The Piano Lesson

Comprehensive Storyform

The following analysis reveals a comprehensive look at the Storyform for The Piano Lesson. Unlike most of the analysis found here—which simply lists the unique individual story appreciations—this in-depth study details the actual encoding for each structural item. This also means it has been incorporated into the Dramatica Story Expert application itself as an easily referenced contextual example.

Story Dynamics

8 of the 12 essential questions

Main Character Resolve

Berniece refuses to play the piano because she’s afraid to wake the spirits of her ancestors.  However, when Boy Willie is attacked by Sutter’s evil ghost, she uses the piano to release those spirits to save her brother.

Main Character Growth

Berniece has to stop blaming her brother for her husband’s death.  She must also quit using the piano as an excuse for her fear and bitterness, and take steps to bury the past and get on with her life.

Main Character Approach

Berniece’s approach to solving problems is to take action:  After her husband died, she moved to Pittsburgh with her daughter, and got a job to support them both.  When Avery proposed, she refused him, acting upon her feelings.  When Boy Willie barges into her house unexpectedly, she tells him to leave.  After he ignores her orders and tries to remove the piano from the house, she threatens to shoot him.  When Sutter’s ghost attacks her brother, Berniece summons her ancestors’ spirits to exorcise it.

Main Character Mental Sex

Berniece uses female problem solving techniques.  She tries to uncover Boy Willie’s motive behind his unexpected visit.  She sets conditions upon having Boy Willie and Lymon in her house.  She considers her family’s history surrounding the piano and concludes that it cost too much in suffering to give up.

Story Driver

The story is moved along by decisions:  Boy Willie decides to buy Sutter’s farmland and sell the piano to finance his own farm.  He decides to pressure Berniece to sell the piano which causes her to fight him with accusations and finally threaten his life.  Doaker decides to educate Boy Willie about the importance of the piano to the family, inciting Wining Boy to support Berniece which further divides the family.  Avery’s decision to exorcise Sutter’s ghost causes a struggle against good and evil which forces Berniece to act to save her brother.

Story Limit

Berniece exhausts all of her arguments against Boy Willie selling the piano.  When he ignores her and starts to move the piano out of the house, Berniece is forced to threaten him with a gun.  Boy Willie tries to sway Berniece to sell the piano by telling her his dream to own land, reasons that if she doesn’t play the piano he should sell it, and recalls their father’s anguish at being a sharecropper.  When his heartfelt pleas fail to move her, he arranges to sell the piano anyway, even under threat of being shot.  When Sutter’s ghost attacks him and Berniece saves him by playing the piano, Boy Willie has no choice but to let the piano stay in the family home where it belongs.

Story Outcome

Boy Willie’s efforts to eradicate his family’s slave history by buying the land of their former owner ends in failure when he leaves the piano with Berniece.  He returns to Mississippi without enough money to buy Sutter’s land which would have enabled him to quit being a sharecropper and own a farm of his own.

Story Judgment

Berniece resolves her personal problems:  She overcomes her fear of releasing the spirits of her ancestors when she plays the piano to vanquish the ghost.  She comes to terms with the past.  She reconciles with her brother and is able to embark upon a more fulfilling future.

Overall Story Throughline

""A Haunted Past""

Overall Story Throughline

The objective characters exist in an environment that’s tainted by the piano which represents their tragic past, and serves as a reminder of the lowly station they hold as black people in America.  They find themselves in a situation where they must find self-actualization within the narrow opportunities allowed them in a racist society.  Avery accepts a “good” job as an elevator operator in a downtown skyscraper to have a chance of founding his own church.  Doaker is content with his career as a railroad cook.  Lymon hopes to improve his situation by finding a job unloading boxcars in Pittsburgh, as opposed to being fined for “not working” down home in Mississippi.  Berniece works as a domestic, one of the few occupations open to black women.  She accepts that this is the best that she can do, but is training her daughter to become a teacher.

Overall Story Concern

Most of the characters are concerned with the past:  Berniece is obsessed with the piano’s tragic history and her husband’s death.  Avery wants Berniece to let go of the past by marrying him and playing the piano at church services.  Lymon worries that if he returns to Mississippi, he’ll end up in the work farm just like in the past.  Wining Boy is unhappy with his past life as a piano player because people only wanted to know him for his music.  Boy Willie wants to break out of the tradition of sharecropping like his father.

Overall Story Issue

The objective characters try to change their destinies of being downtrodden black people in America.  Boy Willie fights to sell the piano so he can become a landowner and quit being just another poor black sharecropper; Avery works as an elevator operator to finance his dream of preaching in his own church; Lymon follows Boy Willie up North to escape the unfair laws that threaten to send him back to a Mississippi work farm; Berniece sends her daughter to a settlement school so that she can break the chain of serving as a maid like her mother and ancestors by becoming a teacher.

Overall Story Counterpoint

Once Avery has his dream calling him to be a servant of the Lord, he does everything to make his vision come true.  He asks Berniece to sell the piano to finance his church; asks her to marry him so that he’ll look respectable to his congregation; applies for a bank loan to buy property for his church; urges Berniece to play the piano in the church choir.  Lymon foresees his future up North with a steady job, a comfortable home, and a wife suited to him.  Doaker, who has worked for the railroad for twenty-seven years, envisions working for it until he retires.

Overall Story Thematic Conflict
Interdiction vs.Prediction

The conflict between interdiction and prediction can be seen when Boy Willie insists that there is no difference between him and the white man.  Wining Boy foresees that even if Boy Willie owns land in Mississippi, he’ll never have the power to sway the law to his side of an issue against a white man.  When Boy Willie is determined to ignore the white man’s arbitrary laws, Lymon forecasts that he’s going to end up back on a Mississippi work farm.

