Maternal Relationships in Five Short Stories


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Originally written for my Short Story class at GCU; I presented a slimmed down version of this paper at the 2010 Streamlines Literary Conference.

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Maternal Relationships in Five Short Stories

  1. 1. Haight-Angelo 1 Mamma Mia! Maternal Relationships in Five Short Stories Jessica Haight-Angelo ENG 352: The Short Story Instructor: Stefani Leto Grand Canyon University 28 February 2010
  2. 2. Haight-Angelo 2 Abstract The role of motherhood in literature is often considered metaphorically, Frye argues, but rarely literally. In five short stories, the maternal relationships between each tale’s respective mothers, daughters and/or sons are held up in the light of both internal and external factors, seeking a realistic portrayal. Through the lens of child developmental stages; gender roles; other familial relationships; cultural factors; and authorial intent alike, the ensuing paper will put the mother-daughter relationships in Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing”; Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds”; and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”; and the mother-son relationships in Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything that Rises Must Converge”; and Grace Paley’s “A Conversation With My Father” through their respective paces, seeking parallels and further understanding of each story’s maternal roles and the women who fill and shape them.
  3. 3. Haight-Angelo 3 Mamma Mia! Maternal Relationships in Five Short Stories As Frye explains, "Motherhood as literary metaphor has long been a cliché for the creative process: the artist gives birth to a work of art which takes on a life of its own. Motherhood as literary experience has only rarely existed at all, except as perceived by a resentful or adoring son who is working through his own identity in separation from the power of a nurturant and/or threatening past" (287). For Frye, stories such as Tillie Olsen's "I Stand Here Ironing" perfectly convey the "fusion of motherhood as both metaphor and experience ... stripped of romantic distortion, and reinfused with the power of genuine metaphorical insight into the problems of selfhood in the modern world" (287). At the same time, her brush-off of tales wherein the maternal character is the main nurturant for "a resentful or adoring son" discounts similar clichés enforced in literature depicting mother-daughter relationships, such as Amy Tan's short story, "Two Kinds," or Alice Walker's “Everyday Use.” In addition, a case can certainly be made for a decidedly unromantic glimpse at selfhood in the relationship between Julian and his mother in O'Connor's "Everything That Rises Must Converge,” or the neuroses surrounding the mother-son relationship portrayed in Paley's "A Conversation With my Father." Contrary to Frye's pigeon-holing, honest portrayals of motherhood are alive and well in literature, regardless of the age or gender of the children against whom they're often pitted, or the culture and era in which they live. Such is the implication in each of the aforementioned five short stories, all of which contain a realistic mother-daughter or mother-son relationship at their respective cores. Furthermore, said maternal relationships are often framed by larger social issues in each story, though the relationships themselves parallel neatly across time and place.
  4. 4. Haight-Angelo 4 Internal Factors Age As Alward offers: “When the doctor cuts the umbilical cord at birth, the physical attachment to our mothers cease. This is when psychological and emotional attachments begin.” All of the aforementioned mother-daughter and mother-son relationships can be compared against a glut of interpersonal factors, including age, gender and the mother (and child’s) other familial connections. In this vein, Frye’s concept of “selfhood” (287) seems to have different connotations depending on the age of the child in each story. In and of itself, selfhood is "The state of having a distinct identity" or "individuality"; "The fully developed self" (Answers Web site). David Rankin parallels the term to "self-centeredness", offering that "'the cult of selfhood ... became fashionable in the 1960s'" (Answers Web site). Psychoanalytical theorist Erik Erikson's eight stages of development further piece together the concept of selfhood. According to Erikson, by "middle childhood,” the healthy child will have effectively battled "'basic trust versus mistrust'"; "'autonomy versus shame and doubt'"; "'initiative versus guilt'"; and "'industry versus inferiority'" (Internet FAQ Archives). As Alward explains: Infants who have a deep bonding with their mothers become very independent at a young age. This bond also boosts their self-esteem. It is the most important part of a child’s life. Even when their lives are unstable, the bonding process enables them to be self-reliant and enjoy relationships with peers. These children are also more successful in school, especially in mathematics. Bonding creates within the child a sense of confidence and a positive attitude. This influences both attendance and achievement.
