Alice Walker

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Alice Walker Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

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”

“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...

(The entire section is 4,032 words.)