[Caribbean Literature]

A Suffering Savior: The Trials of Ella in Erna Brodber's Louisiana

Part One: Introduction

David P. Lichtenstein '99, Brown University, Contributing Editor, Caribbean Web

By the conclusion of Erna Brodber's novel Louisiana, Ella (the protagonist, a young social scientist)'s status as a heroine is assured in the mind of the reader. Her husband and the rest of the community turns out in full force for her funeral, as her work in uniting the community spiritually seems finally acknowledged. Throughout the book she takes on the role of the healer, of the bridge between past and present, between one place and another for those who suffer the confusion of displacement. But Brodber makes Ella's suffering just as prominent as her savior status. Ella endures sickness frequently throughout the book, leaves behind a reputation (as the opening of the book maintains, she is known as a petty thief -- though this is undeserved) of less than stellar polish, dies at the end of the book, and (perhaps most importantly) dies without having any children. Why?

Many contemporary heroes find success on both public and personal fronts. Even in works by other Caribbean authors, heroes in the end seem to get what they want. Achille, for instance, in Derek Walcott's Omeros, finds success on many levels -- in searching out his own past, in his livelihood (while he's by no means wealthy he can support himself), and in his personal life, as he wins the favor of Helen. But Ella seems a special case, and perhaps in no small part due to troubles particular to her gender. Throughout Louisiana, Brodber paints Ella as a woman torn between her different spheres, public and private. Ultimately she cannot find comfort in either one, and though she dies successful in her quest to bring people together, one wonders whether she dies a satisfied woman:

Come to think of it, I am really doing a lot, as my husband says. "What you do is the matrix of many things," he tells me. It doesn't spell 'mother' though. Nor does it really spell 'horse'. And I had feared that I would be ridden to death by the venerable sisters! (130)

While it at first sounds complimentary, Ella's husband's choice of the word "matrix" reveals the fragmented nature of her identity. Though Reuben (her husband) may allude to the fact that Ella draws different cultures and traditions together with her seer-like understanding, the word matrix, according to the Online Oxford English Dictionary also carries the associations of (in late Latin) womb, in older Latin a pregnant animal, female animal used for breeding; and more currently, the uterus or womb. Thus Reuben ironically bestows an undeserved status on Ella, for despite her community achievements she never (to her discontent) produced a child. And thus Brodber has characterized one of the foremost challenges to women, even today: the clash between spheres of the public and private world, between the drive to achieve and the drive to bear children.


Brodber, Erna. Louisiana: a novel. London: New Beacon Books, 1994.

A Suffering Savior
[Main Web Page] [Caribbean] Themes [Erna Brodber]