The Poetic Qualities of Walker's Story

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1814

Over three decades of continuous productivity and acclaim, Alice Walker has earned a place as one of the most important American writers of the twentieth century. She has published six novels, two collections of short stories, two collections of essays, five volumes of poetry, and several books for children. Ten million copies of her books have been sold around the world. She was the first African- American woman to win the Pulitzer Prize for fiction, for her novel The Color Purple, and several Walker has come so far from the young writer struggling to find her voice, it is easy to forget that she was a poet before she was a fiction writer, and that she inverted the normal order of things by publishing a novel, The Third Life of Grange Copeland, before issuing her first collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. Early in her career, Walker turned to poetry at her lowest moments. The poems in her first collection, Once: Poems, for example, were written in one desperate week just after an abortion. In an interview with John O’Brien, collected in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, she explains, ‘‘all of my poems . . . are written when I have successfully pulled myself out of a completely numbing despair, and stand again in sunlight. Writing poems is my way of celebrating with the world that I have not committed suicide the evening before.’’ But the lines between genres have always been a bit blurred for her. Essays are likely to contain bits of verse, some of the poems read like prose, and some stories, like ‘‘Roselily,’’ read like poems. It could be believed that ‘‘Roselily’’ is, in fact, a poem, or can profitably be read as one.

Walker herself has hinted at the appropriateness of this type of reading. In the John O’Brien interview she discusses her attempts to ‘‘try to figure out what I am doing in my writing, where it is headed, and so on,’’ and concludes, ‘‘I almost never can come up with anything.’’ But if she cannot articulate a plan for work in progress, she knows which finished pieces please her: ‘‘I like those of my short stories that show the plastic, shaping, almost painting quality of words. In ‘Roselily’ and ‘The Child Who Favors Daughter’ the prose is poetry, or prose and poetry run together to add a new dimension to the language.’’ It is exactly the ways that ‘‘prose and poetry run together’’ in the story that will be considered.

Of course, anything can be read as a poem, and a writer can call a collection of words anything she wishes. The idea behind the exercise of looking for ‘‘found poems’’ is that a poem is a poem if the reader thinks it is, even if someone else thinks it’s a phone book. Walker has planted small poetic treasures through ‘‘Roselily,’’ to reward those who wish to find a poem in it. In doing so, she has created a piece of writing that resembles the swirl of impressions and sensations of Roselily’s mind.

The structure of the story is nonlinear, a collection of short paragraphs or stanzas that float as freely as Roselily’s consciousness. They are not chronological, nor are they arranged in a sequence shaped by cause and effect. Some of the passages respond directly to the bits of wedding ceremony that come before them, but many do not. The paragraphs accumulate in the reader’s mind like pieces of a collage or a stained-glass window. The whole is greater than the sum...

(This entire section contains 1814 words.)

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of its parts, but the parts themselves could be gently shifted, rearranged.

Of all of Walker’s writings, ‘‘Roselily’’ most resembles, in the way it is put together, a poem called ‘‘Mornings / Of An Impossible Love,’’ from Once: Poems. ‘‘Mornings’’ is composed of five brief passages written in paragraph form. It presents five musings by a woman whose lover is getting ready to leave her. Like ‘‘Roselily,’’ it gains its poetic power by accumulation, by layering, by repetition. It does not attempt to tell a story so much as to put on the page the thoughts and impressions in a woman’s mind.

To direct readers to focus on sensation or atmosphere rather than on plot or action, poetry exploits sound. Poetry, more than prose, is concerned with ‘‘what it is like’’ rather than ‘‘what happened next,’’ and readers must be made to slow down, to linger over lines and experiences. In Roselily’s short, stanza-like passages of thought, Walker uses some of the sound tools of the poet, including alliteration, repetition, and rhythm, to heighten the emphasis on particular lines and phrases. Most of this heightening is subconscious, but readers, especially experienced readers, pick up clues from the sounds of words in addition to their meanings.

Alliteration is the repetition of initial consonant sounds in words that come right after each other or closely together. For example, the first line of the story after ‘‘Dearly Beloved’’ begins: ‘‘She dreams; dragging herself.’’ The repetition of dr is hard to pronounce, making something of a tongue twister. The small difficulty in pronouncing ‘‘dreams; dragging’’ makes the reader slow down, linger over the words, and this gives them added emphasis. In this briefly extended moment, the reader is forced to confront what is surely a surprise at the beginning of the story: After a lovely flower name, and the beginning of a wedding ceremony, and the sweet thought ‘‘she dreams,’’ there is the word dragging. The reader thus learns right away that this story will have surprises, and that one must pay attention to the individual words. Right away, the reader is encouraged to make a small shift and begins to read the story like a poem.

