Alice Walker Short Fiction Analysis
The heroism of black women in the face of turmoil of all kinds rings from both volumes of Alice Walker’s short stories like the refrain of a protest song. In Love and Trouble reveals the extremes of cruelty and violence to which poor black women are often subjected in their personal relationships, while the struggles in You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down reflect the social upheavals of the 1970’s.
In Love and Trouble
Such subjects and themes lend themselves to a kind of narrative that is filled with tension. The words “love” and “trouble,” for example, in the title of the first collection, identify a connection that is both unexpected and inevitable. Each of the thirteen stories in this collection is a vivid confirmation that every kind of love known to woman brings its own kind of suffering. Walker is adept at pairing such elements so as to create pronounced and revealing contrasts or intense conflicts. One such pair that appears in many of these short stories is a stylistic one and easy to see: the poetry and prose that alternate on the page. Another unusual combination at work throughout the short fiction may be called the lyrical and the sociological. Like the protest song, Walker’s stories make a plea for justice made more memorable by its poetic form. She breathes rhythmic, eloquent language into the most brutish and banal abuses.
These two elements—similarity of subject matter and the balance of highly charged contraries—produce a certain unity within each volume. Yet beyond this common ground, the stories have been arranged so as to convey a progression of interconnected pieces whose circumstances and themes repeat, alternate, and overlap rather like a musical composition. The first three stories of In Love and Trouble, for example, are all about married love; the next two are about love between parent and child; then come three stories in which black-white conflict is central; the fourth group concerns religious expression; and the last three stories focus on initiation. Other themes emerge and run through this five-set sequence, linking individual motifs and strengthening the whole. Jealousy is one of those motifs, as is the drive for self-respect, black folkways, and flowers, in particular the rose and the black-eyed Susan.
Four stories suggest the breadth of Walker’s imagination and narrative skills. “Roselily” strikes an anticipatory note of foreboding. “The Child Who Favored Daughter” is an equally representative selection, this time of the horrific destruction of the black woman. “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff” is as cool and clear as “The Child Who Favored Daughter” is dark and fevered. The narrator recounts a tale of Voodoo justice, specifically crediting Zora Neale Hurston, author of Mules and Men (1935). The final story in this collection, “To Hell with Dying,” is an affirmative treatment of many themes Walker has developed elsewhere more darkly.
“Roselily” takes place on a front porch surrounded by a crowd of black folk, in sight of Highway 61 in Mississippi during the time it takes to perform a wedding ceremony. As the preacher intones the formal words, the bride’s mind wanders among the people closest to her there—the bridegroom, the preacher, her parents, sisters, and children. The groom’s religion is note the same as hers, and she knows that he disapproves of this gathering. She speculates uneasily about their future life together in Chicago, where she will wear a veil, sit on the women’s side of his church, and have more babies. She is the mother of four children already but has never been married. He is giving her security, but he intends, she realizes, to remake her into the image he wants. Even the love he gives her causes her great sadness, as it makes her aware of how unloved she was before. At last, the ceremony over, they stand in the yard, greeting well-wishers, he completely alien, she overcome with anxiety. She squeezes his hand for reassurance but receives no answering signal from him.
Poetic and fairy tale elements intensify the ambivalence felt by the bride in this magnetic mood piece. First, there are the ceremonial resonances of the words between the paragraphs of narrative, stately and solemn like a slow drumbeat. As these phrases alternate with Roselily’s thoughts, a tension develops. At the words “Dearly Beloved,” a daydream of images begins to flow, herself a small girl in her mother’s fancy dress, struggling through “a bowl of quicksand soup”; the words “we are gathered here” suggest to her the image of cotton, waiting to be weighed, a Mississippi ruralness she knows the bridegroom finds repugnant; “in the sight of God” creates in her mind the image of God as a little black boy tugging at the preacher’s coattail. Gradually, a sense of foreboding builds. At the words “to join this man and this woman” she imagines “ropes, chains, handcuffs, his religion.” The bridegroom is her rescuer, like Prince Charming, and is ready to become her Pygmalion. Like Sleeping Beauty, Roselily is only dimly aware of exchanging one form of confinement, of enchantment, for another. At the end of the ceremony, she awakes to his passionate kiss and a terrible sense of being wrong.
“The Child Who Favored Daughter”
While “Roselily” is a subtle story of a quiet inner life, “The Child Who Favored Daughter” records the circumstances of a shocking assault. It begins, also, on a front porch. A father waits with a shotgun on a hot afternoon for his daughter to walk from the school bus through the front yard. He is holding in his hand a letter she had written to her white lover. Realizing what her father knows, the girl comes slowly down the dusty lane, pausing to study the black-eyed Susans. As his daughter approaches, the father is reminded of his sister, “Daughter,” who also had a white lover. His intense love for his sister had turned to bitterness when she gave herself to a man by whom he felt enslaved; his bitterness poisoned all of his relationships with women thereafter. He confronts the girl on the porch with the words “White man’s slut!” then beats her with a stable harness and leaves her in the shed behind the house. The next morning, failing to make her deny the letter and struggling to suppress his “unnameable desire,” he slashes off her breasts. As the story ends, he sits in a stupor on the front porch.
