Hyphenated Identity in "Good Country People" and "Everyday Use".
It was for her description of Southern white women that I appreciated her work at first, because when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air (and the tree itself might never have been planted), and yes, I could say, yes, these white folks without the magnolia (who are indifferent to the tree's existence), and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like southerners that I know (52).
In their short stories and novels, both writers depict black and white women who are individuals, not particularly appealing or idealized, but true to their creators' observations of the conditions of women in the American South.
As feminist scholars look more closely at the imbalance of power in gender and race relations in this region's history, they point to the precarious position both black and white women have held in Southern culture. As Louise Westling argues in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens, neither black women nor white women had any real power in the ante or postbellum South: "Traditional defenses of slavery were intimately intertwined with declarations about the veneration and protection of white women. Yet these women in fact shared inferiority and powerlessness with blacks as subjects of the ruling patriarchs. 'There is no slave, after all,' commented Mary Chesnut with some bitterness in 1861, 'like a wife'" (21).
Two stories that reveal the analogous powerlessness of Southern white and black women are O'Connor's "Good Country People" (1955) and Walker's "Everyday Use" (1973), which make use of not only the shared landscape but also the shared tensions within families despite the obvious differences in cultural inheritance. Each story develops a conflict between a mother and a daughter in which the mother attempts to perpetuate the values of the society which has produced her. Ironically, despite the privilege of her landed position, the white mother is as powerless to imprint her values on her daughter as the less affluent African-American mother. However, the stories go beyond this generational struggle to question the construction of feminine identity, both black and white, in the South. In each story, the daughter renames herself but can't completely escape the name her mother has given her. Thus, each of the daughters is vulnerable to the "impasse of hyphenation," a term used by postcolonial critics to describe the predicament of minority characters (here the minority is gender) caught between two incompatible identities (Patell 64). But both texts, in culturally disparate ways, offer possibilities for a redefinition of identity that moves beyond impasse.
As many critics have pointed out, a significant number of O'Connor's stories feature women who survive the deaths of their husbands and continue the work of running farms and raising children on their own. Westling comments,
One group of stories repeats almost obsessive patterns. ... These fictions are set on small farms like the one where O'Connor lived outside of Milledgeville, every one presided over by a beleaguered widow with one or two children who are either twelve years old or in their thirties. The farm stories are some of her most vivid and absorbing works, and all of them are concerned with the issues of feminine identity and authority (137).
These stories clearly originate in O'Connor's own experience. She moved with her mother, Regina Cline O'Connor, and her seriously ill father, Edward O'Connor, from Savannah, Georgia to Milledgeville when she was twelve. After her father died of lupus erythematosus, the same disease that would later kill O'Connor, mother and daughter remained in the Cline House, her mother's family home located just behind the old Georgia governor's mansion in the heart of the town. Although she had no plans to remain in the South after college, O'Connor returned home when she was diagnosed with lupus at the age of twenty-five and moved with her mother to Andalusia, a small dairy farm north of town that had been purchased by her maternal uncle. For the next fourteen years, while her mother ran the farm, O'Connor focused on her writing. Critics and family friends repeatedly point out the imperious nature of the aptly named Regina O'Connor; O'Connor's letters in The Habit of Being show her deflecting her mother's constant questions and instructions through humor. As Cindy Beringer states,
O'Connor's letters are full of humorous and ironic tales about Regina's troubles and successes running her business enterprise. Many of these tales appear transposed into fiction in these ... stories of businesswomen and failed mothers and their children whose pain is evident through the veil of sarcasm. The real lives and the fictional ones are connected, as are the successes and the failures (141).
Even though she "admitted to her friend Sally Fitzgerald that her mother was the most powerful and necessary person in her life" (Westling 47), O'Connor subjects her matriarchs to the same relentless criticism she gives to all her characters.
