During the Victorian reign, Finishing school was a famous and prestige private school for wealthy young girls. It emphasized cultural studies for social activities, introduced good manners and etiquette, and taught skills such as dancing, singing and much more. In other words, Finishing school prepared young ladies for “future life”. The title Finishing School by Maya Angelou, has a different meaning, I would say the title is ironic. Angelou’s main character Margaret went through her own “Finishing School” that happened to be inside a white woman’s kitchen. It taught her about race differences and how to defend her dignity, both that reflect the author’s purpose in choosing this title.
Margaret is a ten-year-old black girl who lives in the south in 1930’s at the time when slavery has long passed gone, but racial segregation and discrimination are still very strong. She comes to work as a servant in a home of a white wealthy woman, Mrs. Cullinan, where she begins to help out around the house, run errands, clean dishes and polish silverware. Margaret is overwhelmed with the inhumanness and the discipline of the house.
All meals have to be at a certain time, all drinks have to be from a certain glass. Nevertheless, Margaret is willing to accept the new rules and work as hard as possible for the white rich and ugly lady, because Margaret feels sorry for her. She starts to come to work early, leaves home late, puts in extra work, somehow by doing so, Margaret thinks that she can compensate for the fact that Mrs. Cullinan can never have children. Margaret develops human feelings toward her mistress and her situation, not acknowledging the race issue.
Sadly, she soon realizes that no one is interested in her feelings and her pity. To her employer she is just a stupid, wordless, black servant. Not a human, but simply an object that serves for comfort of the white masters. Margaret realizes that, when one day Mrs. Cullinan calls her by a different name, which is in her opinion more “appropriate”. Margaret cannot believe her years. The fact that her name, her own name that was given to her by her parents, is just now so easily being changed by this white woman, makes her very mad. She frightfully feels that her opinion might never be valued. That is when she decides to change all that once and for all.
Margaret feels that she was just robbed of something important, her name. Even though she is just a young girl, she does not want to tolerate such mistreatment. Her inner dignity and pride arise and push her to forget about her need of money and job. Margaret feels that it is crucial to make a statement. She breaks her employer’s favorite piece of china that was left to Mrs. Cullinan by her wealthy parents. Margaret knows the importance of that reliquary and wants to take something important from Mrs. Cullinan to get even.
The author says “While white girls learned to waltz and sit gracefully with a tea cup balanced on their knees, we were lagging behind, learning the mid-Victorian values with very little money to indulge them…”
Mrs. Cullinan indulged her china piece meanwhile little Margaret had nothing to indulge but her dignity. Through out Margaret’s experience in “Finishing School” she learns about race differences and dignity, both values witch will serve her in the future.
The novel’s protagonist, forty-four-year-old Justin Stokes, is startled into self-examination when she dreams of Ursula DeVane, the woman most responsible for her decision, many years before, to become an actress. Curious about the power Ursula still exerts after thirty years, Justin determines to examine her mentor’s role in her life. To do so demands that Justin re-create her adolescent self and risk her interpretation of events.
This former self has endured a series of losses. Gone are thirteen-year-old Justin’s beloved grandparents, their comfortable home in Virginia, her charming father, financial security, and social prominence. Not even Justin’s mother, Louise, seems the same. When Louise uproots her children to transplant them to an IBM housing development in Clove, New York, Justin feels completely dislocated.
Life is dismal until Justin discovers Ursula in a deteriorating hut one evening, and the two, despite a thirty-year age difference, become friends. Unconventional, cultivated, intelligent, and provocative, Ursula awakens Justin to life’s possibilities. Many of the lessons she teaches are valuable, especially her encouragement of Justin’s artistic sensibility. There is, however, a dark side to these lessons: an appeal to Justin’s loyalty and her adult understanding of complex personal relationships. This appeal ultimately leads to disaster.
Like most of Gail Godwin’s novels, THE FINISHING SCHOOL presents a tapestry of human relationships that is both artistically crafted and humanly believable. Against this backdrop, Godwin dramatizes her theme of self-exploration with its inherent paradoxes. A well-crafted novel, THE FINISHING SCHOOL will move its readers to consider shifting loyalties within families and the relationship between adolescent and adult selves.