This story of perverted parental love and warring passions explores the destructive power of jealousy and denial. Its evil spell emanates from the father’s unrepented and unacknowledged desire to possess his sister. He is haunted by her when he looks at his own daughter. Once again, a strongly lyrical style heightens the dominant tone, in this case, horror. Short lines of verse, like snatches of song interspersed with the narrative, contrast sharply in their suggestion of pure feeling with the tightly restrained prose. The daughter’s motif associates her with the attraction of natural beauty: “Fire of earth/ Lure of flower smells/ The sun.” The father’s theme sounds his particular resignation and doom: “Memories of years/ Unknowable women—/ sisters/ spouses/ illusions of soul.” The resulting trancelike confrontation seems inevitable, the two moving through a pattern they do not control, do not understand.
“The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff”
In “The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff,” a woman who has lost husband, children, and self-respect, all because a charity worker denied her food stamps, comes to the seer Tante Rosie for peace of mind. Tante Rosie assures the troubled woman that the combined powers of the Man-God and the Great Mother of Us All will destroy her enemy. Tante Rosie’s apprentice, who narrates the story, teaches Mrs. Kemhuff the curse-prayer printed in Zora Neale Hurston’s Mules and Men. Then she sets about to collect the necessary ingredients for the conjure: Sarah Sadler Holley’s feces, water, nail parings. Her task seems to become almost impossible when her mentor tells her that these items must be gained directly from the victim herself. Nevertheless, with a plan in mind, the young woman approaches Mrs. Holley, tells her that she is learning the profession from Tante Rosie, and then asks her to prove that she, as she claims, does not believe in “rootworking.” It is only a short while until Mrs. Kemhuff dies, followed a few months later by Mrs. Holley, who had, after the visit of the apprentice, taken to her bedroom, eating her nails, saving her fallen hair, and collecting her excrement in plastic bags and barrels.
This is the first story in the collection in which the black community comes into conflict with the white. It is a conflict of religious traditions and a strong statement in recognition of something profound in African folkways. Mrs. Holley failed Mrs. Kemhuff years before in the greatest of Christian virtues, that of charity. Mrs. Kemhuff, though now reconciled to her church, cannot find peace and seeks the even greater power of ancient conjure to restore her pride. Like other African American writers who have handled this subject, Walker first acknowledges that Voodoo is widely discounted as sheer superstition, but then her story argues away all rational objections. Mrs. Holley does not die as the result of hocus-pocus but because of her own radical belief, a belief in spite of herself. There is something else about this story that is different from those at the beginning of the collection. Instead of a dreamy or hypnotic action, alert characters speak and think purposefully, clearly, one strand of many evolving patterns that emerge as the stories are read in sequence.
“To Hell with Dying”
“To Hell with Dying” is the last story in the collection and a strong one. A more mellow love-and-trouble story than most preceding it, it features a male character who is not the villain of the piece. Mr. Sweet Little is a melancholy man whom the narrator has loved from childhood, when her father would bring the children to Mr. Sweet’s bedside to rouse him from his depression with a shout: “To hell with dying! These children want Mr. Sweet!” Because the children were so successful in “revivaling” Mr. Sweet with their kisses and tickling and cajoling ways, they were not to learn for some time what death really meant. Years pass. Summoned from her doctoral studies in Massachusetts, the twenty-four-year-old narrator rushes to Mr. Sweet’s bedside, where she cannot quite believe that she will not succeed. She does induce him to open his eyes, smile, and trace her hairline with his finger as he once did. Still, however, he dies. His legacy to her is the steel guitar on which he played away his blues all those years, that and her realization that he was her first love.
It is useful to recognize this story as an initiation story, like the two that precede it, “The Flowers” and “We Drink the Wine in France.” Initiation stories usually involve, among other things, an unpleasant brush with reality, a new reality. A child, adolescent, or young adult faces an unfamiliar challenge and, if successful, emerges at a new level of maturity or increased status. Always, however, something is lost, something must be given up. As a very small girl, the narrator remembers, she did not understand quite what was going on during their visits to the neighbor’s shack. When she was somewhat older, she felt the weight of responsibility for the dying man’s survival. At last, after she has lost her old friend, she is happy, realizing how important they were to each other. She has successfully negotiated her initiation into the mysteries of love and death, as, in truth, she had already done to the best of her ability at those earlier stages. This often-reprinted story is a culmination of the struggle between Death and Love for the lives of the girls and women, really for all the blacks of In Love and Trouble, one which well represents Walker’s talent and demonstrates her vision of blacks supporting and affirming one another in community.