  5. 5. Haight-Angelo 5 Naturally, the lack of motherly bonding results in highly negative emotional effects: “Those children lacking a secure bond are more likely to be antisocial, withdrawn, hostile, and aggressive” (Alward). A distinct lack of mother-infant bonding can be seen in the relationship between Emily and her mother in Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing.” As Frye observes, the story, from the mother's reluctant point of view as she is called upon by a well-meaning social worker to explain her daughter's general awkwardness, constructs "an image of the stressful growth of [Emily] from infancy through a troubled, lonely childhood, an alienating relationship to school and friends, and an unsettled adolescence" (288). Emily’s mother is wearily defensive of the implication that she is to blame for Emily’s “need[ing] help” (Olsen 1053): “Even if I came, what good would it do?” she asks the social worker. “You think because I am her mother I have a key, or that in some way you could use me as a key? She has lived for nineteen years. There is all that life that has happened outside of me, beyond me” (Olsen 1053). Detachedly, Emily’s mother paints a picture of her relationship with her eldest daughter, beginning when she herself was nineteen: “It was pre-relief, pre-WPA world of the depression” (Olsen 1053), she explains, her brush strokes already glum. Frye notes: “The narrative structure creates a powerful sense of immediacy and an unfamiliar literary experience” (288). There is little doubt in the reader’s mind that Emily’s mother loves her, but she was “young” and “distracted” through most of her daughter’s growing pains, for which she must constantly endure the realization that “My wisdom came too late” (Olsen 1058) to have a positive influence. Emily’s mother is proud of having nursed her daughter (“They feel that’s important nowadays, I nursed all the children, but with her, with all the fierce rigidity of first motherhood, I did like the books then said” [Olsen 1053]), and similarly heartbroken when Emily’s “clogged weeping” (Olsen 1054), which occurs whenever she must leave her daughter to work outside the home
  6. 6. Haight-Angelo 6 becomes the even darker reality that she cannot take care of Emily properly. “They persuaded me at the clinic to send her away to a convalescent home in the country where ‘she can have the kind of food and care you can’t manage for her’,” Olsen writes (1055). It is likely here where Emily learns her place, behind an “invisible wall” (Olsen 1055), disengaged from her mother’s latent affections. By the time they are together again, the “terrible, growing years” (Olsen 1057) ensure that their relationship will forever be strained: “She was a child seldom smiled at … of anxious, not proud, love. We were poor and could not afford for her the soil of easy growth … There were years she did not want me to touch her. She kept too much in herself, her life was such she had to keep too much in herself … She is a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear” (Olsen 1058). In essence, Emily is a textbook illustration of Erikson’s developmental admonishments, right down to the foreshadowing about her educational prowess: “She was not glib or quick in a world where glibness and quickness were easily confused with ability to learn” (Olsen 1056). Though not as outwardly neglected as Emily, Mrs. Johnson’s daughter Maggie in Alice Walker’s short story, “Everyday Use” is nonetheless easily paralleled with the eldest daughter in “Ironing”. Maggie lives with her mother (colloquially referred to as Mama) in a cheap house that holds little emotional value for either character: “I have deliberately turned my back on the house” (Walker 1308) Mama offers, and then compares it to the Johnson’s previous home which burned to the ground “Ten, twelve years” (Walker 1307) ago: “This house is in a pasture, too, like the other one. No doubt when Dee sees it she will want to tear it down” (Walker 1308). Dee is Mama’s eldest daughter, with whom she has the exact opposite relationship as that between her mother and Maggie. “Dee is lighter than Maggie, with nicer hair and a fuller figure” (Olsen 1307) Mama recounts as the two “wait for [Dee] in the yard that Maggie and I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon” (Olsen 1306). Curiously, Mama takes pride in the simplistic beauty
  7. 7. Haight-Angelo 7 of the yard with its “tiny, irregular grooves” and “breezes that never come inside the house” (Olsen 1306). It is unlikely that Dee will appreciate or even notice the small pleasure that her mother takes in keeping the yard up, in the same way that her ability to “kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man” (Olsen 1306) would likely not be appreciated. It is too coarse, too unrefined for the likes of Mama’s eldest daughter. In contrast, Maggie is simple like her mother, scarred both literally by the fire that claimed the first Johnson home, and figuratively, as Mama is, by Dee’s attempts to bestow upon them “a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know” (Olsen 1307). Like Emily, Maggie “knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passed her by” (Olsen 1307), Mama affirms. Whereas Emily’s mother offers defensively that Emily is “lovely” and will “find her way” eventually (Olsen 