In contrast to the sometimes destructive power O'Connor's mother had in the life of her daughter, Walker presents her own mother as a positive, creative influence. Perhaps this is not a surprising difference if we recall that Walker's African-American culture was sustained by strong maternal figures despite the conditions of slavery. As Westling points out,
Black women were somehow able to retain a sense of wholeness despite these conditions, perhaps because their essential identity was never denied. They knew themselves to be sexually potent and desirable, and they are the hyper-mothers of the South, nursing not only their children but also those of their white masters and mistresses (22).
Walker, the daughter of sharecropper parents who raised their eight children on as little as three hundred dollars a year, recognizes that one of her tasks as a writer is to celebrate the untold heroism of the black mothers and grandmothers who passed on a vital heritage to their descendants. In the title essay of In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, she says, "And so our mothers and grandmothers have, more often than not anonymously, handed on the creative spark, the seed of the flower they themselves never hoped to see: or like a sealed letter they could not plainly read" (240). She includes her own mother in this progression, describing her gift for gardening as "Ordering the universe in the image of her personal conception of Beauty" (241).
In spite of her respect for the intangible inheritance she has received from her mother, Walker reveals an acute awareness of the inequities associated with her literal heritage. As she continues the visit to her home and O'Connor's, she finds "what is left" of her house, "a typical abandoned sharefarmer shack," and records with dismay, "Of the four-room house only two rooms are left; the others have rotted away. These two are filled with hay" ("Beyond the Peacock" 44). The only elements of beauty are her mother's daffodils that have now taken over the yard. Knocking on the door of Andalusia, O'Connor's farm, Walker is suddenly overcome with rage:
What I feel at the moment of knocking is fury that someone is paid to take care of her [O'Connor's] house, though no one lives in it, and that her house still, in fact, stands, while mine--which of course we never owned anyway--is slowly rotting into dust. Her house becomes--in an instant--the symbol of my own disinheritance, and for that instant I hate her guts. All that she has meant to me is diminished, though her diminishment within me is against my will (57).
This anger may explain Walker's need to defend the way of life of her characters in "Everyday Use"; she is infuriated that it can be so easily disregarded by mainstream American culture.
Anger, in fact, seems to motivate both of these writers who have grown up female in the South. O'Connor, despite the privilege of her upbringing, is equally aware that the model for feminine identity in upper class Southern society is woefully inadequate. In "Good Country People," the mother's idea of a successful, happy daughter seems dictated by the expectations of a patriarchal order, and Mrs. Hopewell's attempts to shape her daughter's behavior produce only rage and vulnerability on the part of Joy-Hulga. Although the daughter finds it impossible to construct a feminine identity in opposition to her mother's expectations, she is treated with some sympathy by the voice of the narrator. In contrast, the narrative voice of "Everyday Use" treats the daughter with more harshness. Despite the deprivations of her way of life, the mother in Walker's story finds the strength to defend her African-American heritage against a daughter who is perceived as an upstart. As can be seen in her ambivalence towards Dee Wangero, Walker is on more dangerous ground than O'Connor in showing the daughter's struggle to individuate from the mother, for in rejecting the mother she would be rejecting the historical strength of a mother who survived her own invisibility. But Mrs. Johnson reveals a flaw in black female identity as well, for the mother fails to see that she is denying a part of herself in trying to perpetuate her own negative self image.