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down
You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is her salute to black women who are pushing ahead, those who have crossed some barriers and are in some sense champions. There are black women who are songwriters, artists, writers, students in exclusive Eastern schools; they are having abortions, teaching their men the meaning of pornography, coming to terms with the death of a father, on one hand, or with the meaning of black men raping white women, on the other. Always, they are caught up short by the notions of whites. In other words, all the political, sexual, racial, countercultural issues of the 1970’s are in these stories, developed from what Walker calls the “womanist” point of view.
This set of stories, then, is somewhat more explicitly sociological than the first and somewhat less lyrical, and it is also more apparently autobiographical, but in a special sense. Walker herself is a champion, so her life is a natural, even an inescapable, source of material. Walker-the-artist plays with Walker-the-college-student and Walker-the-idealistic-teacher, as well as with some of the other roles she sees herself as having occupied during that decade of social upheaval. Once a writer’s experience has become transformed within a fictive world, it becomes next to impossible to think of the story’s events as either simply autobiography or simply invention. The distinction has been deliberately blurred. It is because Walker wants to unite her public and private worlds, her politics and her art, life as lived and life as imagined, that, instead of poetry, these stories are interspersed with autobiographical parallels, journal entries, letters, and other expressions of her personality. There are three stories that deserve special attention, “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” “Fame,” and “Source.” To begin with, they serve as checkpoints for the collection’s development, from the essentially simple and familiar to the increasingly complex and strange, from 1955 to 1980. Furthermore, these stories are independently memorable.
The opening story, “Nineteen Fifty-Five,” is presented from the perspective of a middle-aged blues singer, Gracie Mae Still, whose signature song, recorded by a young white man named Traynor, brings him fame and fortune. Gracie Mae records her impressions of Traynor in a journal, beginning with their first meeting in 1955 and continuing until his death in 1977. Over the years, the rock-and-roll star (obviously meant to suggest Elvis Presley) stays in touch with the matronly musician, buying her lavish gifts—a white Cadillac, a mink coat, a house—and quizzing her on the real meaning of her song. From the army, he writes to tell her that her song is very much in demand, and that everyone asks him what he thinks it means, really. As time goes by and his life disappoints him, he turns to the song, as if it were a touchstone that could give his life meaning. He even arranges an appearance for himself and Gracie Mae on the variety show hosted by Johnny Carson, with some half-developed notion of showing his fans what the real thing is and how he aspires to it. If he is searching for a shared experience of something true and moving with his audience, however, he is to be disappointed again. His fans applaud only briefly, out of politeness, for the originator of the song, the one who really gives it life, then squeal wildly for his imitation, without any recognition of what he wanted them to understand. That is the last time the two musicians see each other.
In part, this story is about the contribution that black music made to the spirit of the times and how strangely whites transformed it. The white rock-and-roll singer, who seems as much in a daze as some of the women of In Love and Trouble, senses something superior in the original blues version, but he misplaces its value, looking for some meaning to life that can be rolled up in the nutshell of a lyric. In contrast to the bemused Traynor, Gracie Mae is a down-to-earth champion, and her dialect looks forward to Walker’s masterful handling of dialect in The Color Purple. She repeatedly gives Traynor simple and sensible advice when he turns to her for help, and she has her own answer to the mystery of his emptiness: “Really, I think, some peoples advance so slowly.”
The champion of “Fame” is Andrea Clement White, and the events take place on one day, when she is being honored, when she is being confronted by her own fame. She is speaking to a television interviewer as the story begins. The old woman tells the young interviewer that in order to look at the world freshly and creatively, an artist simply cannot be famous. When reminded by the young woman that she herself is famous, Andrea Clement White is somewhat at a loss. As the interview continues its predictable way, the novelist explaining once again that she writes about people, not their color, she uneasily asks herself why she does not “feel famous,” why she feels as though she has not accomplished what she set out to do.
The highlight of the day is to be a luncheon in her honor, at which her former colleagues, the president, and specially invited dignitaries, as well as the generally detested former dean, will all applaud her life accomplishments (while raising money). All the while, the lady of the hour keeps a bitingly humorous commentary running in her mind. Her former students in attendance are “numbskulls,” the professors, “mediocre.” Out loud, she comments that the president is a bore. No matter how outrageous her behavior, she is forgiven because of her stature; when she eats her Rock Cornish hen with her hands, the entire assembly of five hundred follows suit. At last, however, the spleen and anxious bravado give way to something out of reach of the taint of fame: a child singing an anonymous slave song. Recalled to her dignity, the honored guest is able to face her moment in the limelight stoically.