1058), Mama is less doting in her observance of Maggie, characterizing her as “homely and ashamed” (Olsen 1306) when confronted with her sister, and observing her movements as those of a “lame animal” who “sidle[s] up to someone who is ignorant enough to be kind to him” (Olsen 1307). Of Maggie’s future, Mama offers that “She will marry John Thomas (who has mossy teeth in an earnest face) and then I’ll be free to sit here and I guess just sing church songs to myself. Although I never was a good singer. Never could carry a tune” (Olsen 1307). The consideration of Maggie’s future marriage becomes more pressing when Mama learns the true nature of Dee’s visit: The procurement of some “‘old quilts’” (Olsen 1310) that Dee is nonetheless scandalized to learn that Mama will not let her take: “‘The truth is,’ I said, ‘I promised to give them quilts to Maggie, for when she marries John Thomas’ … I didn’t want to bring up how I had offered Dee a quilt when she went away to college. Then she had told me they were old-fashioned, out of style” (Olsen 1311). Collectively accused of not understanding their “‘heritage’” (Olsen 1312), Mama and Maggie are abandoned
  8. 8. Haight-Angelo 8 once more by Dee to the comfort of their neat yard and “‘the way [they] live’” (Olsen 1312), outlined for the reader as painstakingly irrelevant to the way that Dee lives. The nine-year-old narrator of Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” is yet another contender for Erikson’s developmental octagon. The most notable difference between Jing-Mei (later called June in the novel-length expansion of the story, The Joy Luck Club) and both Maggie and Emily is that June is horrified that her mother won’t leave her alone. Obsessed with the notion of her only child becoming a prodigy, June, too, initially buys into the idea that unearthing the hidden talent that must exist will make her “perfect. My mother and father would adore me. I would be beyond reproach. I would never feel the need to sulk for anything” (Tan 1222). Eventually, however, her mother’s dogged persistence that June becomes a “remarkable child” (Tan 1223) takes its toll. Notably, like Maggie and Emily, Tan’s narrator is painfully average in terms of physical or academic abilities. When her mother decides that she will become the next Chinese Shirley Temple (incidentally, a comparison that Olsen’s narrator also makes in “Ironing”) by becoming a piano prodigy, June goes out of the way not to “give myself a fair chance … I was so determined not to try, not to be anybody different that I learned to play only the most ear- splitting preludes, the most discordant hymns” (Tan 1225-6). After likewise botching a public performance of Schumann’s “Pleading Child”, the tension between June and her mother comes to a head: “‘Only two kinds of daughters,’ she shouted in Chinese. ‘Those who are obedient and those who follow their own mind! Only one kind of daughter can live in this house. Obedient daughter!’” (Tan 1228). Though Tan’s narrator is not neglected by her mother, she yearns for affection the way lonely children like Maggie and Emily do that she does not receive. Rather, said affection comes bundled inside the prickly notion that she will never be a good enough daughter. Indeed, the “struggle at the piano” is “not
  9. 9. Haight-Angelo 9 the only incident my mother felt in me,” June recounts, now an adult. “In the years that followed, I failed her so many times, each time asserting my own will, my right to fall short of expectations. I didn’t get straight As. I didn’t become class president. I didn’t get into Stanford. I dropped out of college. For unlike my mother, I did not believe I could be anything I wanted to be. I could only be me” (Tan 1229). Like Emily’s mother and Mrs. Johnson, Tan’s tale is grounded in the reality of imperfect people who are beaten down by the “hope … for something so large that failure was inevitable” (Tan 1229). It is unclear in the ambiguous conclusions of both “Ironing” and “Everyday Use” whether Maggie or Emily will become, like June, “Perfectly Contented” with their lots in life. Even so, such a feat has taken June more than 30 years to achieve. In Flannery O’Connor’s “Everything That Rises Must Converge,” the college-graduated Julian is significantly older than his counterparts in Tan’s, Walker’s or Olsen’s short stories; likewise, the relationship he has with his mother is one rooted in mutual adulthood that nonetheless poses its own challenges. Similarly, Grace Paley showcases the present-day relationship with her own father as a framework for another adult, mother-son relationship in “A Conversation With My Father.” In both instances, as well as in the relationship between Dee and Mrs. Johnson in “Everyday Use,” the later stages of Erikson’s child development theory provide a framework with which to evaluate each parent-child bond. In stage five of Erikson's theory, the self-seeking teenager grapples with “'identity versus role confusion',” which can result in alienation of others due to "immature behavior and reasoning" (Internet FAQ Archives). Simultaneously, Erikson notes, it is "imperative" at this stage for the young adult to "figure out their likes and dislikes, talents and natural inclinations, and to try new things ... so that they will develop a sense of identity" (Internet FAQ Archives).