Overall Story Problem

The objective characters cause problems when they act on their desire to change their situations.  Avery’s efforts to have a church of his own leads him to urge Berniece to play her piano during services and marry him.  His persistence causes her great anxiety, while her refusals frustrate him.  Lymon’s motivated to move up North, find himself a job, and a wife.  This causes Berniece to close herself off even more after he briefly sets his sights on her.  Boy Willie’s desire to change from a lowly sharecropper to a landowner stirs up bad memories of the past, and causes Doaker to act as referee between him and Berniece.  Boy Willie’s attempt to sell the piano to finance this change incites Sutter’s ghost to scare Berniece and attack him.

Overall Story Solution

Boy Willie does not have the ability to sway his sister’s stand on the piano, however, Doaker’s talent as an oral historian allows him to explain why Berniece won’t part with the piano despite Boy Willie’s need to sell it.  Lymon’s capacity for honesty and gentleness assures that he’ll find a loving wife and a job on which to build a comfortable life for himself.  Avery’s ability to adjust to city life and play by the rules allows him to get a loan for his church.

Overall Story Symptom

The objective characters focus on their limited opportunities as black people in America.  Lymon wants to end the cycle of being put in a forced labor farm, and leaves Mississippi for good.  Berniece believes that as black people they are all living at the bottom of life.  Doaker has resigned himself to being slotted in the subservient role as railroad cook, traveling wherever he’s told, whenever he’s told.  Wining Boy, vivacious and talented, tried to obtain success as a recording artist, having failed that he’s reduced to being just another black blues player without an identity of his own.

Overall Story Response

The objective characters direct their efforts toward achieving fairness in their lives.  Lymon, afraid of being put back in a work farm for no good reason, comes up North hoping to get a fresh start in life.  Avery endures his job as an elevator operator, one of the best jobs a black man can get, while he tries to establish himself as the head of a church.  Wining Boy, tired of only being valued for his ability to provide entertainment with a piano, decides to settle back down south where he can be loved for himself.  Doaker, while understanding Boy Willie’s reasons for selling the piano, stops him from removing it from the house behind Berniece’s back.

Overall Story Catalyst

The characters’ use of prediction accelerates the story:  Boy Willie’s relentless pursuit of his greater destiny drives Berniece to accuse him of killing her husband and threaten him with a gun.  It also causes Sutter’s ghost to appear to Berniece which increases Berniece’s animosity toward her brother.  Avery’s determination to fulfill the prophecy of becoming a preacher drives him to attempt to exorcise Sutter’s ghost, which leads to it attacking Boy Willie.

Overall Story Inhibitor

The objective characters’ suspicions slow down the story.  Berniece’s suspicions concerning Lymon’s truck being stolen distracts her from learning the true purpose of her brother’s surprise visit.  Avery’s wariness of Berniece’s reasons for rejecting his proposals prevents him from realizing that she’s afraid, and causes him to antagonize her by his constant nagging.

Overall Story Benchmark

As the story advances the characters judge their progress by the way things are going.  Avery confesses that he’s getting tired of Berniece’s excuses for not marrying him.  Lymon is bolstered by the money he’s made selling the watermelons, buys himself a suit to go courting in, but becomes disheartened when the woman he meets just wants him to buy her drinks.  Doaker sees the animosity between Berniece and Boy Willie escalate until he has to warn Berniece when she threatens violence against her brother.
DOAKER:  Come on, Berniece, leave him alone with that.  (Wilson, p. 99)

Additional Overall Story Information →
Overall Story Throughline Synopsis

Boy Willie Charles arrives at his sister’s home in Pittsburgh determined to sell the family piano which they have inherited.  He wants to buy land in Mississippi where his family was once enslaved.  Berniece refuses to sell the piano, because it represents the family’s past.  Boy Willie thinks the piano is valuable only because it can be sold to secure his future.  Doaker Charles, their uncle, acts as mediator between the siblings.  Neither will back down until a vengeful ghost attached to the piano attacks Boy Willie.  Berniece uses the piano to exorcise the ghost and save her brother.  Boy Willie decides that the heirloom belongs with the family and returns to Mississippi.

Overall Story Backstory

In the time of slavery Robert Sutter owned the Charles family.  He wanted to give a piano to his wife, but didn’t have any money.  He traded Boy Willie’s great-grandmother and his grandfather, who was nine at the time, leaving their great-grandfather behind.  As time went by, Mrs. Sutter missed her slaves.  An offer to trade back the piano for them was refused.  Sutter ordered great-grandfather Charles to carve the pictures of his wife and son on the piano so that Mrs. Sutter could have them near her.  Charles carved portraits of his wife and son, and scenes from his family history on the piano.  A generation later, Papa Boy Charles, Boy Willie and Berniece’s father, stole the piano from the Sutter’s because he believed it belonged to the Charles family.  He was hunted down and burned alive in a train boxcar.  Boy Charles’ widow grieved for seventeen years while young Berniece watched.  The piano was passed on to Berniece and Boy Willie.  Three years ago in Mississippi, Berniece’s husband was killed while on a wood gathering expedition with Boy Willie.  She moved to Pittsburgh with Uncle Doaker, taking the piano with her.  Since then she’s raised her daughter alone.  Avery Brown, a farmer turned preacher, followed Berniece to Pittsburgh and proposed to her.  She refused his offer, but he hasn’t given up on marrying her.  Boy Willie stayed in Mississippi.  With the recent death of the last Sutter heir, Boy Willie was offered a chance to buy the last acres of the Sutter plantation.  He promised to produce the cash in two weeks, but his savings fall short.  He and his friend, Lymon, have loaded a truck with watermelons which they intend to sell in Pittsburgh.  Boy Willie plans to sell the family’s piano to get the rest of the money to buy the land.

