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Mrs. Johnson is not as responsible for her daughters' personalities as are external forces, or so she would have us believe. As a narrator, she is fairly objective about her role.
Mrs. Johnson's self-sufficient style of parenting has left the daughters to grow apart physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Mrs. Johnson is obviously closer in personality to Maggie, but she does not actively imprint her daughter as such. We see signs that Maggie will take over the role of family matriarch by the same work ethic and self-sufficiency as her mother. This is learned through example. By the end of the story, Mrs. Johnson rewards her daughter with the family heirlooms because she is not ashamed of her domestic role and her history of being descended from other hard-working and self-sufficient women. Gender really has nothing to do with it (Mrs. Johnson describes herself as a man and Maggie as an animal).
Mrs. Johnson and Maggie are not well educated. Mrs. Johnson. She was “always better at a man’s job” (91) and only had a 2nd grade education (in 1927), “I never had an education myself.” Mrs. Johnson seems to be content with her surroundings. She takes pride in her home, and prepares it for her daughter’s visit: “I wait for her in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean . . . yesterday afternoon”. They seem to be more like sisters than Maggie and Dee.
Two life-changing events sends the biological sisters in different directions: the house fire and college. For Maggie: “Burned severely in a house fire as a child, the shy, stammering Maggie Johnson cowers in the overwhelming presence of her sister." Obviously, Mrs. Johnson is not responsible for scarring her daughter physically and emotionally; this is an external disaster.
While at college, Dee changes her name and “denies her real heritage." She says, “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” She “wants to display her mother’s possessions."
Unlike Dee, Maggie is domestic. She knows how to quilt. She “can’t see well.” “She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face).” “Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by.”
The way Mrs. Johnson describes Dee shows biological, external, animalistic shaping of personality: "Have you ever seen a lame animal . . . sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire." It does not seem that Mrs. Johnson thinks that she has shaped her daughter's personality; it has been shaped by suffering.
Like the two sisters in The Color Purple, the sisters here are in a kind of revisionist Cinderella myth. They have been created to fill archetypal roles more than to show a kind of fully developed realism two sisters might show in a novel.
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