In "Good Country People," the outraged daughter finds her sensibility insulted on every level. A thirty-two-year-old Ph.D. in Philosophy who lives with her mother on a farm not unlike O'Connor's Andalusia, Joy-Hulga not only suffers from a weak heart but also lost her leg in a hunting accident when she was ten. Stumping about the house on her wooden leg, Joy-Hulga takes pleasure in looking as ugly as she possibly can: "Here she went about all day in a six-year-old skirt and a yellow sweat shirt with a faded cowboy on a horse embossed on it" (CS 276). As many readers have discovered, it is difficult to calculate the degree of sympathy O'Connor accords her intellectual characters; Robert Coles explains O'Connor's "complicated attitude toward intellectuals as resulting from her sharing many of their beliefs" (49). Critics seem to enjoy skewering Joy-Hulga as much as her seducer, Manley Pointer, does, but the text shows sympathy for her because she is the victim of the patriarchal attitudes expressed by her mother. Mrs. Hopewell, "who had divorced her husband long ago" (274), seems nevertheless to have absorbed the patriarchal values that encourage women to be attractive and appealing to men. She worries that her daughter, "the poor stout girl in her thirties," has "never danced a step or had any normal good times" (274). The key to Joy's outrage seems to he her mother's resolute determination not to accept her daughter as she is; when Joy is impressed with the duty of walking over the fields with her mother, "her remarks were usually so ugly and her face so glum that Mrs. Hopewell would say, 'If you can't come pleasantly, I don't want you at all,' to which the girl, standing square and rigid-shouldered with her neck thrust slightly forward, would reply, 'If you want me, here I am--LIKE I AM'" (274).
Joy changes her name to Hulga to show her mother that she can't control her daughter's identity. But values are passed down unconsciously from generation to generation; ironically, the name change shows that Joy-Hulga has, in spite of herself, absorbed the values of her mother: "She had a vision of the name working like the ugly sweating Vulcan who stayed in the furnace and to whom, presumably, the goddess had to come when called" (275). Her image, a profoundly patriarchal one, evokes the power of Vulcan over his wife Venus, who as Aphrodite in The Odyssey is ensnared by a net crafted by her husband Hephaestus (Vulcan) to catch her in bed with her lover Ares. ... Critics want to identify Joy-Hulga with the ugly Vulcan (Gentry 65), but to Joy it is the name "Hulga" itself that has the power to control her mother, who "presumably" has to call her by her legal name. Mrs. Hopewell responds by continuing to call her Joy and to feel dismay that every year her daughter "grew less like other people and more like herself--bloated, rude, and squint-eyed" (276). The impossibility of escaping the influence of her mother is revealed by critics' persistence in calling this character Joy-Hulga, a hyphenated designation used only once by the narrator of the story. Joy-Hulga's predicament reflects the "impasse of hyphenation" described earlier, as she is unable to escape a hyprid identity.
But far more damaging than Joy-Hulga's outrage is the emotional vulnerability created by her mother's attitudes. O'Connor presents Joy-Hulga's encounter with the Bible salesman as a perverse love story in which the intellectually sophisticated but sexually innocent woman falls victim to her own emotional needs. Belying the old notion that feminists have no sense of humor, in describing the scene in the barn, O'Connor delights in subverting the language of a traditional seduction. Without tracing the text line by line, it is difficult to convey just how funny it is, but the most graphic example comes when the Bible salesman asks for a declaration from Joy-Hulga: "I just want to know if you love me or don'tcher?" When she answers "Yes, yes," he immediately replies, "Okay then. Prove it" (288). All women in a patriarchal culture know the meaning of this line. But he doesn't, in fact, want her virginity; he wants to see where her wooden leg joins on. Ironically, he gives just the right answer when she asks why: "Because it's what makes you different. You ain't like anybody else" (288).
As the text continues, it is possible to see that O'Connor is describing, with a kind of tart gentleness, the experience of falling in love:
She sat staring at him. There was nothing about her face or her round freezing-blue eyes to indicate that this had moved her; but .she felt as if her heart had stopped and left her mind to pump her blood. She decided that for the first time in her life she was face to face with real innocence. The boy, with an instinct that came from beyond wisdom, had touched the truth about her. When after a minute, she said in a hoarse high voice, 'All right,' it was like surrendering to him completely. It was like losing her own life and finding it again, miraculously, in his (288-89).