Main Character Throughline

Berniece — Boy Willie's sister

Main Character Throughline

Berniece dedicates herself to the endeavor of convincing Boy Willie that he’s not going to sell the piano.  She’s busy raising her child without a father; dodging Avery’s efforts to get her to marry him; running away from Lymon’s subtle seduction.

Main Character Concern

Berniece struggles to understand why men rush toward violence when it causes so much grief.  She remembers her widowed mother’s loneliness:
BERNIECE:  Seventeen years’ worth of cold nights and an empty bed.  For what?  For a piano?  For a piece of wood?  To get even with somebody?  I look at you and you’re all the same.  You, Papa Boy Charles, Wining Boy, Doaker, Crawley. . . you’re all alike.  All this thieving and killing. . . And what it ever lead to?  More thieving and killing.  (Wilson, p. 52)
At the end of “The Piano Lesson,” however, when Boy Willie is struggling for his life against Sutter’s ghost, Berniece finally understands that the only way to save him is to call upon her heritage, thereby empowering herself with its strength.  (Pereira, p. 144)

Main Character Issue

Berniece’s instinct to protect herself from being hurt by the reckless action of men sets her at odds with Boy Willie, Doaker, and Avery when she refuses to remarry.  Her maternal instinct compels her to spare her daughter from the burden of the piano, and to prepare her to be a teacher so that she can be independent and have a better life.

Main Character Counterpoint

Berniece was trained to play the piano, and conditioned to worship the piano by her mother.  Contrary to her mother’s intentions, she conditioned Berniece to resent and fear the piano.
BERNIECE:  When my daddy died seem like all her life went into that piano.  She used to have me playing on it. . . Had Miss Eula come in and teach me. . . Say when I played it she could hear my daddy talking to her.  I used to think them pictures came alive and walked through the house.  [. . .]  I said that wasn’t gonna happen to me.  I don’t play that piano cause I don’t want to wake them spirits.  They never be walking around in this house.  (Wilson, p. 70)

Main Character Thematic Conflict
Instinct vs.Conditioning

Although conditioned to resent and fear the piano, Berniece acts out of pure instinct when it comes to saving her brother from Sutter’s evil ghost.  She runs directly to the piano and uses it to summon up the spirits of her mother, father, grandmother, and great-grandmother.  She can’t deny the urge to call upon her family to save her brother, something she’s compelled to do despite their differences.

Main Character Problem

Berniece is driven to protect herself and Maretha from the consequence of a man’s reckless acts.  She won’t marry Avery because she doesn’t want her destiny to be defined by a man again, and be hurt like she was when Crawley was killed.  Her refusal puts her at odds with Doaker, Lymon, and Avery because they think a young woman should be married.
BERNIECE:  Avery, I ain’t ready to get married now.
AVERY:  You too young a woman to close up, Berniece.
BERNIECE:  I ain’t said nothing about closing up.  I got a lot of woman left in me.
AVERY:  Where’s it at?  When’s the last time you looked at it?
BERNIECE:  That’s a nasty thing to say.  And you call yourself a preacher. (Wilson, p. 66)

Main Character Solution

Although she’s unaware of it, Berniece has the capacity to free herself from her self-imposed exile from life, and conquer the evil spirit plaguing her family.  She has a strong sense of survival and justice that is bolstered by her Christian beliefs.  This is demonstrated when she’s faced with losing her brother to Sutter’s evil spirit.  When everyone else is in a panic, Berniece goes to the piano, plays a hymn, and successfully calls up her ancestor’s spirits to defeat the ghost.

Main Character Symptom

Berniece focuses on thought: She’s constantly thinking about the suffering the piano caused her mother; how she isn’t going to end up like her mother, putting all of her love into the piano in place of a man; how Maretha isn’t going to be burdened by the piano’s tragic history; why she isn’t getting married again.

Main Character Response

Berniece efforts are directed by what she believes to be true.  She resists Avery’s proposal and Lymon’s advances because she’s sure she’ll lose herself within marriage.  She tells Avery: 
BERNIECE:  You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man.  But you alright, huh?  You can just walk out of here without me—without a woman—and still be a man.  [. . .]  Everybody telling me I can’t be a woman unless I got a man. 
AVERY:  It wasn’t me, Berniece.  You can’t blame me for nobody else. . .
BERNIECE:  I ain’t blaming nobody for nothing.  I’m just stating the facts. (Wilson, p. 67)

Main Character Unique Ability

Berniece uses her senses to guide her through a difficult period.  Berniece is immediately aware that trouble is ahead when Boy Willie arrives unexpectedly; acutely perceives the meaning of the ghost’s appearance; is aware of the power of Lymon’s innocent seduction and runs away after their kiss.  Her senses show her how to use the power within the piano to destroy the ghost. She’s drawn to the carvings etched into the piano, and intuitively uses its music to summon her ancestor’s spirits.  Her senses tell her that the ghost is destroyed and the veil of oppression has been lifted from her family.

Main Character Critical Flaw

Berniece’s constant dwelling upon her circumstances undermines her desire to improve her life.  Her prolonged and bitter grieving for her husband blinds her to the fact that Doaker, and most particularly, Avery, love her and want her to be happy.  However, she’s so emotionally dependent upon being the wronged widow, she can’t recognize her second chance at happiness when he’s standing right in front of her.

Main Character Benchmark

As the story progresses, Berniece moves from one activity to another:  She gets herself and Maretha ready for their day; sets rules for Boy Willie and Lymon’s stay; accompanies Avery to the bank to apply for a loan; prepares dinner for her uncle; cleans a businessman’s house for a living; fights her brother over the piano; rejects another marriage proposal from Avery; chases Boy Willie and his girlfriend out of the house; kisses Lymon then rejects him; gets her husband’s gun to threaten her brother; conjures up friendly spirits to save her brother from the ghost.

