hold on to your heritage over everything else, even economic betterment. The Piano Lesson speaks of some basic lessons of African-American ...
The pain in the past should not be forgotten but it must also not be immersed in. Instead of a hindrance, the past should be used to push forward in the future. It should be used to open doors that were sealed shut in the past. The open door for Boy Willie is the land formerly owned by Sutter. In purchasing the land, Boy Willie will be able to break a painful cycle and overcome the struggles faced by his family’s past and produce a meaningful future.
Boy Willie may not be haunted by his family’s past, as Berniece is, but he only finds monetary value in its presence. To Boy Willie, selling the piano is the only way to find himself a future. Boy Willie wants to sell this history, in a way denying it the way Berniece has his whole life. He does not feel ashamed or afraid of his past, but he ignores its significance, not truly understanding the value in its teachings and how it passes a story on to the future. In the end Boy Willie understands how powerful the preservation of this past is, as Berniece uses the piano itself to exorcise the ghost of Sutter, the son of slave owners and the cloud of darkness that has hung over their family tree. When Berniece plays the piano, Boy Willie understands that only through this preservation with their memories and past live on, something that cannot be measured in money. Wilson truly shows that understanding the past is valuable and worth more than monetary things, something that should be cherished and understood, especially in the African American past with its constant struggle for self.