A woman who has never been appreciated for herself is suddenly confronted with the possibility of a life: "She was thinking that she would run away with him and that every night he would take the leg off and every morning put it back on again" (289). But when he opens his valise and pulls out whiskey, condoms and a deck of obscene cards, her rosy romantic picture is shattered. "Aren't you, aren't you, just good country people?" she asks (290). This question reveals her profound innocence; not surprisingly, at a moment of extremity, she says exactly what her mother would have said. Although the mother has had the power to release her daughter from this vulnerability by admitting a little of it herself, she has failed miserably; perhaps if she had recognized Joy-Hulga's individuality earlier, the daughter wouldn't have had such an intense need. But the story ends with the possibility that Joy-Hulga might adjust her vision to one that is less defined by the expectations of acceptable feminine behavior in the South. Paradoxically, her inability to control Manley Pointer may allow her to see that she doesn't have to control others to survive.
Walker's "Everyday Use" also turns upon a mother's power in the life of her daughter, but the development of a hybrid identity' works differently in this story. Instead of third person, the story is a first-person narrative from the perspective of the mother, and instead of one daughter, there are two. The mother is intimidated by the daughter who has had the ambition to escape from the way of life of a black family in rural Georgia. She reserves her sympathy for the daughter who has been permanently scarred in a house fire and has had to stay home:
Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him? That is the way my Maggie walks. She has been like this, chin on chest, eyes on ground, feet in shuffle, ever since the fire that burned the other house to the ground (LT 49).
In contrast, she describes her older daughter scathingly:
And Dee. I see her standing off under the sweet gum tree she used to dig gum out of; a look of concentration on her face as she watched the last dingy gray board of the house fall in toward the red-hot brick chimney. Why don't you do a dance around the ashes? I'd wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much (49-50).
Like Joy-Hulga, Dee attempts to distance herself as much as possible from the life she has lived with her mother and sister; she goes off to school, embraces an African rather than an African-American identify and even changes her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo to escape "being named after the people who oppress me" (53).
The anger of the mother toward this daughter who gets away is obvious throughout the story, as Walker employs what Joanne Braxton calls the "ancestral presence of the outraged mother," who is "a primary archetype in the narratives of Black American writers" (Wilson 170). This anger allows the mother to stand up against Dee Wangero when she requests objects that have been handmade by generations of the Johnson family, including two quilts that have been promised to Maggie for her marriage to a young man in the neighborhood. The mother's decision indicates a strength of character that surprises even herself; like the rest of the world, she can't imagine saying no to Dee. But when Maggie offers the quilts to her older sister, "like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her" (58), the mother has an epiphany that is not challenged by the text:
When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I'm in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. I did something I never had done before: hugged Maggie to me, then dragged her on into the room, snatched the quilts out of Miss Wangero's hands and dumped them into Maggie's lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open (58).
The concluding paragraph confirms the rightness of her decision, as she and her newly affirmed younger daughter sit in the yard "just enjoying, until it was time to go to bed" (59).
This mother's gesture affirms the matriarchal tradition that Walker celebrates in her essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens." The mother understands that the quilts represent her family heritage because they are composed of pieces of the lives of previous generations, and her daughter Maggie will be able to continue this tradition because, unlike the educated Dee Wangero, she knows how to quilt. But if she indeed is making the choice between the daughters so absolute, Walker is restricting her characters in ways that she would not have done in her own life. Most readers accept the identification of Walker with Maggie, the injured daughter, because Walker lost the sight in one eye when shot with a B.B. gun during her childhood. But again and again in her essays, Walker states that she wanted to leave home as much as Dee Wangero; when in the essay on O'Connor she describes looking at the shack in which she formerly lived, she says,
I remember only misery: going to a shabby segregated school that was once the state prison and that had, on the second floor, the large circular print of the electric chair that had stood there; almost stepping on a water moccasin on my way home from carrying water to my family in the fields; losing Phoebe, my cat, because we left this place hurriedly and she could not be found in time ("Beyond the Peacock" 44).
David Cowart makes the point that "The story can be read, in fact, as a cautionary tale the author tells herself: a parable, so to speak, about the perils of writing one's impoverished past from the vantage of one's privileged present" (25).