  10. 10. Haight-Angelo 10 By stage six, the burgeoning adult begins to seek "deep, meaningful, intimate relationships" that align with these aforementioned preferences. By stage seven, the now-adult will begin to feel the effects of stagnation ("not changing or growing"), if they have not made positive connections or choices. By stage eight, the adult evaluates "whether they have accomplished something with their lives and choices and whether they have contributed to the betterment of society" (Internet FAQ Archives). Dee has well proven her ability to have meaningful adult relationships with persons other than her mother. Though her female friendships only ever extended vaguely into the territory of “Nervous girls who never laughed” (Walker 1308), Dee was known early on to impress boys with her “well-turned phrase, the cute shape, the scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye” (Walker 1308). Nonetheless, Mama’s criticism of Dee’s “faultfinding power” (Walker 1308) implies her daughter’s high standards, which her behavior during “Everyday Use” outlines in greater detail. Indeed, when she arrives at the house, she is accompanied not by one of the awe- inspired boys whom she likely befriended to distance herself from her bourgeois home life, but by a fellow political mover-and-shaker with whom she seems to feel a kinship. “The short stocky fellow with the hair to his navel is all grinning and he follows up with ‘Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!’” (Walker 1308). While Dee has made herself comfortable alongside “Hakim- a-barber”, acknowledging that they are on the same side of the fight against a common oppressor (the mainstream White culture), and announcing that she has changed her name to “‘Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo’” (Walker 1309) as a physical expression of that fight, Mama recognizes few similarities between herself and Hakim-a-barber besides pointing out that he resembles “‘those beef-cattle peoples down the road’”; that is, fellow country folks (Walker 1309). Indeed, she is unable to understand Hakim-a-barber’s name well enough to pronounce it correctly, and
  11. 11. Haight-Angelo 11 shifts back and forth between “Dee” and “Wangero” as it suits her. Naturally, Dee’s friend (or husband; Mama never bothers to find out, and Dee does not offer the information) rejects his own familial roots the same way that Dee rejects hers, downplaying their apparent connection: “‘I accept some of their doctrines, but farming and raising cattle is not my style’” (Walker 1310), Hakim-a-barber tells Mama. It is unlikely that Dee has moved beyond Erikson’s sixth stage of development. She does not yet show a maturity or awareness of her own stagnation, though one wonders whether her mother’s refusal to allow her to stake her claim on the family belongings of a family with which she no longer associates herself will be the precipice from which deep self-reflection may eventually spring. At present, Dee’s sense of self-identity is strong, though it is devoid of respect for her mother and younger sister, who are collectively useful to her only when they are something quaint that she can possess and control. Conversely, both Mama and Maggie regard Dee with a sort of shy awe. Mama believes that Dee would like her better if she were “a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake,” someone who could match a “gray, sporty man like Johnny Carson” with a “quick and witty tongue” (Walker 1306). Mama categorizes herself and Maggie as “dimwits” (Walker 1307) compared to Dee, and seems to regard her eldest daughter almost as a goddess: “Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style” (Walker 1308) Mama offers, barely able to shield her eyes from the brightness of Dee’s yellow and orange dress against the sun; her gold jewelry, starkly contrasted with her daughter’s “black as night” hair (Walker 1308). Mama’s characterization of Dee as someone who “has held life always in the palm of one hand;” a person to whom “‘no’ is a word the world never learned to say” (Walker 1306) proves apt. Indeed, her refusal of the “‘priceless’” (Walker 1311) quilts to her eldest daughter marks the end of Dee’s
  12. 12. Haight-Angelo 12 pleasantries; where initially Dee is facetiously “delighted” (Walker 1310) by everything the humble Johnson home has to offer, it quickly outwears its usefulness once there is nothing more in it for her to take. Similarly, Mama correctly identifies Maggie’s reaction to her sister’s tantrum as “something like fear,” but not anger: “This was Maggie’s portion. This was the way she knew God to work” (Walker 1311). Though Dee rejects her family, Mama does not reject her; at the same time, she will not wait for “Miss Wangero” (Walker 1311) to come around anymore. Paradoxically, by putting Dee in her place and championing Maggie, Mama seems to emulate her eldest daughter, in order to protect the younger one. Both Mama and Maggie noticeably grow as characters by the end of the story; for Dee to do the same in the future, she will need to “negotiate the old by casting [her] lot with the new” (Tornsey 1559). Like Dee, Julian is a college-educated young adult who prides himself on being a well- rounded person, particularly in the face of his mother’s old-fashioned ways. Unlike Dee, O’Connor tells the story of Julian and his mother from the prodigal son’s point of view. To Julian, he and his mother have little in common: “The further irony of all this was that in spite of her, he had turned out so well. In spite of going to only a third-rate college, he had, on his own initiative, come out with a first-rate education; in spite of growing up dominated by a small mind, he had ended up with a large one; in spite of all her foolish views, he was free of prejudice and unafraid to face facts” (O’Connor 1009-1010). Julian’s mother’s prejudices are racial; set in the deep South in the midst of the African-American civil rights movement, she is hardly the only person to feel that “‘the bottom rail is on the top’” (O’Connor 1006); that their Black neighbors should “‘rise … on their own side of the fence’” (O’Connor 1007). In spite of this, Julian’s mother is a catch-all for all of Julian’s idealistic disgust, even if he readily admits that