Other lines elevate their emotional content by the inclusion of alliteration. Thinking of the respectability she will soon have, Roselily imagines her new position: ‘‘What a vision, a view, from up so high.’’ Here the v sound echoes, but it does not slow the line down. The repetition of synonyms emphasizes the soaring feeling, as all the consonants fit smoothly together into one long line.

Near the end of the ceremony, Roselily reflects, in short, choppy lines, on what is ahead for her. ‘‘Proposal. Promises. A new life! Respectable, reclaimed, renewed. Free!’’ Here again, the consonant combinations are hard to pronounce smoothly, and the punctuation between words slows down the reading even further. ‘‘Proposal. Promises.’’ Roselily is holding on to these words, remembering why she is about to make this big change. The marriage was not her idea; she is beyond thinking her way out of her situation. But her husband has suggested this marriage, and now it is happening. Like a chant, she repeats and remembers. ‘‘Proposal. Promises.’’ And what will she gain? She will become ‘‘respectable, reclaimed, renewed.’’ This, too, sounds like words she has repeated to herself many times, shaping them through trial and error to an alliterative and rhythmic chant. She is not thinking in full sentences or big ideas any more, but forcing herself to focus on the essential: ‘‘Respectable, reclaimed, renewed.’’

In addition to using repetition of consonant sounds for emphasis, Walker also repeats whole words and phrases, creating a rhythm that is more poetry than prose. This happens most often in the second half of the story, after the minister asks whether anyone ‘‘knows a reason why.’’ For example, the words ‘‘wonders’’ and ‘‘thinks’’ are repeated far more frequently than would be necessary for exposition. At one point, ‘‘She wonders how to make new roots. It is beyond her. She wonders what one does with memories.’’ A bit later, ‘‘She thinks of her mother, who is dead. Dead, but still her mother.’’ And a bit later, ‘‘She wonders what it will be like. Not to have to go to a job. Not to work in a sewing plant. Not to worry about learning to sew straight seams.’’ The rhythmic qualities of the repeated lines keep repetitions like this from sounding silly or dull. Interestingly, the frequency of this kind of repetition increases as the story goes along, as though Roselily’s thinking becomes less rational and more impressionistic as she gets closer to being a wife.

There are lines in the story that read like puzzles, or like tangled balls of line that must be untangled to be examined. Like the alliterative lines, these lines force the reader to stop and linger, to sort out the meaning. The first ‘‘stanza’’ includes such a line: ‘‘The man who stands beside her is against this standing on the front porch of her house.’’ At the halfway point, when the minister begins his second sentence, there is this: ‘‘If there’s anybody here that knows a reason why / But of course they know no reason why beyond what they daily have come to know.’’ Teachers of expository writing and even fiction writing encourage their students to avoid lines like this, under the assumption that readers of prose do not expect to be challenged at the sentence level. Ideas may be complex, but sentences should be clear. Poetry revels in such word games, in demonstrating on the page the non-linear qualities of thought and emotion.

Others have discussed the story’s use of repeated images. As Donna Haisty Winchell demonstrates in Alice Walker, Roselily’s ‘‘mother’s white robe and veil’’ is transformed into the robe and veil that protect and segregate Muslim women. Roselily never explicitly makes the connection, but the repetition of the image and the language (the image of the robe and veil occurs four times in this very brief story) connect and confuse the two meanings in the reader’s mind. In ‘‘An Essay on Alice Walker,’’ Mary Helen Washington identifies several ‘‘fleeting images’’ of entrapment that ‘‘inadvertently break through’’ Roselily’s mind: ‘‘quicksand, flowers choked to death, cotton being weighed, ropes, chains, handcuffs, cemeteries, a cornered rat.’’ To use imagery so insistently in such a small space seems again to be more poetry than prose.

This is not to say that qualities such as sound, rhythm, word play, and repeated imagery are not to be found in prose. Nothing is gained by debating whether ‘‘Roselily’’ and ‘‘Mornings’’ are short stories or poems. Literature is more than message; it is also the medium, the way a message is conveyed. Is ‘‘Roselily’’ a short story or a poem, perhaps the type of lyric poem called a dramatic monologue? It is both, and draws power from each tradition. But if a reader is willing to bring to this story some of the serious playfulness that poetry draws out, she will be twice blessed.

