The Women of Brewster Place | Study Guide

Gloria Naylor

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The Women of Brewster Place | Cora Lee | Summary



As a little girl, Cora Lee was obsessed with baby dolls. Every year at Christmas, her parents would give her a new doll, but it had to be a baby doll. Anything else ended up smashed and broken, under her bed. Despite the concerns of Cora Lee's father, her mother staunchly denied that there was anything wrong with their daughter. Then Cora Lee grew old enough to take pleasure in "the thing that felt good in the dark." When she learned that from this her body could make babies, her real troubles began.

Now a welfare mother and resident of Brewster Place, Cora Lee has seven children, most from different fathers. The babies are always welcome and well-cared for until they grow "beyond the world of her lap." Then she does not understand them and is at a loss as to what do with them. Out of control, they tear up the apartment, run wild outside, skip school, and rummage in garbage cans looking for sweets. Cora Lee's attempts to find a reliable man to be a father to her children have earned her beatings, a fractured jaw, and a scar under her left eye. She has come to prefer the "shadows," men who bring her pleasure in the dark and sometimes a new baby, but who leave her otherwise physically and emotionally untouched.

Kiswana Browne befriends Cora Lee and convinces her to take the children to an open-air production of Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream at the local park. Cora Lee finds herself drawn into the magic of the play. She begins dreaming of a different life for herself and her children, one in which there is peace and order; in which they go to school and grow up to lead successful, fulfilled lives. She determines to change; to become a responsible mother. Returning home with the best of intentions, she gets the children bathed and to bed, and even folds and puts away their clothes. But upon entering her bedroom, she finds a lustful "shadow" waiting. With a sigh, she discards her good intentions as her clothes drop to the floor.


An epigraph about dreams from William Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet introduces Cora Lee's story. It describes the uselessness of dreams produced by an idle brain. Cora Lee lives on impossible dreams that are laced with self-deception:

  • dreams of having babies like the plastic baby dolls of her childhood—cuddly infants that will never grow up
  • interludes of impersonal sex with nameless "shadows"
  • fantasies of a nameless man who will take responsibility for her and her countless children
  • Illusions of a finer life through her daily soap operas
  • a magical transformation in herself and her children as the result of seeing a Shakespeare play

Her dreams are detached from reality and keep her on a life path of poverty, abuse, and chaos. She has no plans for change—only unrealistic fantasies that solve nothing.

Cora Lee's fantasies are related to her lazy and childish nature. She judges that unwanted tasks, like cleaning the apartment, are too difficult and childishly excuses her laxness, believing that so much work requires impossible amounts of energy and effort. What is she to do? Similarly, Cora Lee's sense of motherhood is limited to what she can handle. Drawn to a baby's helplessness and dependence, she will spend hours caring for it, but is bewildered when it starts to grow up. The parental discipline and strength required to raise children exceeds Cora Lee's maturity level and ambitions.

The metaphor in Cora Lee's life is a new baby doll. Her childhood obsession with dolls drives her choice as an adult to have child after child. Like the dolls she received from her parents, each infant is her "new baby doll." She loves how they smell when they are freshly washed and powdered. They are "soft and easy to care for," and she can hold them, love them, feed them, and play with them. Their world is no larger than her lap, and it is a world she understands and can control. The one place in Cora Lee's apartment that is clean, orderly, and safe is a corner of her bedroom—a pocket of tidiness where the baby sleeps. Its cleanliness separates it from the home's general dirt and chaos, and it shelters her dream of perpetual motherhood and babies. Like an infant's version of Peter Pan's "Neverland," it is always occupied by babies who Cora Lee wishes would never grow up.

The crib area also represents the kind of home Cora Lee would create if she magically could. During her flight of fancy as she watches A Midsummer's Night Dream, she imagines a clean, orderly household in which her babies can grow up to be successful adults. That night, still enthralled by this vision, she dutifully sponges her children down before sending them off to bed, and then neatly folds and stores away their clothes. But Cora Lee's good intentions are toppled by the reality of a nameless man waiting for her in the dark. Her aspirations at the moment are less real than this "shadow." However, she does fold and tuck them safely away with the rest of her dreams, perhaps with the notion of retrieving them in time.

The final image of a shadowy lover and the "midsummer night's dream" Cora Lee entertains while watching Shakespeare's play provide links to the next story in the novel, "The Two." The arrival of two new characters is mixed in with other people moving in and out in the dark, like "a restless night's dream" and Cora Lee's "shadows."

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