  13. 13. Haight-Angelo 13 she is more “a little girl that he had to take to town” (O’Connor 1005) than someone going out of her way to cause harm to anyone, Black or otherwise. Ironically, both characters suffer one another with the same sort of beleaguered “martyrdom” (O’Connor 1006). While Julian acts put-upon to “make himself completely numb during the time he would be sacrificed to [his mother’s] pleasure” (O’Connor 1005), his mother complains about her diminished surroundings, but simultaneously “enjoy[s] the struggle” to give her son “everything she thought a Chestny ought to have” (O’Connor 1009). For Julian’s mother, being “adjustable” and “gracious” (O’Connor 1006-7) are signs of a dignified upbringing, one she nonetheless was not afforded due to “‘reduced circumstances’” (O’Connor 1007). To her, having Chestny and Godhigh (a symbolically powerful name) in the bloodline is everything. Conversely, Julian goes out of his way to reject all aspects of his ancestry, though he sometimes fails at eradicating it completely: “He never spoke of it without contempt or thought of it without longing,” O’Connor writes, describing the old Godhigh-Chestny mansion, now gutted and occupied by “Negroes” (O’Connor 1007), one of many examples of “threadbare elegance” (O’Connor 1007) that is all that remains of his mother’s “banner of imaginary dignity” (O’Connor 1008). Indeed, everything about Julian and his mother’s life is “reduced,” right down to the “slimming class” that the latter must take in order to get her blood pressure under control (O’Connor 1005). The theme of Julian’s mother gradually losing her composure, falling from grace is strong throughout the story. Similarly, Julian is unhappily stagnant. At the age of 25, he is “as disenchanted with [the world] as a man of fifty” (O’Connor 1009), a college graduate who sells typewriters while hoping (but not with very much hope) for his writing career to take off. Neither character lives entirely in the real world; at the same time, Julian is better prepared for
  14. 14. Haight-Angelo 14 society’s tentative evolution towards racial equality, something his mother would rather (and does) die than concede. Neither Paley and her father, nor the hypothetical mother-son tale that she dishes out to appease her dad in “A Conversation With My Father” seem preoccupied with racial tension. In spite of this, both parent-child relationships parallel with Dee-and-Mrs. Johnson and Julian and his mother. The unnamed mother and son’s story begins as a handful of vaguely scribbled facts: The son becomes a drug addict as a teenager, which the mother latches onto herself in an attempt to be “part of the youth culture, with which she felt very much at home” (Paley 1081). As the author writes: “After a while, for a number of reasons, the boy gave it all up and left the city and his mother in disgust. Hopeless and alone, she grieved” (Paley 1081). Bookending the saga is Paley and her elderly father’s own relationship, the latter who dislikes his writer daughter’s postmodern leanings, and cajoles her to tell him “‘a simple story … the kind de Maupassant wrote, or Chekhov’” (Paley 1081). Though “Conversation” in and of itself is almost defensively written in a postmodern style, the sparse dialogue between father and daughter provides at least as good of an insight into their relationship as a more straightforward style might. Of the story, which Paley admits is autobiographical, she offers that she was “‘just trying to oblige [her father],” and that they were very close (Charters 1526). Beyond authorial intent, the fact that Paley does concede to her father’s wishes and attempts to re-tell her story to his liking shows that she cares for him, at least as well as Paley telling the reader that this is the case does. Paley herself aside, the boy and his mother, whom she admits are styled after her neighbors across the street, are similar in their interactions and co-dependency as Dee and Julian are to their own mothers. Unlike Maggie or Emily, the son’s “helpless chubby infancy” and ensuing childhood are strengthened rather than weakened by obvious maternal affection (Paley
  15. 15. Haight-Angelo 15 1082). Though the boy becomes a junkie in the “fist of adolescence” he is also a “hopeful … ideologue and successful converter” (Paley 1082). Like Dee, he attracts fellow intellectuals to his cause, albeit a less savory one than fighting for equality. He also attracts his mother, whose draw towards the youth culture, rather than to “her own generation” (Paley 1083) is her biggest flaw. Whereas Dee and Julian act out against their mothers, craving understanding, Paley’s teenage boy receives unabashed maternal affection and, like June in “Two Kinds” lashes out against it. Like Dee, the boy’s natural ability to draw a crowd leads him to greener pastures than his mother’s full-fledged addiction; namely, the boy meets a girl who, ironically, plays the role of the disapproving parent when his mother fails to do so, and moves “to the bushy edge of another borough” (Paley 1083) with her. Whereas Julian is the pinnacle of Erikson’s fabled stagnation, both Dee and Paley’s boy burn brightly, even at the cost of the maternal connection that nonetheless brought them into the world. All three characters reject their respective mothers; Paley, at least, attempts to admit that her father correctly accuses her of not “look[ing] things in the face” (Paley 1084), for which the only cure is self-awareness. Whether Dee, Julian, or the boy will come around remains unknown, an acknowledgment that Paley’s father would term a postmodern “tragedy” (Paley 1084). Gender Beyond age, the gender of the child in each respective maternal relationship is another notable interpersonal factor. Frye does not explain her distinction between the mother-son and mother-daughter relationship, only that sons particularly run the risk of being too “resentful or adoring” (287), with unhealthy results. However, parallels across gender lines in these “trans- generational entanglements” (Carruthers) can be easily observed.