Additional Main Character Information →
Main Character Description

A quiet spoken widow of thirty-five.  She’s still pretty and desirable, but has shunned men in the three years since her husband’s death.

Main Character Throughline Synopsis

Berniece keeps the piano in the living room of her home in Pittsburgh, but refuses to play it.  When Boy Willie arrives uninvited she’s suspicious of his motives for the visit, and orders him to leave.  She refuses to sell the piano, and tries to make him understand why.  She threatens to shoot him after he tries to remove the piano from the house.  But when Sutter’s ghost attacks Boy Willie, Berniece saves him by playing the piano to conjure up their ancestors’ spirits to exorcise the ghost.  She saves Willie Boy, resolves the issues between them, and is ready to get on with her life without fear of the past.

Main Character Backstory

As a child Berniece lost her father when he was murdered for stealing the piano from the Sutter family.  For seventeen years Berniece watched her mother grieve and devote the rest of her life to the care of the piano.  Three years ago Berniece lost her own husband when he was shot while collecting wood with Boy Willie.  She moved to Pittsburgh with her daughter.  She has spent the last three years working as a housemaid and raising her daughter, shunning all social activities.  She has refused to play the piano, even though she teaches her daughter to play on it.  She’s refused marriage proposals from Avery Brown, and his pleas to sell the piano to help finance his church.

Influence Character Throughline

Boy Willie Charles — Berniece's brother, sharecropper

Influence Character Throughline

Boy Willie thinks he can manipulate everything and everyone to suit himself.  When his uncle tells him that Berniece won’t sell the piano, Boy Willie isn’t worried.
BOY WILLIE:  I’m gonna talk to her.  When she see I got a chance to get Sutter’s land she’ll come around.  (Wilson, p. 9)
Although Maretha is taking lessons on the piano, he suggests that she take up the guitar saying, “You don’t need to read no paper to play the guitar.”  Later, he tells a customer that his watermelons are sweet because he puts sugar in the ground with the seeds, then he increases the price of the melons.  He tries to convince a woman he picked up in a bar that it’s all right to make love on the living room sofa, knowing that Berniece won’t like it.

Influence Character Concern

Boy Willie envisions selling his watermelons, adding the money from the sale of the piano with his savings, and buying one hundred acres of Sutter land.
BOY WILLIE:  [. . .] Walk in there.  Lay my money down on the table.  Get my deed and walk on out.  This time I get to keep all the cotton.  Hire me some men to work it for me.  Gin my cotton.  Get my seed.  And I’ll see you again next year.  (Wilson, 10-11)

State of Being
Influence Character Issue

Boy Willie reveals his true nature as a sharecropper when he explains the hopelessness he imagines his father felt in the same position.
BOY WILLIE:  I ain’t got no advantages of offer nobody.  Many is the time I looked at my daddy and seen him staring off at his hands.  I got a little older I know what he was thinking. . . “I got these big old hands but what I’m gonna do with them?  Best I can do is make a fifty-acre crop for Mr. Stovall.  [. . .]  All I got is these hands.  Unless I go out here and kill me somebody and take what they got. . . it’s a long row to hoe for me to get something of my own.”  (Wilson, p. 91)

Sense of Self
Influence Character Counterpoint

As a thematic counterpoint to his true self, Boy Willie considers himself just as worthy as any white man to make a difference in the world.
BOY WILLIE:  Hell, the world a better place cause of me. [. . .] I got a heart that beats here and it beats just as loud as the next fellow’s.  Don’t care if he black or white.  [. . .]  I got to mark my passing on the road.  Just like you write on a tree, “Boy Willie was here.”  (Wilson, p. 94)

Influence Character Thematic Conflict
State of Being vs.Sense of Self

Boy Willie’s sense of self triumphs even though he fails to sell the piano to raise money to buy farmland.  He leaves Pittsburgh as confident as ever that he’s worthy of a higher station in life and will eventually achieve his goal of owning a farm of his own.

Influence Character Problem

Boy Willie’s focus on arranging things to achieve his personal goal causes Berniece problems.
BOY WILLIE:  [. . .] my heart say for me to sell that piano and get me some land so I can make a life for myself to live in my own way.  Other than that I ain’t thinking about nothing Berniece got to say.  (Wilson, p. 94)
Boy Willie’s self-conscious attitude eventually forces Berniece to use a gun to convince him to take her refusal to sell the piano seriously.

Influence Character Solution

If Boy Willie would become aware of how deeply the piano has affected his sister, he could have saved her from a stressful showdown between the two of them.  After his fight with Sutter’s ghost from which he’s saved by Berniece and the piano, Boy Willie becomes aware of the significance of piano, and realizes that it belongs with Berniece.

Influence Character Symptom

Boy Willie’s focus on selling the piano to correct the disparity between him and the white man, despite Berniece’s objections, creates a major crisis for her.  Boy Willie believes Berniece’s reasons to keep the piano are insignificant compared to his need to overcome the disadvantages forced upon him.
BOY WILLIE:  He [Boy Willie’s father] spent his whole life farming on somebody else’s land.  I ain’t gonna do that.  If Berniece can’t see that, then I’m gonna go ahead and sell my half.  (Wilson, p. 46)

Influence Character Response

Boy Willie directs his efforts toward what he feels will create fairness in his life.
However, selling the piano to enable him to stand beside any white man as a landowner would leave Berniece without her precious relic of the past.  The possibility of losing the piano drives her to threaten to shoot her brother.

Influence Character Unique Ability

Boy Willie’s honest assessment of his situation as a black man in Mississippi makes him completely sympathetic to everyone except Berniece.  He is right about how owning land will change his life in a racist society.  This makes it harder for Berniece to support her wholly emotional argument against selling the piano, while he is being practical.