Source: Cynthia Bily, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Bily has a master’s degree in English literature and has written for a variety of educational publishers.

Personal Spirits

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2390

The short story ‘‘Roselily,’’ by Alice Walker, is written as the internal monologue of a woman, Roselily, while she stands at the altar taking her wedding vows. Through this internal monologue, Roselily expresses a strong current of ambivalence about the marriage that is taking place. Furthermore, as she hears each phrase of the wedding vows, spoken by the preacher, Roselily interprets it in her own way, as an expression of her true feelings about the impending marriage.

A closer look at one of the opening epigraphs to Women in Love and Trouble, the short story collection in which ‘‘Roselily’’ appears, helps to illuminate the nature of Roselily’s ambivalence. This passage, from The Concubine, by Elechi Amadi, describes a young girl whose parents engaged her to marry when she was only eight days old. It is explained that the girl’s irrational behavior and frequent crying is attributable to her agwu her ‘‘personal spirit’’: ‘‘Of course the influence of agwu could not be nullified overnight. In fact it would never be completely eliminated. Everyone was mildly influenced now and then by his personal spirit.’’ Thus, the girl’s ‘‘personal spirit,’’ which ‘‘could never be completely eliminated’’ represents the assertion of her own individual will against the restrictions placed on her by her role in society. Having been promised by her parents to marry without her choice or consent, the girl’s internal impulse toward rebellion can only be expressed through her ‘‘personal spirit.’’ The implication is that, even under the most oppressive conditions, the individual will, or ‘‘personal spirit’’ of any person will find a way to assert itself.

The second epigraph to this story collection complements the first. An excerpt from Letters to a Young Poet, by the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, this passage asserts that it is human nature to ‘‘be oneself,’’ no matter what difficulties one encounters to do so, ‘‘at all costs,’’ and ‘‘against all opposition’’: ‘‘everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition.’’

Together, these two passages illuminate the meaning of Roselily’s inner monologue during her wedding ceremony. As the snippets of the traditional Christian wedding sermon intrude upon her thoughts, Roselily’s inner monologue represents the assertion of her ‘‘personal spirit,’’ despite the restrictions placed upon her by her impending marriage. Although, unlike the girl in the first epigraph, Roselily has freely chosen this marriage, her position as a poor, Southern, black woman, a single mother of four children (one of them living with his father), has severely limited the options from which she has had to choose. And, although she outwardly conforms to the expectations of her community and her husband-to-be, Roselily’s internal monologue expresses the impulse to be herself, if only in her mind, even ‘‘against all odds.’’ With each phrase of the sermon, Roselily’s internal monologue twists the words into an expression of her own ‘‘personal spirit’’—a spirit at odds with the traditionally intended meaning of the wedding vows.

Even as the wedding ceremony begins, ‘‘Dearly Beloved,’’ Roselily’s private thoughts break free from the restrictions being imposed upon her by this marriage: ‘‘She dreams. . . .’’ Her thoughts struggle to take her far away from where she stands at the altar, ‘‘dragging herself across the world.’’ Although she is about to marry a man whom she will be expected to obey, her thoughts take her to a place where she specifically does something he disapproves of: ‘‘The man who stands beside her is against this standing on the front porch of her house. . . .’’

As the sermon continues, Roselily’s inner monologue continues to express the assertion of her ‘‘personal spirit’’ against the restrictions of her subordinate position in society, as represented by her impending marriage. As the preacher says, ‘‘We are gathered here . . .’’ Roselily mentally finishes his sentence, ‘‘like cotton to be weighed.’’ Roselily sees her own role in the wedding as that of an item in a monetary exchange; she feels like a bale of cotton, being weighed and evaluated for the purposes of someone else’s profit. This thought expresses Roselily’s sense of her role in the wedding and marriage as little more than a material possession of the man she is marrying in an exchange that will ultimately benefit only him.

Roselily’s rebellious thoughts during the wedding ceremony go so far as to enter the realms of murder and blasphemy. She expresses a wish that she could be free of her three children: ‘‘She dreams she does not already have three children.’’ But her inner desire for freedom from her societal role in the family goes even farther, to the extent that she envisions killing her children. The flowers in her hand symbolize her children, who are presumably three, four, and five years of age, as she thinks ‘‘a squeeze around the flowers in her hands chokes off three and four and five years of breath.’’ But Roselily is aware of herself outwardly conforming to societal expectations while inwardly rebelling against them. After imagining killing her own children, Roselily makes an outward gesture of faith to the preacher, as she ‘‘forces humility into her eyes, as if she believes he is, in fact, a man of God.’’ Yet, while conforming to the preacher’s expectations through this outward gesture, Roselily’s true beliefs run counter to those represented by the preacher and traditional religion. Roselily imagines her own version of God, different from that of the preacher: ‘‘She can imagine God, a small black boy, timidly pulling the preacher’s coattail.’’