  16. 16. Haight-Angelo 16 Maggie and Dee in “Everyday Use,” as well as June in “Two Kinds” and Emily in “I Stand Here Ironing” find themselves in what Carruthers characterizes as typically problematic mother-daughter relationships. "A mother may say that she wishes her daughters happiness, yet from a daughter's point of view - she acts quite opposite," Carruthers offers. "A daughter may feel criticized for her choices, for example in education, career, boyfriends and partners." Conversely, the mother "may feel blamed by her daughter for everything that happens with the daughter's education, career, boyfriends and partners" (Carruthers). In essence, the two may regard the same incident in opposite ways. For Dee and Mrs. Johnson, this may be Dee’s regard for “heritage” versus her mother’s feeling that Dee does not care about her family. For June in “Two Kinds,” the botched piano recital performance is both an incident and a metaphor that shapes her maternal relationship; it is a marker of June’s perceived inadequacy in her mother’s eyes. In response, June lashes out, delighted when her mother starts “to give up hope” (Tan 1224) that her daughter will ever become a prodigy. Emily and Maggie’s mothers’ neglect is more palpable than any arguments that they may have had. As Caruthers notes, "Few parents intend to abandon, abuse or neglect their children. Most mothers have good intentions and nurture and protect their children through childhood." At the same time, however, "Mothers may advise their daughters to be realistic by preparing for unfulfilling lives” (Caruthers). Such advice is notable in the relationship between Mrs. Johnson and Maggie, the latter who seems pre-judged as useless and unimportant, to some degree, by both her mother and her older sister. Maggie understands her lot in life; she is willing to give up the precious quilts without a fight to Dee who decides that they “already belonged to her” (Walker 1311), anticipating their value as wall decorations in the eyes of her new family. Maggie’s subservience; the way that she hides from dubious company and scuffs her toe makes
  17. 17. Haight-Angelo 17 Mama’s championing of her at the end of the story all the more heartening: “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 back into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open” (Walker 1311). Later, Maggie smiles a rare, “real smile” (Walker 1312), the status quo changed. It is indeed a “new day” for her and her mother, albeit unlike anything that Dee has in mind. Emily is similarly subservient towards her mother: “never a direct protest, never rebellion,” Olsen writes (1054), characterizing the mother with small, occasional outbursts of guilt or, at least, displaced emotion: “What in me demanded that goodness in her? And what was the cost, the cost to her of such goodness?” (Olsen 1054), she asks. Like Maggie, Emily suffers quietly while others take the spotlight; in Emily’s case, these are the four small children who come after her, whose presence demand that Emily becomes “a mother, and housekeeper, and shopper” (Olsen 1057). Thus, Emily never achieves her own identity, though she seeks it in bursts of growth and success at comedy (mime), which her mother nonetheless knows she will not be able to afford seeing through to its fullest extent. Frye offers: "a human being cannot rely on the perpetual presence of external seeing eyes to validate her own authenticity as a separate self. Emily, feeling her isolation, and Emily's mother, feeling helpless to overcome her daughter's painful alienation, together give us a powerful lens on the vulnerability to external perceptions of selfhood" (Frye 289), one from which Emily will never be fully exonerated from, even with her successful "command ... convulsing and deadly clowning" (Olsen 1058) as a comedian. Emily will always be seeking acceptance, always looking for "Shoogily", her own made-up word for "comfort" (Olsen 1057). Her success on stage, however, will never fully substitute for "the unpreparedness, stammering and unsure" relationship that she has with her mother. Thus, even
  18. 18. Haight-Angelo 18 when she is "Somebody", Emily is "as imprisoned in her difference as she had been in anonymity" (Olsen 1057). To her mother, Emily will always be something of a stranger, "rare and precious" (Olsen 1058), but ultimately unattainable. The best gift her mother can offer her then is not belatedly fostered maternal love, but the knowledge that "she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron" (Olsen 1058). As Frye offers, the metaphor of the iron and the "rhythm of the ironing" that Emily's mother acquiesces to throughout the majority of the narrative together "establish a tightly coherent framework for the ... probing of a mother- daughter relationship" (292) without trivializing or romanticizing it. Lost or buried identity is a common theme in