Influence Character Critical Flaw

Boy Willie’s faulty interpretation of why Berniece’s not using the piano causes more problems between them, and leads to him being attacked by Sutter’s ghost.  He fails to translate the true value of the piano.
BOY WILLIE:  Now, I’m gonna tell you the way I see it.  The only thing that make that piano worth something is them carvings Papa Willie Boy put on there. . .  Papa Boy Charles brought that piano into the house.  Now, I’m supposed to build on what they left me.  You can’t do nothing with that piano sitting up here in the house.  (Wilson, p. 51)

Influence Character Benchmark

As the story progresses Boy Willie assumes different roles to get want he wants:  He plays the kindly uncle to Maretha, telling her that the guitar is easier to learn than the piano, because he wants to sell the piano.  He pretends to be a simple black farmer when he teases his white customer about planting sugar with the watermelon seeds.  He bullies Lymon into helping him move the piano over Doaker’s objections.  He assumes the role of a preacher when he flings water around the house in a mock exorcism.

More Influence Character Information →
Influence Character Description

BOY WILLIE CHARLES is thirty years old.  He has an infectious grin and a boyishness that is apt for his name.  He is brash and impulsive, talkative and somewhat crude in speech and manner.  (Wilson, p. 2)

Influence Character Throughline Synopsis

Boy Willie travels from Mississippi to Pittsburgh to sell the family piano so he can buy farmland.  He tries to convince his sister to let him sell the family piano.  She refuses.  In spite of Berniece’s threats of violence against him, Boy Willie locates a buyer for the piano, and starts to remove the piano from her house.  He’s attacked by an evil ghost attached to the piano.  After Boy Willie is saved by Berniece when she summons their ancestor’s spirits from the piano, he realizes that it belongs in the family.  He returns to Mississippi to make his way without proceeds from the piano.

Influence Character Backstory

Boy Willie’s father stole the piano and was murdered.  His mother kept the piano, and when she died it was inherited by Boy Willie and Berniece equally.  When Doaker and Berniece moved north, Boy Willie remained a sharecropper in Mississippi like his father.  Boy Willie remembers his father working another man’s land with his capable hands, useless without land of his own.  With the recent death of John Sutter, the last descendant of the Charles’ family owner, Boy Willie has a chance buy land of his own.  He has two weeks to produce the cash for it, and his savings aren’t enough.  He must sell the watermelons he brought up from Mississippi, and the piano, to make up the difference.

Relationship Story Throughline

""Sibling Rivalry""

Relationship Story Throughline

An area of conflict between Boy Willie and Berniece is their respective positions on whether or not to sell the piano.  She believes it’s a shrine to their family’s suffering.  Boy Willie believes it’s an instrument to be used one way or the other. 
BOY WILLIE:  [. . .] if you say to me . . .  I give out lessons on it and that help me make my rent or whatever. . . I’d have to go on and say, well, Berniece using that piano.  She building on it. . .  But Doaker say you ain’t touched that piano the whole time it’s been up here.  [. . . ] You just looking at the sentimental value.  [. . .] But I ain’t gonna be no fool about no sentimental value.  (Wilson, p. 51)
He believes that it’s valuable only to trade for land:
BOY WILLIE:  As along as I got the land and the seed then I’m alright. . . Cause that land give back to you.  But that piano don’t put out nothing else. . . that’s why I’m gonna take that piano out of here and sell it.
BERNIECE:  You ain’t taking that piano out of my house.  (Wilson, p. 51-52)

Relationship Story Concern

Berniece and Boy Willie come into conflict over Berniece’s memory of his involvement in her husband’s death three years ago.  Boy Willie recalls that Crawley got himself killed when he pulled a gun on the sheriff who interrupted their wood-gathering.
BOY WILLIE:  If Crawley ain’t had the gun he’d be alive today.
BERNIECE:  All I know is Crawley would be alive if you hadn’t come up there and got him.  [. . .]  Crawley’s dead and in the ground and you still walking around here eating.  That’s all I know.  He went off to load some wood with you and ain’t never come back. (Wilson, p. 54)

Relationship Story Issue

A thematic issue that affects Berniece and Boy Willie is “suspicion.”  “She greets her brother’s arrival with suspicion, accuses him and his friend, Lymon, of stealing the truck in which they drove north, and ungraciously tells them to be on their way quickly.  When Sutter’s ghost appears to her and calls for Boy Willie, she immediately assumes that he has murdered Sutter.”  (Pereira, p. 87) 
When Boy Willie asks for the name of the man who wanted to buy her piano, Berniece doubts are confirmed.
BERNIECE:  I knew it.  I knew it when I first seen you.  I knew you was up to something.  (Wilson, p. 27)
Because of Berniece’s tendency to be suspicious of Boy Willie, it’s impossible for him to convince her to sell the piano on his behalf.

Relationship Story Counterpoint

Boy Willie searches the house for signs of Sutter’s ghost when Berniece first sees it, but fails to find any evidence of a haunting.  He believes she’s making up the ghost sighting to get rid of him.  Berniece also fails to provide evidence that the piano is imbued with the anguished spirits of their ancestors, or that it’s anything more than a carved instrument.  Her eye witness account of the grief and loneliness the piano caused their mother leaves Boy Willie unmoved.

Relationship Story Thematic Conflict
Suspicion vs.Evidence

Evidence is given more weight thematically in the subjective story.  When the ghost finally menaces him, Boy Willie challenges it without fear or guilt which proves his innocence in Sutter’s murder.  Berniece plays the piano and unleashes the spirits of their ancestors to combat the evil ghost.  The physical attack and its aftermath provides Boy Willie with the evidence needed to convince him that the piano belongs with the family.  He and Berniece make peace with each other.