This need to caution herself may be the thing that prevents Walker from appearing to show Dee Wangero even the degree of sympathy O'Connor allows to Joy-Hulga. It is interesting, however, that the narrative voice throughout the story offers a connection between mother and daughter that neither is able to see. Mrs. Johnson describes herself as "a large, big-boned woman with rough, man-working hands" ( LT 48); she sees herself as someone who, like Maggie, quickness has passed by: "Who ever knew a Johnson with a quick tongue? Who can even imagine rue looking a strange white man in the eye?" (49). But in her responses to Wangero and her boyfriend "Hakim-a-Barber," she reveals a sense of humor that shows her flexibility of mind and openness to change. Although Dee's dress is "so loud it hurts [her] eyes," she describes it as having "yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun" (52). As Dee gets closer, she decides that she likes it. When Dee tries to teach her mother her new African name, she says, "I'll get used to it. Ream it out again" (54). Her sly sense of humor makes her want to ask if the boyfriend really is a barber, and she describes his beard as looking like a "kinky mule tail" (52). Even the acerbity with which she describes Dee Wangero's selfishness reveals a sharpness of tongue that Dee might envy if she paid attention. The mother's denial of "Miss Wangero" is thus a denial of herself. The unconscious connection between mother and daughter reveals an intellectual complexify that women, black and white, have felt compelled to repress.
In her essay on Flannery O'Connor, Alice Walker says that she read white writers as well as black ones because she "could never be satisfied with a segregated literature" ("Beyond the Peacock" 43), and she tells her own mother that she makes return trips to the South because she is looking for "a wholeness" (48). She explains, "I believe that the truth about any subject only comes when all the sides of the story are put together, and all their different meanings make one new one. Each writer writes the missing parts to the other writer's story. And the whole story is what I'm after" (49). Juxtaposing these two stories reveals the differences in the patterns of mother-daughter inheritance in black and white culture, and yet together they present more comprehensively the dilemma of redefining feminine identity in the American South. Joy-Hulga, bound by a patriarchal culture, escapes impasse only through succumbing to a violation from which she has no defense, while Dee Wangero, rejected by her mother for attempting to escape, returns home to bring about a redefinition of cultural identity and value. While one can't teach what one hasn't been taught, both mothers have passed along an unconscious strength that is available to all daughters who know where to search.
Beringer, Cindy. "'I Have Not Wallowed': Flannery O'Connor's Working Mothers." Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing. Ed. Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. 124-141.
Coles, Robert. "Flannery O'Connor: A Southern Intellectual." The Southern Review 16 (1980): 46-64.
Coward, David. "Heritage and Deracination in Walker's 'Everyday Use.'" Critical Essays on Alice Walker. Ed. Ikenna Dieke. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1999. 21-32.
Gentry, Marshall Bruce. "Gender Dialogue in O'Connor." Flannery O'Connor: New Perspectives. Ed. Sura P. Rath and Mary Neff Shaw. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1996. 57-72.
O'Connor, Flannery. "Good Country People." The Complete Stories. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1971. 271-291.
--. The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O'Connor. Ed. Sally Fitzgerald. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1979.
Patell, Cyrus R. K. "Representing Emergent Literatures." American Literary History 15.1 (2003): 61-69.
Walker, Alice. "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor" (1975). In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 42-59.
--. "Everyday Use." In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. New York: Harcourt Brace and Company, 1973. 47-59.
--. "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens" (1974). In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. 231-243.
Westling, Louise. Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens: The Fiction of Eudora Welty, Carson McCullers, and Flannery O'Connor. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1985
Wilson, Charles E., Jr. "'Everyday Use' and Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl: Escaping Antebellum Confinement." Southern Mothers: Fact and Fictions in Southern Women's Writing. Ed. Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999. 169-181.
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|Title Annotation:||60th Anniversary - Flannery O'Connor Issue|
|Author:||Andrews, Carol M.|
|Article Type:||Critical essay|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2010|
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