the mother-daughter bond, according to Carruthers: “The daughter may fight to establish and protect her own identity - or the daughter may lose identity and identify with her mother ... Most daughters want assurance that they are loved for who they are - not for what they may do, who they may become or who they may marry.” In addition, “A mother may try to motivate her daughter to fulfill her own unaccomplished goals, and she may immerse herself into her daughter's life” (Carruthers). Such characterization strongly applies to the women in “Two Kinds,” as June struggles to create an identity outside of her mother’s expectations, while still yearning for her love. Though June’s mother appears almost comically tyrannical at times, small hints indicate that she does, in fact, care for her daughter very deeply. “My mother slapped me. ‘Who ask you be genius?’ she shouted. ‘Only ask you be your best. For you sake. You think I want you be genius? Hnnh! What for! Who ask you!’” (Tan 1225). Unlike Olsen’s narrator, who is emotionally incapable of admitting affection to her daughter (though the reader is assured that it is there), June is flat-out told that she is loved. At the same time, the message is relayed through shouting and a slap across the face, a rather mixed signal. Still, Tan’s story remains the most undeniably hopeful; not
  19. 19. Haight-Angelo 19 only does she gain independence (as Carruthers correctly estimates, around 30 years of age), but also seemingly accord with her mother, her long-time enemy. In contrast to the mother-daughter bond, Carruthers identifies the largest issue between mothers and sons as “emotional incest,” in which the son becomes the mother's "Little Prince." Such a relationship potentially forms, Carruthers offers, if the mother acts "irresponsible, childish, or [does] not provide mature guidance" to her son. Often, the mother's life is "dedicated ... to her son", forming a codependency that can cause the son to "attack (become a compulsive bully) or withdraw (become an obsessive nerd)" (Carruthers). For the "intellectual" son, this may lead to difficulty in "maintain[ing] a happy partnership" outside of his maternal relationship. In addition, Carruthers says, "The consequences include the burned-out shells of real boys who gave up - who lost themselves to mediocrity or to drugs." Naturally, in order to achieve "emotional freedom," the Little Prince must successfully acquire "emotional maturity" and break free from his mother-son entanglement (Carruthers). Curiously, Carruthers identifies the son’s inability to “hide [his] intellect and delay [his] maturity,” which he claims that daughters are more apt to do. Like Frye, however, he does not offer any further rationale for why the behavior is common in one gender and not the other. In a nutshell, O’Connor’s characterization of Julian best adheres to Carruthers’ proposed notion of the withdrawn, “obsessive nerd,” whereas Paley’s unnamed teenage boy is the “compulsive bully.” Likewise, both young men are “burned-out shells of real boys who gave up,” though Julian succumbs to mediocrity while the boy in Paley’s story attaches himself to drugs. Perhaps it is because of both young men’s inability to hide their intelligence or maturity that their maternal relationships are similarly categorized by each son breaking away from his mother, no longer needing them. Whereas the daughters typically portray an ambiguity in how
  20. 20. Haight-Angelo 20 much they both loathe their mothers, yet crave their acceptance, neither Julian nor Paley’s boy seem upset by the status quo with their own mothers. In essence, both boys (men) call the shots in their respective maternal relationships, allowing them the choice to adhere to or discard their mothers at will. Julian even brags about such ability: “Most miraculous of all, instead of being blinded by love for her as she was for him, he had cut himself emotionally free of her and could see her with complete objectivity. He was not dominated by his mother” (O’Connor 1010). At the same time, Julian’s mother relies on him, her Little Prince of whom she is unwaveringly proud, in spite of “his gloominess” and radical idealism in lieu of “practical experience” (O’Connor 1009). Indeed, his mother supports him while he struggles to find his place in a world that he can barely stand. Not only that, but she suffers to provide for him, albeit arguably enjoys the struggle, feeling that it makes her worthy of her proper upbringing. At the same time, Julian is easily irritated by his mother’s kindness: “Julian thought he could have stood his lot better if she had been selfish, if she had been an old hag who drank and screamed at him … Everything that gave her pleasure was small and depressed him” (O’Connor 1005-6). To the diminished Lady Chestny, acting gracious is a virtue; to Julian, it is an irritating game that his mother plays: “She lived according to the laws of her own fantasy world, outside of which he had never seen her step foot” (O’Connor 1009). Unsurprisingly, once Julian makes the decision that “There was no reason for her to think she could always depend on him” (O’Connor 1011), the relationship becomes irrevocably damaged. For Paley’s teenage boy and his mother, the son unequivocally calls the shots. He does not ask his mother for permission to use drugs, nor does Paley characterize him as particularly interested in his mother even when she invites herself into his youth culture. In essence, his mother becomes his peer: “Although she was often high herself, certain good mothering reflexes