Relationship Story Problem

Boy Willie’s drive to change his station in life causes problems between him and Berniece.  Boy Willie thinks that selling the piano and buying farmland will ease his life as a black man in Mississippi.  He refuses to “live at the bottom of life” where Berniece believes they all are.
BOY WILLIE:  If you got a piece of land you’ll find everything else fall right into place.  You can stand right up next to the white man and talk about the price of cotton. . . the weather, and anything else you want to talk.  If you teach that girl [Maretha] that she living at the bottom of life, she’s gonna grow up and hate you.
BERNIECE:  I’m gonna teach her the truth. (Wilson, p. 92)

Relationship Story Solution

Berniece’s ability to play the piano and her capacity to summon her ancestor’s spirits when Boy Willie is attacked by the ghost solves the problems between them.  By playing the piano and calling up the spirits, she demonstrates its power and significance within the family.  Having achieved this, Boy Willie decides to leave the piano with Berniece as he’s now convinced that it belongs with her.

Relationship Story Symptom

Boy Willie’s relentless campaign to advance himself in the world regardless of what it costs his sister, creates a major dilemma for Berniece.
BOY WILLIE:  My heart say for me to sell that piano and get me some land so I can make a life for myself to live in my own way.  Other than that I ain’t thinking about nothing Berniece got to say. (Wilson, p. 94)

Relationship Story Response

Berniece, aware of what the piano cost their family in lost lives and the grief that follows, tries to make Boy Willie see beyond its monetary value.
BERNIECE:  Money can’t buy what that piano cost.  (Wilson, p. 50)
She reminds him that their father traded his life for the piano and how their widowed mother suffered:
[. . .]  Look at this piano.  Look at it.  Mama Ola polished this piano with her tears for seventeen years.  [. . .] Seventeen years’ worth of cold nights and an empty bed.  For what?  A piano?  (Wilson, p. 52)

Relationship Story Catalyst

The lack evidence accelerates the conflict between Boy Willie and Berniece.  When he fails to find evidence of Sutter’s ghost, Boy Willie suspects Berniece is lying about the sighting to get him to leave, and decides not to leave without selling the piano.  Berniece’s failure to present concrete proof of the piano’s value as a family heirloom, leads Boy Willie to forge ahead with his plan against her wishes.  Berniece refuses to accept Boy Willie’s evidence of what happened the night her husband was killed, and physically attacks him.

Relationship Story Inhibitor

Interdiction slows the subjective story:  Boy Willie’s blind determination to sell the piano for money to buy land that will alter his future, prevents him from understanding that the piano is the embodiment of his family’s heritage and pride.  His stubbornness incites Berniece to threaten to shoot him, and postpones their reconciliation until it’s almost too late.

Relationship Story Benchmark

As the story progresses Berniece and Boy Willie respond to each other without thinking: Berniece’s immediate reaction to Boy Willie’s pre-dawn appearance is to order him to leave; accuse him of stealing the truck he arrived in; suspect him of killing John Sutter; blame him for her husband’s death.  Later, frightened by Boy Willie’s persistence, she threatens him with a gun.  Boy Willie rushes up to Pittsburgh to sell the piano disregarding Berniece’s attachment to it; dismisses her claim that she saw Sutter’s ghost; criticizes her reasons for keeping the piano as sentimental; challenges her to go ahead and shoot him when she threatens him.

Additional Relationship Story Information →
Relationship Story Throughline Synopsis

“The Piano Lesson focuses on a struggle between brother, Boy Willie, and sister, Berniece, over whether to sell an heirloom piano.  The piano was previously owned by the Sutter family, who held Boy Willie and Berniece’s family enslaved.  The slaveowner acquired the piano in a trade—he traded Berniece and Boy Willie’s great-grandmother and their grandfather for it.  Berniece and Boy Willie’s grandfather carved portraits of his family into the piano legs in memory of the loss of his wife and son.  Boy Willie wants to sell the piano to buy a piece of the property where his family served as slaves.  His eye is only to the future.  Berniece refuses to part with the instrument.  She is unable to play the piano that she insists on retaining because she fears that to do so is to raise the spirits embodied within it.  Berniece cannot reconcile her past with her present.  At the end of “The Piano Lesson,” however, when Boy Willie is struggling for life against Sutter’s ghost, Berniece finally understands that the only way to save him is to call upon her heritage, thereby empowering herself with its strength.  Her Christian faith alone is not enough; Berniece plays the piano and in a ritual chant calling on her ancestors, defeats the evil spirit.  (Pereira, p. 144)

Relationship Story Backstory

“To Berniece—whose life has been spent in the shadow of violence and death—the piano is a millstone round her neck, trapping her in a vortex of painful memories, dragging her into the depths of a past she wants to forget.  First her father, Boy Charles, was burned to death after stealing the piano.  Then her husband died in a shoot-out with the sheriff during a wood-stealing foray with Boy Willie and Lymon.  Between these two incidents were long, hard years as the fatherless family struggled to survive.  The piano is a powerful reminder of all this.  She cannot bring herself to play it, afraid to release a torrent of pent-up emotions.” (Pereira, p. 91)  Boy Willie is not emotionally attached to the piano.  He only considers it as a means to buy his farm and secure his future.

Additional Story Points

Key Structural Appreciations

Overall Story Goal

The objective characters are concerned with the past the piano represents.  Berniece wants to remember and preserve her family’s past by keeping the piano; Boy Willie wants rectify the past by selling the piano and buying land that once bound his ancestors in slavery; Doaker wants Boy Willie to understand the family’s past through the history of the piano.

Overall Story Consequence

Failure to achieve the goal to sell off the piano causes the painful memories surrounding it to resurface.  Doaker, in explaining why Berniece won’t sell the piano, recollects how his father was traded for it, and how his brother was burned alive after stealing it.  This memory plagues Doaker with regret and guilt because he helped his brother take the piano from the Sutters, and then didn’t save him from being hunted down and murdered.