Roselily envisions her marriage to this man as a form of bondage, or slavery. She associates the phrase ‘‘to join this man and woman,’’ as indicating that she will be tied, chained, or handcuffed to him as if against her will: ‘‘she thinks of ropes, chains, handcuffs. . . .’’ Yet, she has chosen the marriage because she imagines it will be a ticket to freedom from economic oppression for herself and her children: ‘‘Respect, a chance to build. Her children at last from underneath the detrimental wheel. A chance to be on top. What a relief, she thinks. What a vision, a view, from up so high.’’ Roselily is thus of two minds about the marriage. But her reasons for going into it are born of economic hardship and limited options for herself and her children. Her ‘‘personal spirit,’’ however, continues to rebel against the marriage.

Despite Roselily’s positive expectations regarding her new life with her new husband in the northern city of Chicago, she also associates the city with the oppression of her ‘‘personal spirit.’’ In imagining the city, ‘‘she thinks of the air, the smoke, the cinders. Imagines cinders big as hailstones; heavy, weighing on the people. Wonders how this pressure finds its way into the veins, roping the springs of laughter.’’ Roselily thus associates the city with oppressiveness, as expressed through the image of the cinders, ‘‘weighing on the people.’’ She imagines the effect of city life almost as that of a disease, which ‘‘finds its way into the veins,’’ again associating it with images of bondage that will effectively crush her spirit, ‘‘roping the springs of laughter.’’

Upon hearing the preacher’s words, ‘‘If there’s anybody here that knows a reason why,’’ Roselily feels that she herself doesn’t know the ‘‘reason why’’ she has chosen to marry this man. The only reason she can think of is that he represents a life different from, hopefully better than, the impoverished life she and her children have known up to this point: ‘‘But of course there is no reason why beyond what they daily have come to know.’’ The impending marriage, which is meant to unite a man and woman into a family, feels for Roselily like the beginning of a separation from her man and her children. Already she ‘‘feels shut away from him because of the stiff severity of his plain black suit.’’ And, imagining their new life, ‘‘it is as if her children are already gone from her.’’ Roselily imagines that her new life with this man will not make room for her own ‘‘personal spirit,’’ restricting even her right to her own memories, for ‘‘she wonders what one does with memories in a brandnew life. This had seemed easy, until she thought of it.’’ The ‘‘brand-new life’’ represents for Roselily a sacrifice of her past, her ‘‘memories,’’ and thus of some part of who she is.

The traditional wedding statement, ‘‘If anyone here knows a reason why these two should not be joined together, let him speak or forever hold his peace,’’ becomes fragmented in Roselily’s mind, taking on very different, if not contrary, meanings to its original intent. The phrase, ‘‘these two should not be joined,’’ taken out of the context of the complete sentence, expresses Roselily’s inner feeling that she and this man should not be joined. Roselily feels that her marriage to this man is ‘‘absurd,’’ meaningless, and imagines that her sisters, too, can see this: ‘‘They giggle, she feels, at the absurdity of the wedding.’’ Although Roselily has chosen to marry this man for the sake of starting a ‘‘new life,’’ she now begins to doubt her desire for ‘‘something new.’’ She thinks that it is her sisters who are ‘‘ready for something new,’’ and that it would be more appropriate for one of them to marry him. Again, Roselily associates the word ‘‘joined’’ with bondage and slavery; she feels ‘‘yoked.’’ While this marriage represents a ‘‘new’’ life, Roselily begins to feel the urge to be ‘‘joined’’ to her past: ‘‘An arm seems to reach out from behind her and snatch her backward.’’ Roselily associates the word ‘‘joined,’’ not with her new husband, but with her dead relatives. She feels ‘‘joined’’ to her mother, although she is dead. She also associates the word ‘‘joined’’ with her ancestors, her grandparents, the ‘‘ghosts’’ of the past, rather than the newness of her future: ‘‘She thinks of cemeteries and the long sleep of grandparents mingling in the dirt. She believes that she believes in ghosts.’’ Roselily feels rooted, or ‘‘joined,’’ through her ancestors, her family, and her personal past, to the ‘‘soil’’ upon which she has always lived. The ‘‘soil’’ represents her rural Southern roots, as opposed to the ‘‘cinders’’ of the northern city to which she is moving. Roselily thinks of this ‘‘soil’’ as having something to offer her, for she believes ‘‘in the soil giving back what it takes.’’ All of these thoughts confirm Roselily’s feeling that she and this man ‘‘should not be joined.’’

