The story begins with the opening words of the traditional wedding ceremony, ‘‘Dearly Beloved.’’ The two words, italicized, hang above a paragraph of prose, with no explanation. Following the paragraph are a few more words from the ceremony, ‘‘we are gathered here.’’ The brief story is arranged this way throughout. A paragraph or two of prose is followed by a bit of the minister’s words, until two sentences from the wedding are complete: ‘‘Dearly Beloved, / we are gathered here / in the sight of God / to join this man and this woman / in holy matrimony’’ and ‘‘If there’s anybody here that knows a reason why / these two should not be joined / together, / let him speak / or forever hold / his peace.’’
The eleven prose sections are spoken in the third person by a narrator who can see into the mind of Roselily, the central character. Each section reports what Roselily thinks and observes as she is being married. There is no dialogue and no real action, but simply the meandering thoughts of the central character. The story opens with Roselily daydreaming through her own wedding, seeing herself in her mother’s wedding gown. It is obvious immediately that this is not the story of a joyous wedding day. The wedding party stands on the porch of Roselily’s house, and the man she is marrying (he is never named) does not approve of the location.
Throughout the ceremony, cars can be heard passing by on the highway. White people drive the cars, and the men in the crowd keep looking at the passing cars in a ‘‘respectful way.’’ For the groom, Roselily can tell, the distraction caused by the white people, and the fact that these country people in Panther Burn, Mississippi, follow the ‘‘wrong God,’’ ruins the wedding. Roselily, who has three children, wonders what it would be like to not have them, and instantly her guilt is mixed in her mind with the guilt of not quite believing in the Christian God, and not believing in the minister’s authority.
The groom, who lives in Chicago, is a Muslim, a member of the Nation of Islam. Roselily does not know much about his religion, except that she will have to cover her head and sit in a separate section for women at his place of worship. When she thinks of his religion, she imagines ‘‘ropes, chains, handcuffs.’’ But to give her children a chance at respectability, she is willing to change her life. She had earlier pinned her hopes on the father of her fourth child, a married Harvard graduate from New England who had come to Mississippi to work in the Civil Rights Movement. He had been unable to adapt to life without Bach and chess, and had returned to New England with his son, telling his wife that he had found the child. Roselily wonders how her son will fare in the North.
She feels distant from her future husband. His religion and his manner seem to carry ‘‘stiff severity,’’ and she wonders whether she will be a new person when she is made to wear a veil. If she becomes a new person, what will become of her memories? Remembering her dead mother, the hard life of her ‘‘gray old’’ father who stands before her, and her grandparents in the cemetery, she feels them all pulling her back. She feels too old for big changes. When she reaches Chicago she will have an entirely new life. She will not have to work in a factory any more, but will be expected...
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to stay at home and raise more children. She wonders whether that kind of life will be full enough.
Now she wishes she had asked more questions before agreeing to marry this man. Perhaps she was too impatient for a new life in a new place. She was eager to be ‘‘Respectable, reclaimed, renewed. Free!’’ Yet she worries now about the kind of freedom she will find ‘‘in robe and veil.’’ Her future husband loves her, or he loves what he will turn her into, but she does not know whether she loves him. Is she moving toward freedom, or toward a new kind of entrapment? She does not know what she feels.
When the wedding is over there is a kiss, and the sound of firecrackers and car horns. As the witnesses cheer and give their congratulations, the groom turns his attention inward, away from the crowd and away from his wife. She imagines how it will be later, when they are driving through the night to Chicago. She feels ignorant, inadequate, but he offers no reassurance: ‘‘He is standing in front of her. In the crush of well-wishing people, he does not look back.’’