One theme is the oppressive force of both religion and sexism in the lives of women. In this case, Roselily's marriage seems to be a particularly powerful noose around her neck. Roselily, a Christian, is being married away by a Christian minister to a Muslim man whose religion is unfamiliar to her. The story implies that Islam will restrict Roselily's freedom. For Roselily, Islam will mean "A lifetime of black and white. Of veils. Covered head." Even as she marries, Roselily already misses the feel of her body being allowed to be free and the relative freedom of not being forced to bear more children. What is less obvious, however, is the manner in which Christianity also turns a blind eye to Roselily's suffering. While Christianity does not force Roselily to wear an actual veil, it is also a vehicle that is blind to her suffering. The preacher, intoning the wedding vows, cannot see anything at all. Presumably he, like everyone else in the community, merely sees a black man marrying a black woman. He, a man of God, is thus ratifying a doomed relation- ship and is literally preparing Roselily for the life of oppression that she is to lead. Roselily, sensing the preacher's lack of genuineness, nevertheless tries to believe as she "forces humility into her eyes, as if she believes he is, in fact, a man of God." Yet in truth, Roselily knows that this man serves yet another false God, for "she can imagine God, a small black boy, timidly pulling the preacher's coattail".
Another theme is that of Roselily's oppression at the hands of the men in her life. The reader meets Roselily as she begins a relationship with yet another man—after having suffered through several relationships that have left her with children. Although we can only glimpse at past relationships, there are hints about their failed nature. Roselily has secret dreams of ridding herself of her three children, who have only added to her burdens. Roselily sees her marriage as a chance for "respect, a chance to build."
Roselily's experiences also inform the reader that sexism knows no socioeconomic class. While it appears that some of the fathers of her children are local, uneducated men, Roselily has also been emotionally abused by men of stature. The father of her fourth child is a well-educated man who has gone to Harvard, yet still proves to be weak. While Roselily is forced to undergo the burdens of pregnancy, this man loses weight, cries, and tries to commit suicide, even though his burdens were fewer than Roselily's. Ultimately, this man provides perhaps the most degrading experience of all because he removes the baby from Roselily's "inferior" environment and takes the child back to New England.
Alienation and Loneliness An unwed mother in a small town, Roselily lives a lonely life. As she stands beside her future husband filled with doubt, there is no one in the crowd who senses what she is feeling. She feels no connection to the people she is leaving or to the man she is leaving with. She has no friends, although she has known the same women since they were girls together; as a single woman she has been a threat, especially when the other women’s husbands made passes at her. She has a demanding job at a sewing plant, and is raising three children alone, so she has little time for anything else. The only person she feels ‘‘joined’’ to is her mother, who is dead. She does not think she loves her husband, and the fact that he loves...
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her ‘‘makes her completely conscious of how unloved she was before.’’
Change and Transformation Roselily is a woman who is seeking to change, to be transformed. In her current life, she is unwed, the mother of four children by at least three fathers. She works long hours in a sewing factory, and still lives in the same small town where her family has lived for generations. Although she had a lover from New England and is marrying a man from Chicago, she knows nothing about life beyond her small community. Her children will grow up ‘‘underneath the detrimental wheel,’’ with the same limitations, unless she can make a change.
Although she has serious misgivings about her marriage, it does offer her the chance for a new life. His life as a Black Muslim has already worked a transformation in her husband. The old women at the wedding can sense that he was once one of them, but in some way that they cannot name, he is ‘‘still a son, not a son. Changed.’’ Roselily knows that she will change, too. She will move to Chicago and live in a larger house on the South Side. She and her husband and children will ‘‘live and build and be respectable and respected and free.’’ This chance to have her husband ‘‘redo her into what he truly wants’’ is both exciting and terrifying. When she has been transformed, will she have lost herself? For the sake of her children, she is willing to take the risk.
God and Religion One of the central conflicts of the story is between Roselily’s wavering belief in Christianity and her husband’s devout faith as a Black Muslim. Roselily has been raised a Christian, and she is the bride in a Christian wedding, but she does not really believe in God. To her, the minister is more intimidating than any image of God she has ever held. Although nominally a Christian, she also has learned some of her family’s folk beliefs, of which she is both ‘‘ashamed and frightened.’’ Her husband’s religion also seems more intimidating than comforting. She will be made to wear a robe and veil, to stay home and raise more children, to sit apart in worship services. Although she knows more about his faith than the wedding guests, who ‘‘cannot understand that he is not a Christian,’’ she has only small images and pieces of information.
Walker has expressed her own doubts about the ability of Christianity and Islam to serve African- American women. In other stories, she has examined Christianity as an imperialist weapon used against Africans. ‘‘Roselily,’’ as she explains in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, reflects the fact that she is ‘‘intrigued by the religion of the Black Muslims, by what conversion means to black women, specifically, and what the religion itself means in terms of the black American past: our history, our ‘race memories,’ our absorption of Christianity, our changing of Christianity to fit our needs. What will the new rituals mean?’’ Roselily, on the day of her wedding, is about to learn the answer.