Overall Story Cost

The cost incurred by the objective characters is the negative energy expended when called upon to conceptualize a way to achieve their goals: Doaker imagines that by telling every tragic event surrounding the piano in detail, Boy Willie will understand Berniece’s attitude toward the piano.  Boy Willie envisions making a moving dolly, having Lymon help him load the piano onto it, and sneaking the piano out of the house when Berniece isn’t home.  Berniece imagines scaring Boy Willie off by going upstairs and getting her husband’s gun, then putting it in her dress pocket to have it handy for threatening.

Overall Story Dividend

On the way to achieve his goal, Boy Willie comes to understand that he doesn’t have to own land to have dignity, pride, and proof of achievement, the piano represents that for every member of the Charles family.

Overall Story Requirements

Before Boy Willie can make an informed decision to sell the piano he must first know what it is he’ll be selling.  Although he goes through the process of listening to Doaker’s stories about the piano and his family, and hearing Berniece’s stories about their widowed mother’s obsession with the piano, he fails to actually understand its significance.

Overall Story Prerequisites

The objective characters must stop acting on impulse if they’re going to get what they want in life:  Boy Willie must control the impulse to try to force his will upon others; Berniece needs to restrain the impulse to blame everyone for her current state of misery before she can remarry and get on with her life; Lymon has to quit chasing the first woman he meets, and think before he acts, or he’ll end up trapped with the wrong wife.

Overall Story Preconditions

If the goal of selling the piano is to be reached:  Boy Willie must adopt some restraint and patience if he hopes to sway Berniece to listen to him; just this once Doaker must act with some passion and fire, and quit being so neutral if he’s going to rally Boy Willie’s cause and convince his niece to sell the piano; Avery has to quit being an overzealous preacher and just act like the lonely, caring man he is if he’s going to persuade Berniece to release the piano and get on with her life.

Overall Story Forewarnings

If Boy Willie doesn’t become aware that the piano is the embodiment of the Charles’ family pride and heritage, and value it for what it is, he’ll end up figuratively doing what the slave owner Sutter did—sell off family members and forever separate them from their loved ones.

Plot Progression

Dynamic Act Appreciations

Overall Story

Overall Story Signpost 1

Doaker manages the Charles’ household while Berniece works as a maid and raises her daughter without a husband; Lymon is on the run from authorities in Mississippi as he helps Boy Willie sell watermelons in Pittsburgh; Avery tries to get a bank loan to start a church and convince Berniece to marry him; Maretha practices lessons on the piano and attends two schools so that she can be a teacher one day.

Overall Story Journey 1 from Present to Past

The characters struggle with their day to day lives.  Avery takes a half-day off work to apply for a bank loan.  Doaker is resigned to his narrow life as a railroad cook during his trips and as a bachelor at home.  Wining Boy confesses that his life as a roaming piano player was unfulfilling.
WINING BOY:  You look up one day and you hate the whiskey, and you hate the women, and you hate the piano.  (Wilson, p. 41)

Overall Story Signpost 2

Doaker urges Boy Willie to understand the current situation within his household concerning Berniece’s struggle to raise Maretha, and Avery’s pursuit of Berniece.  He patiently explains the Charles’ family’s tragic past surrounding the piano.

Overall Story Journey 2 from Past to Progress

Doaker relates the sad tale of how, during slavery, his grandmother and his daddy were traded for the piano, and how his brother was burned alive for stealing it from the Sutters.  Lymon uses his money from the watermelons to buy a “magic” suit from Wining Boy, and sets out to find himself a woman with whom he can settle down.  He’s disappointed when the woman he meets just wants him to buy her drinks.

Overall Story Signpost 3

Avery gets a loan to buy property for his church; asks Berniece to marry him again and is rejected again; promises Berniece he’ll bless the house to rid it of Sutter’s ghost as a demonstration of his faith.  Lymon fails to find a “good” woman for himself and returns to Berniece’s house alone.

Overall Story Journey 3 from Progress to Future

Avery sees that Berniece is just drifting from day to day, and life is passing her by.  He’s tired of waiting for her to realize what a good life she could have as his wife, if she would just let go of the past and entrust her future to him and the Lord.

Overall Story Signpost 4

Boy Willie suggests that if Berniece and Maretha don’t play the piano both him and Sutter’s ghost may be back.  Wining Boy prepares to take the train down south to find a place for himself without using his piano playing to earn a living.  Berniece, freed from the past, can look forward to a fulfilling future as Avery’s wife and partner in his church.

Main Character

Main Character Signpost 1

Berniece tries to understand why Boy Willie and Lymon are visiting her in Pittsburgh, if Lymon’s truck is actually stolen, exactly how John Sutter came to fall down his well, and why his ghost calls out her brother’s name.

Main Character Journey 1 from Understanding to Doing

Berniece is sarcastic when she finally understands the meaning of Boy Willie’s visit.
BERNIECE:  I knew you were up to something.  (Wilson, p. 27)
She immediately orders him to forget the idea of selling the piano.  Later, she threatens him:
BERNIECE:  Boy Willie. . . you gonna play around with me one too many times.  And then God’s gonna bless you and West is gonna dress you.  (Wilson, p.50)

Main Character Signpost 2

Berniece snubs her brother when she offers to fix only her uncle dinner; emotionally rejects Avery’s marriage proposal; refuses his challenge to play the piano and overcome her fears; chases Boy Willie and his girlfriend out of the house; rejects Lymon’s advances.

Main Character Journey 2 from Doing to Obtaining

Berniece prepares herself a bath so she can relax after a hard day’s work.  She fights for the right to maintain her identity outside of marriage when Avery pressures her to marry him.
BERNIECE:  You trying to tell me a woman can’t be nothing without a man?