In this comic story of the aggravations and annoyances that beset the publicly recognized artist, Walker imagines herself as an aging novelist who does not suffer fools gladly. She puts the artist’s inner world on paper so that something of her gift for storytelling and her habits of mind become visible. The stress of the occasion and being brought into forced contact with her former president and dean trigger her aggressive imagination, and her innate narrative gift takes over. She visualizes using her heavy award as a weapon against the repulsive, kissing dean, hearing him squeal, and briefly feels gleeful. The story, however, is something more than simply a comic portrait of the artist’s foibles. When Andrea Clement White questions herself about her own sense of fame, admits her own doubts, she is searching for something certain, as Traynor is searching in “Nineteen Fifty-five,” though not so blindly. Like him, she is called out of the mundane by a meaningful song.
The last story of You Can’t Keep a Good Woman Down is “Source,” which connects the social conscience of an antipoverty worker in Mississippi with the expanding consciousness of the alternative lifestyle as practiced on the West Coast. Two friends, Irene and Anastasia had attended college together in New York. When funding for Irene’s adult-education project was cut, she traveled to San Francisco for a change of scene, to be met by Anastasia, living on welfare with some friends named Calm, Peace, and their baby, Bliss, all under the guidance of a swami named Source. The two young women had been unable to find any common ground, Irene believing in collective action and Anastasia believing that people choose to suffer and that nothing can be changed. After walking out on a meeting with Source, Irene was asked to leave. Years later, the two meet again in Alaska, where Irene is lecturing to educators. Anastasia is now living with an Indian and passing for white. This time, the two women talk more directly, of color, of Anastasia’s panic when she is alone, of her never being accepted as a black because of her pale skin. Irene is brought to face her own part in this intolerance and to confess that her reliance on government funding was every bit as insecure as had been Anastasia’s reliance on Source. Their friendship restored and deepened, the two women embrace.
The title of this story suggests a theme that runs throughout the entire collection, the search for a center, a source of strength, meaning, or truth. This source is very important to the pioneer, but it can be a false lure. When Irene recognizes that she and Anastasia were both reaching out for something on which to depend, she states what might be taken as the guiding principle for the champion: “any direction that is away from ourselves is the wrong direction.” This final portrait of a good woman who cannot be kept down is a distinctively personal one. Women who are not distracted by external influences and who are true to themselves and able to open themselves to one another will triumph.
Walker’s short fiction adds a new image to the pantheon of American folk heroes: the twentieth century black woman, in whatever walk of life, however crushed or blocked, still persevering. Even those who seem the most unaware, the most poorly equipped for the struggle, are persevering, because, in their integrity, they cannot do otherwise. The better equipped know themselves to be advocates. They shoulder their dedication seriously and cheerfully. They are the fortunate ones; they understand that what they do has meaning.
One of the more widely anthologized of Walker’s stories, “Everyday Use” addresses the issues of identity and true cultural awareness and attacks the “hyper-Africanism” much in vogue during the 1960’s and 1970’s as false and shallow. The occasion of the story is Dee’s brief trip back to her home, ostensibly to visit with her mother and her sister, Maggie, who was left seriously scarred in the fire of suspicious origin that destroyed their home years earlier. Dee’s real purpose, however, is to acquire some homemade quilts and other artifacts of her culture so that she can display them in her home as tokens of her “authenticity,” her roots in the soil of rural Georgia. She wears a spectacular dashiki and wishes to be called by an “African” name; she is accompanied by a man who likewise affects “African” dress, hairstyle, naming tradition, and handshaking routines. Walker’s tongue is firmly in her cheek as she portrays these two characters in vivid contrast with Mama and Maggie, whose lives are simple, close to the earth, and genuine. Despite (or perhaps because of) Mama’s sacrifices and hard work to send Dee off to acquire an education in the outside world, Dee reveals a fundamental selfishness and lack of understanding of her culture and family and, her purposes thwarted, leaves without the quilts in a cloud of dust and disdain. Mama and Maggie sit in their neat yard, its dirt surface carefully raked, enjoying the shade and their snuff together “until it was time to go in the house and go to bed.”
Walker’s control of style and tone is nowhere more certain than in this powerful and economical story. Here she shows that family, tradition, and strength are to be found in the items of everyday use that have survived the fires of prejudice, from whatever source, and illuminate the true meaning of family and love and forgiveness. Despite the truth of Dee’s parting statement that “it really is a new day for us,” Walker leaves no doubt that the promise of that new day will be dimmed if traditions are exploited rather than understood and cherished. Maggie, after all, learned how to quilt from her grandmother and her great aunt and thus has a much surer sense of her own identity than her sister.