As the preacher says, ‘‘together,’’ Roselily’s internal monologue finishes the sentence, ‘‘together . . . in the city.’’ Yet Roselily’s strong connection to the past, to her ‘‘memories’’ conflict with the promise of a ‘‘new’’ life and ‘‘new’’ self associated with the city. Roselily’s husband-to-be ‘‘sees her in a new way,’’ but she is not sure she is capable of shedding her connection to the past to become ‘‘new enough.’’ While the wedding represents the ‘‘new,’’ Roselily maintains a stronger emotional tie to the past, to ‘‘memories.’’ She even associates her wedding dress with a restriction on her personal freedom, as ‘‘even now her body itches to be free of satin and voile, organdy and lily of the valley.’’ And, while the ‘‘new’’ represents loss of freedom, the past represents freedom from such restrictions: ‘‘Memories crash against her. Memories of being bare to the sun.’’ Roselily’s memories of freedom are clearly in violent conflict with the new restricted life represented by the wedding dress. The memories ‘‘crash against her,’’ with the force of violent impact.

As Roselily hears the preacher’s words, ‘‘let him speak,’’ she thinks that maybe she should have let her husband-to-be ‘‘speak’’ to her more about what their life together would be like: ‘‘She wishes she had asked him to explain more of what he meant.’’ Yet, Roselily had been eager to marry him because he represented a new life and promise of ‘‘freedom.’’ She was ‘‘impatient to see the South Side, where they would live and build and be respectable and respected and free. Her husband would free her. . . . A new life! Respectable, reclaimed, renewed. Free!’’ However, as she stands at the altar, Rosemary’s current thoughts about the marriage undercut her original dreams of freedom.

As the wedding draws to a close, Roselily’s ‘‘personal spirit’’ begins to assert itself all the more ardently against the marriage and the restrictions it represents. She imagines herself, her ‘‘personal spirit,’’ in the marriage as a rat trapped in a cage: ‘‘Something strains upward behind her eyes. She thinks of the something as a rat trapped, cornered, scurrying to and fro in her head, peering through the windows of her eyes.’’ At this point, Roselily’s ‘‘personal spirit’’ rebels against the marriage through her desire ‘‘to live for once.’’ Because he has sanctified the marriage, Roselily begins to see the preacher himself as a force standing in the way of her ‘‘freedom,’’ her need to assert her ‘‘personal spirit’’: ‘‘The preacher is odious to her. She wants to strike him out of the way, out of her light, with the back of her hand. It seems to her he has always been standing in front of her, barring her way.’’

With the closing words, ‘‘his peace,’’ the wedding ceremony is completed. In Roselily’s mind, the marriage will not represent her peace, but only ‘‘his’’ peace—that of her husband. She thinks of being ‘‘joined’’ to this man as being imprisoned, feeling that ‘‘her husband’s hand is like the clasp of an iron gate.’’ And, while she is imprisoned by the marriage, her husband remains ‘‘free’’ within the marriage, as he holds out a ‘‘free hand’’ to the people crowding around him after the ceremony. And, while she before saw the preacher as the one ‘‘standing in front of her, barring her way,’’ it is now her husband who ‘‘is standing in front of her.’’

Source: Liz Brent, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Brent has a Ph.D. in American Culture, specializing in film studies, from the University of Michigan. She is a freelance writer and teaches courses in the history of American cinema.

Roselily's Impending Entrapment Through Marriage

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2124

Two epigraphs drawing from vastly different cultures and time periods introduce Alice Walker’s 1967 collection of short stories, In Love and Trouble. These epigraphs provide a subtle commentary on the stories to come, particularly ‘‘Roselily,’’ the story that opens the volume, which traces the dreamlike state of a poor southern African-American woman on the verge of making her marriage vows to a Black Muslim who will take her and her children to a new life in Chicago.

The first epigraph is excerpted from The Concubine, a novel published in 1966 by noted Nigerian author Elechi Amadi. Amadi writes of the young Ahurole, who has over the past year or so erupted into ‘‘unprovoked sobbing’’ from time to time.

