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Supernatural themes lurk throughout August Wilson's drama, The Piano Lesson. But to fully understand the function of the ghost character in The Piano Lesson, readers may want to become familiar with the plot and characters of The Piano Lesson.
During the play, several characters see the ghost of Mr. Sutter, the man who probably murdered the father of Berniece and Boy Willie. Sutter was also the legal owner of the piano.
There are different ways of interpreting the ghost:
- The ghost is a product of the characters' imagination.
- The ghost symbolizes oppression.
- Or it is an actual ghost!
Assuming the ghost is real and not symbolism, the next question is: What does the ghost want? Revenge? (Berniece believes that her brother pushed Sutter down a well). Forgiveness? (This doesn't seem likely since Sutter's ghost is antagonistic rather than repentant). It may simply be that Sutter's ghost wants the piano.
In Toni Morrison's beautiful foreword to the 2007 publication of The Piano Lesson, she states: "Even a threatening ghost hovering in any room it chooses pales before the gripping fear of what is outside - the steady, casual intimacy with imprisonment and violent death." She also observes that "Against years of menace and routine violence, wrestling with a ghost is mere play." Morrison's analysis is spot on. During the play's climax, Boy Willie enthusiastically battles the ghosts, running up the stairs, tumbling down again, only to go charging back up. Grappling with the specter is sport in comparison to the hazards of the oppressive 1940s society.
Spirits of the Family
Berniece's suitor, Avery, is a religious man. In order to disconnect the ghost's ties to the piano, Avery agrees to bless Berniece's house. When Avery, an up-and-coming reverend, passionately recites passages from the Bible, the ghost does not budge. In fact, the ghost becomes even more aggressive, and this is when Boy Willie finally witnesses the ghost and their battle begins.
In the middle of The Piano Lesson's chaotic final scene, Berniece has an epiphany. She realizes that she must call on the spirits of her mother, father, and grandparents. She sits down at the piano and, for the first time in a year, she plays. She sings for the spirits of her family to help her. As her music becomes more powerful, more insistent, the ghost goes away, the battle upstairs ceases, and even her stubborn brother has a change of heart. Throughout the play, Boy Willie demanded that he sell the piano. But once he hears his sister play the piano and sing to her deceased relatives, he understands that the musical heirloom is meant to stay with his Berniece and her daughter.
By embracing music once again, Berniece and Boy Willie now appreciate the piano's purpose, one that is both familiar and divine.