Main Character Signpost 3

Berniece tells Doaker how she plans to stop her brother from removing the piano from the house:
BERNIECE:  I ain’t playing with Boy Willie.  I got Crawley’s gun upstairs.  He don’t know but I’m through with it.  [. . .]  I ain’t studying Boy Willie or Lymon—or the rope.  Boy Willie ain’t taking that piano out this house.  That’s all there is to it.  (Wilson, p. 86-87)

Main Character Journey 3 from Obtaining to Learning

Berniece fears that she’s lost control over the piano, Boy Willie, and her entire household.  But when Sutter’s ghost attacks her brother, Berniece seizes control of the situation and summons up her ancestors’ spirits from the piano.  She learns not to fear her past, but to embrace it, and use it to move on in life.

Main Character Signpost 4

Berniece learns about the power of the piano when she uses it to save Boy Willie from the ghost.  She experiences the release of the spirits of her ancestors, and learns not to fear the power of the piano.  She learns to accept her past and look forward to the future.

Influence Character

Influence Character Signpost 1

Boy Willie comes up with the idea to sell the piano to raise the cash needed to buy one hundred acres of Mississippi farmland.

influence Character Journey 1 from Conceiving to Being

Desperate for a farm of his own, Boy Willie comes up with a way to get the cash to buy Sutter’s land.  He explains his idea and his reason for coming to Pittsburgh.
BOY WILLIE:  That’s why I come up here.  Sell them watermelons.  Get Berniece to sell that piano.  Put them two parts with the part I done saved. (Wilson, p. 10)
Boy Willie assumes the role of kindly uncle to Maretha, advising her to take up the guitar in place of the piano.

Influence Character Signpost 2

Boy Willie assumes many roles to achieve his goals.  To sell his watermelons, Boy Willie plays the role of the simple farmer to his white customers, but when he’s with his family he makes fun of them. 
BOY WILLIE:  One lady asked me say, “Is they sweet?”  I told her, “Oh, yeah, we put the sugar right in the ground with the seed.”  She say, “Well, give me another one.”  Them white folks is something else. . .  ain’t they, Lymon?  (Wilson, p. 59)

Influence Character Journey 2 from Being to Becoming

Boy Willie plays at being a Don Juan when he attempts to seduce a woman on Berniece’s living room sofa.  Later he becomes confrontational with Doaker when he tries to stop Boy Willie from moving the piano out of the house.

Influence Character Signpost 3

Boy Willie dreams of transforming himself from a sharecropper to a landed farmer respected by white men as well as black men by seizing control of his economic future.
BOY WILLIE:  If you got a piece of land you’ll find everything else will fit right into place.  You can stand right up next to the white man and talk about the price of cotton. . . and anything else. . .  (Wilson, p. 92)

Influence Character Journey 3 from Becoming to Conceptualizing

Boy Willie becomes combative with Doaker when his uncle stops him from moving the piano out of the house.  He envisions building a dolly to move the piano out, sell it, and eventually become a respected farmer:
BOY WILLIE:  I’m gonna get me some rope. . . Find me a plank and some wheels. . . And I’m coming back.  Then I’m gonna carry that piano out of here. . . sell it and give Berniece half the money. . . And you or nobody else is gonna stop me.  (Wilson, p. 85)

Influence Character Signpost 4

After Berniece defeats the ghost, Boy Willie imagines that both he and the ghost might return if Berniece doesn’t keep playing it and keep connected to their ancestors.

Relationship Story

Relationship Story Signpost 1

Boy Willie remembers his sister’s reserved attitude after she refuses to wake up Maretha so he can say hello his niece.
BOY WILLIE:  I see Berniece still try to be stuck up.  (Wilson, p. 8)

Relationship Story Journey 1 from Memory to PreconsciousBerniece refuses to let Boy Willie sell the piano because of her memories of the pain suffered by their widowed mother. BERNIECE: For seventeen years she rubbed on it [the piano] till her hands bled. Then she rubbed the blood in. . . mixed it up with the rest of the blood on it. Every day that God breathed life into her body she rubbed and cleaned and polished and prayed over it. (Wilson, p. 52) Berniece's immediate impulse is to lash out at her brother who's reckless and stubborn just like her father and her husband who died violently leaving their women and children behind.
Relationship Story Signpost 2

Seeing Boy Willie for the first time since her husband’s death, Berniece expresses profound grief and resentment and accuses him of killing her husband.  She beats him as she demands to know why her husband isn’t with her.
“BERNIECE continues to hit BOY WILLIE, who doesn’t move to defend himself, other than back up and turning his head so that most of the blows fall on his chest and arms.” (Wilson, p. 54)

Relationship Story Journey 2 from Preconscious to Subconscious

Boy Willie’s instinctive response to Berniece’s outburst is to take the abuse passively with compassion as he tries to calm her down.  But Berniece’s need for love and companionship from her husband drives her to continue her attack in spite of Doaker’s efforts to pull her off her brother.

Relationship Story Signpost 3

When Berniece suggests they’re living at the bottom of life, Boy Willie tells her of his need for respect and equality.

Relationship Story Journey 3 from Subconscious to Conscious

Driven by her love for her brother, Berniece uses the piano to save him from the ghost.  Grateful for being saved, Boy Willie cheerfully taunts Berniece about the future:
BOY WILLIE:  Hey Berniece. . . if you and Maretha don’t keep playing on that piano. . . ain’t no telling. . . me and Sutter both liable to be back.  (Wilson, p. 108)

Relationship Story Signpost 4

After Berniece saves him from the ghost using the piano, Boy Willie considers the possibility that it belongs with his sister, and leaves for Mississippi without it.

Plot Progression Visualizations

Dynamic Act Schematics


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