But though intelligent, Ahurole could sometimes take alarmingly irrational lines of argument. . . . From all this her parents easily guessed that she was being unduly influenced by agwu, her personal spirit. . . . [T]he influence of the agwu could not be nullified overnight. In fact it would never be completely eliminated. Everyone was mildly influenced now and then by his personal spirit. A few like Ahurole were particularly unlucky in having very troublesome spirits.

Then, at the end of the selection, Amadi reveals the reason for the child’s anxiety: ‘‘Ahurole was engaged to Ekwueme when she was eight years old.’’

The second selection comes from an early twentieth-century collection of the German poet Ranier Maria Rilke.

People have (with the help of conventions) oriented all their solutions toward the easy and toward the easiest side of the easy; but it is clear that we must hold to what is difficult; everything in Nature grows and defends itself in its own way and is characteristically and spontaneously itself, seeks at all costs to be so and against all opposition.

In an article published in The Black Scholar, Barbara Christian refers directly to both of these epigraphs. She raises the crucial question the story poses in her introduction to ‘‘Roselily.’’

The form of her [Roselily’s] story, itself a marriage ceremony, is a replica of the convention, the easy solution to which she has been oriented. As a poor black woman with four illegitimate children, she is, it seems, beyond redemption. Thus, her wedding day, attended as it is by satin voile, and lily of the valley, is from any number of viewpoints a day of triumph. But she, how does she see it?

Throughout the ceremony, Roselily’s subconscious mind constantly questions her ‘‘triumph.’’ As Christian points out, Walker uses only the pronoun ‘‘she’’ throughout the ceremony, never ‘‘I’’; it is ‘‘as if Roselily is being seen from an external point of view. . . . It is as if even in Roselily’s mind, the being who wonders about, questions this day of triumph, is both herself, and yet not herself.’’ Though Roselily successfully distances herself from her own realization of the truth, the story clearly shows her double awareness that she has made the easy choice and that she is troubled by it.

Marriage will offer for Roselily a life of relative ease, for her children greater opportunities, and for the family, respectability for the first time. Up until this moment, Roselily’s life has consisted of ‘‘doing everything for three children, alone’’ (the fourth she gave to his father in the North because he ‘‘had some money’’). She supported them through her work in a sewing factory, where she constantly worried about ‘‘learning to sew straight seams in workingmen’s overalls, jeans, and dress pants.’’ She has ‘‘prayed for’’ a chance to rest, but her thoughts as the preacher utters the words ‘‘to join this man and this woman’’ show that much of her inclination to marry comes because of desire to better her children’s lives. She sees the marriage as a union between her and her children and the man. In Chicago, the children will have ‘‘a chance to build . . . at last [be out] from underneath the detrimental wheel. A chance to be on top.’’ At the end of the ceremony, the children look at their stern stepfather with distaste and awe, because he is different from everyone they have known, but also with hope for the future they know he can bring them to.

The marriage also offers Roselily respectability for the first time in her life. The girls she has grown up with are married to men who are ‘‘hanging around her, already old, seedy.’’ In Panther Burn the fathers of her children drive by, ‘‘waving, not waving’’ as the mood hits them. They are only ‘‘reminders of times she would just as soon forget.’’ She has the self-awareness that she ‘‘does not even know if she loves’’ her new husband, but she is certain that she ‘‘loves his sobriety. . . . She loves his pride. She loves his understanding of her condition.’’

Though Roselily tries to convince herself that she is pleased at ‘‘finally being married, like other girls,’’ her agwu will not be so accepting. Like Ahurole, who is unwittingly and unhappily engaged, Roselily’s impending fate causes her deepseated anxiety. As Christian notes, Roselily’s agwu, which is ‘‘troubled by change,’’ expresses its feeling ‘‘only in her dreaming.’’ Still this spirit makes itself known—both to the reader, and more importantly, to Roselily, who already understands that her marriage will not provide freedom but entrapment. As the story opens and the preacher welcomes the guests to the ceremony, Roselily dreams she is a child standing with ‘‘knee raised waist high through a bowl of quicksand soup.’’ This is only the first of many images of entrapment presented in the story. Roselily’s agwu continues to bring her impending fate to her through images of physical restraints. She thinks of her father’s occupation, a trapper who sold the skins of wild animals to Sears. When the preacher utters the words ‘‘to join this man and this woman’’ Roselily’s mind immediately jumps to ‘‘ropes, chains, handcuffs.’’ Her very clothes repreR sent her bondage, and ‘‘her body itches to be free of satin and voile, organdy and lily of the valley.’’ She knows she is ‘‘[y]oked’’ to a future that does not appeal to her. She will be forever held in ‘‘her husband’s hand [which] is like the clasp of an iron gate.’’

