At first, the poupées, or baby dolls, that Celestial makes are a symbol of the way she tries to merge her artistic practice with her complicated feelings about motherhood. Initially, Celestial learns to make the dolls from Aunt Sylvia, who supports Celestial after she has an abortion during her first semester of college. Aunt Sylvia teaches Celestial to sew the dolls as a way of addressing her guilt around the terminated pregnancy and suggests they donate the dolls to needy babies at the hospital. As time passes, Celestial continues making the dolls and turns to Roy as her muse. Roy draws a direct comparison between the dolls and babies, saying, “The doll, swaddled in a soft blanket, looked like an actual infant. This was one of Celestial’s quirks. For a woman who was, shall we say, apprehensive about motherhood, she was rather protective of these cloth creations.” Celestial finds it difficult to part with the dolls on multiple occasions—first when sealing one up to send to the mayor of Atlanta, and later when a man attempts to buy one on Christmas Eve. This is in part because they are, in a sense, her children, and in part becomes she comes to closely associate the dolls with Roy’s fate. Indeed, the doll that really launches Celestial’s career is one she dresses in prison blues after having seen a young black boy on the street and catching herself thinking of him as a baby prisoner—someone destined to end up like Roy solely by nature of his skin color. This doll becomes a testament to the way in which the possibility of being caught up in a broken, prejudiced criminal justice system hangs over black communities, a cloud on the horizon of any child’s future. Through this doll, Jones is able to suggest the deeply harmful psychological effects of mass incarceration on marginalized communities.
The timeline below shows where the symbol Dolls/Poupées appears in An American Marriage. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1, Chapter 1
...sent his mother a copy of Celestial’s college alumni bulletin featuring an article about her dolls. Olive asks if people really pay $5,000 for the dolls and Celestial demurs, but Roy... (full context)
...while to leave the house for the hotel. Olive tells Celestial she would accept another doll that Celestial might make especially for Olive and Big Roy notes that a live grandchild... (full context)
Part 1, Chapter 2
...calmed Celestial down, but Celestial couldn’t shake the idea. She made prison clothing for the doll, transforming it from a toy into art. This was her prize-winning doll, but when interviewed... (full context)
Part 2, Chapter 1
Part 2, Chapter 5
Part 3, Chapter 2
...a movie version of herself, younger and more beautiful. Tamar makes miniature quilts for the poupées, but they don’t sell often because they’re so expensive. Tamar gave birth to a son... (full context)
Part 3, Chapter 7
Part 3, Chapter 9