Her husband’s religious beliefs provide the main basis for her entrapment. As Christian explains the precepts of the Black Muslims, ‘‘to the man she is marrying, God is Allah, the devil is the white man, and work is building a black nation.’’ He looks down on Roselily, her family, and her community members for following the ‘‘teachings from the wrong God’’—the white man’s Christian God. Instead, Roselily will be forced to embrace Islam, a religion that traditionally segregates women. During worship, women are ‘‘required to sit apart with covered head.’’ The purdah, which religious law requires all Islamic women to wear in public, becomes symbolically the marriage veil that she now wears. In her book-length study Alice Walker Donna Haisty Winchell explains, ‘‘The marriage veil has been transformed into the purdah, the outward sign that in her womanhood she is inferior and that marriage is a binding, not a freeing.’’ Roselily also recognizes that she is submitting her children to her husband’s ideology. She thinks of her new ‘‘lifetime of black and white. Of veils. Covered head. It is as if her children are already gone from her.’’ Her husband will place them ‘‘exalted on a pedestal’’ as new members of the black nation. This stalk, she thinks, ‘‘has no roots,’’ because her children will lose all contact with their background and where and who they come from.

To her husband, this is preferred. He looks down upon Roselily’s people for their rural southern background. ‘‘She knows he blames Mississippi for the respectful way the men turn their heads up in the yard, the women standing waiting and knowledgeable.’’ He does not understand the ‘‘country black folks.’’ Instead, he will take her to Chicago, which becomes, for Roselily, yet another symbol of entrapment. In Chicago, she will see for the first time a cinder, ‘‘which they never had in Panther Bluff.’’ She sees her neighbors as ‘‘clean,’’ but Chicago as filled with ‘‘black specks falling, clinging, from the sky,’’ which itself will oppress her. ‘‘She thinks of the air, the smoke, the cinders. Imagines cinders big as hailstones; heavy, weighing on the people.’’ These ashes—symbols of the spent city—become ropes that will choke off ‘‘the springs of laughter.’’

Instead of looking ahead to the future, throughout the entire ceremony, Roselily’s agwu draws her to her past. ‘‘She thinks of her mother, who is dead. . . . She thinks of cemeteries and the long sleep of grandparents mingling in the dirt. She believes that she believes in ghosts.’’ The dead relatives become a part of her agwu as well. They provide the ‘‘arm [that] seems to reach out from behind her and snatch her backward.’’ She cannot think of her and her husband’s life ‘‘together’’ but rather of her own memories, which ‘‘crash against her.’’ She has ‘‘[m]emories of being bare to the sun’’ because she knows that soon she will spend her life covered in the robes and veils of religion. She will be forced to hide her body and its sexuality, except for in its procreative function. For she knows ‘‘[t]hey will make babies. . . . They will be inevitable. . . . Babies. She is not comforted.’’

Where, she wonders, does a person put her memories in a ‘‘brand-new life’’? She particularly recalls the father of her fourth child who was ‘‘a good man but weak.’’ Its placement in the story— coming as the preacher speaks the words ‘‘in holy matrimony’’—implies that he was the man Roselily wanted to marry and a contrast to the man she is now marrying. For the northerner, classical music and chess are more important than the basic, primal draw of religion. He came to Mississippi during Freedom Summer of 1964 ‘‘to try to right the country’s wrongs’’ by registering rural African- American voters, while Roselily’s husband seemed to come to the South—a region for which he has no fondness—simply to find who he could ‘‘redo . . . into what he truly wants.’’ The husband will attempt to build a separate African-American society, while the northerner tried to integrate Roselily and her people into white society.

By the end of the story, before the final moment when she must speak those irrevocable words that accept the marriage, Roselily has become the rat that is ‘‘trapped, cornered, scurrying to and fro in her head, peering through the windows of her eyes.’’ Significantly, she attempts to distance herself from this image: she only feels something behind her eyes—she does not see herself as the rat. She has the realization that she ‘‘wants to live for once. But doesn’t quite know what that means.’’ She wonders if she has ever really loved, ‘‘[i]f she ever will.’’ The immediate rage she then feels toward the preacher, wanting to ‘‘strike him out of the way,’’ feeling that he has always been ‘‘barring her way,’’ shows her subconscious knowledge that she never will. It also shows her impotent urge to strike against her fate.

Though Roselily only acknowledges this truth through a dreamlike state, she clearly understands, as Winchell says, ‘‘the price she is about to pay for financial security and a future for her children.’’ Winchell, however believes that the ‘‘search for psychological wholeness is at the heart of ‘Roselily’.’’ Realistically, the title character has little ability to achieve this. Triply disenfranchised— being poor, African-American, and female—life presents Roselily with few appealing options. Thus ‘‘Roselily’’ demonstrates the themes raised by Walker’s choice of epigraphs. Instead of holding on to what is difficult, Roselily makes the convenient choice in her marriage, but is vastly disturbed by her actions. After she is irrevocably bound to her husband through marriage, the ‘‘worried’’ Roselily ‘‘feels ignorant, wrong, backward.’’

As Christian points out, however, Roselily’s ‘‘dreaming is as separate from her external behavior as this Mississippi country church is from her future home. . . . But at least she can, in her imagination, know her confinement to be troublesome and recognize in a part of herself that this change is not the attainment of her fulfillment.’’ As such, ‘‘Roselily’’ is an apt story to open this collection, significantly subtitled, ‘‘Stories of Black Women,’’ for it raises issues that haunt the remaining stories—and the lives of African-American women.

Source: Rena Korb, in an essay for Short Stories for Students, Gale Group, 2001. Korb has a master’s degree in English literature and creative writing and has written for a wide variety of educational publishers.

An Overview of Roselily

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Last Updated on May 12, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 545

Alice Walker is an exceptionally good writer. More than that, she has the artist’s insight into the quiet dramas enacted in the inner lives of those who are anonymous and ineffable: most of us. All of which adds up to a young writer of great promise and great potential.

The promise—and the potential—are manifest in Ms. Walker’s first volume of short stories, In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. The stories take in a wide spectrum of the black woman’s experience in America. We are afforded glimpses of the young rural Southern woman without a husband ( ‘‘Roselily,’’, ‘‘Strong Horse Tea’’ ), the bored, upper class educated housewife who wanders into a love affair with a stranger (‘‘Really, Doesn’t Crime Pay?’’), the deeply religious old woman who ‘‘stood with eyes uplifted in her Sunday-go-to-meeting clothes’’ ( ‘‘The Welcome Table’’), the black campus co-ed strangely relating to the strange white professor of French (‘‘We Drink the Wine in France’’), the conjuring tradition (‘‘The Revenge of Hannah Kemhuff’’).

I have the impression that the author has firsthand knowledge of many of the different life-styles she portrays in these stories. But love is not at issue in all of them. Rather, the authentic Heart of a Woman at the core of most of them shines through to pierce the surface of our caring. Yet, it is always the poignant, sad and unfulfilled heart, and primarily as it manifests itself in the rural South, which is revealed to us. The one story not set in blackamerica (‘‘The Diary of an African Nun’’ ) does show the same lonely biding visible in most of the other women portrayed, but would probably have been better situated in a subsequent volume. And Ms. Walker’s talent for affecting our sensitivities is often badly served by the tinge of cynicism she projects into many of her dénouements. All of which goes to say that In Love and Trouble is a book of great sensitivity, but a sensitivity not yet completely, fully realized.

Yet, these stories do succeed for the most part in creating a mood on which the reader is transposed to a state of being which, for want of more precise labels, we may call the esthetic experience. Thus, they hover in the vague no-man’s-land where poetry pervades the atmosphere and obliges the world of reason to yield before the spiritual realities of the soul’s yearning after more than it has. So it is that almost all of these stories focus on the most intimate reaches of the inner lives of the characters. But the purity of the esthetic experience is often marred by obvious contrivances, as in the story which opens the collection (‘‘Roselily’’ —an unfortunate choice for first place, perhaps). Roselily stands beside the vaguely outlined figure of the man who will take her from her rural southern past and roots into the big city with her illegitimate children, and snatches of her conflicting thought alternate with the minister’s recitation of the marriage ceremony. The device soon becomes tedious, and the experiencer of the story (the reader) soon becomes in spite of himself the critical observer of the writer’s craft.

Source: Carolyn Fowler, ‘‘Solid at the Core,’’ in Freedomways, Vol. 14, No. 1, 1974, pp. 59–60.


Critical Overview