  21. 21. Haight-Angelo 21 remained, and she saw to it that there was lots of orange juice around and honey and milk and vitamin pills. However, she never cooked anything but chili, and that no more than once a week” (Paley 1083). Neither her son nor her neighbors regard her absolutely as a fellow youth or as a proper mother, however, which seems to set up the son’s decision to abandon her for a “proselytizing girl” who scolds him for his drug use and poor eating habits (Paley 1083). As previously mentioned, she adopts a maternal bond with the boy, one which his mother fails to fully accept upon her own shoulders. For Julian, there is no saving grace, no scolding girlfriend or Hakim-a-barber to accompany him home. At one point, O’Connor observes, “he had never been successful at making any Negro friends” (1011), an acquaintanceship that he fantasizes will put his mother’s outdated racism in its place. Similarly, Julian toys with the idea of hiring a Black doctor for his mother, and even the “ultimate horror”: Bringing home a “Negroid woman” as a romantic partner (O’Connor 1011). Alas, as Carruthers hypothesizes, Julian is unable to successfully find for himself a fulfilling relationship. There is only his mother, much to his despair. The mother in Paley’s story has never been her son’s main consideration; she is merely one of the hangers-on to his feats of drug-addled genius, epitomized by his contributions to a periodical called Oh! Golden Horse! (Paley 1082). Like Dee with her noisy bracelets and book knowledge and new name, the boy is a golden child whose mother is devastated by his absence and subsequent rejection of her. “The boy and his girl … were very strict. They said they would not see [the boy’s mother] again until she had been off drugs for sixty days” (Paley 1083), the author writes. For the son, the lack of a mother is supplemented by alternative and perhaps even greater things; there is no need for Paley to hastily convince her father that his life is not tragic. Conversely, even the mother’s potential success as a pharmacy receptionist is related to her
  22. 22. Haight-Angelo 22 previous glory years spent in her son’s shadow, where she is no longer worthy to remain in his eyes. As Paley’s father notes, “‘She will slide back. A person must have character. She does not’” (1084). Regardless of whether his prediction comes true, it pales in comparison to the notion that the mother only ever exists because of or in spite of her son. He is everything to her; sadly, to him, she is insignificant. Once again, it is prudent to mention Paley’s own fictionalized depiction of her own father-daughter relationship in “Conversation,” as it relates to Carruthers’ notions of gender- based maternal conflicts. Ideally, one would find shades of what Carruthers terms the “Daddy’s Little Princess” archetype, characterized by mother-daughter tensions as a result of the daughter’s emotional compatibility or championing of the father. Like the father in a mother-son relationship, the mother observing such a father-daughter bond presumably feels slighted by the father’s lack of attention to her, just as the father feels slighted by an emotionally awkward mother-son relationship. To apply this to Paley, one must obtain context regarding her own maternal relationship, of which “Conversation” provides very little. Notably, Paley offers that “I had promised the family to always let [my father] have the last word when arguing, but in this case I had a different responsibility. That woman lives across the street. She’s my knowledge and my invention” (1084). To Paley, her mother is only one member of the rest of her family, whose opinions extend only to not riling her ailing father up on what is likely his death bed. Naturally, the implication is that Paley’s mother regards any additional detail – the worth of her daughter’s writing, for example – as unimportant, at least in the singular vein of Paley’s short story. At the same time, Paley champions the mother in the story that she creates for her father’s entertainment and criticism, even acknowledging that she is based on the mother-son drama playing out across the street. The same level of inference, ergo, can apply to the barely
  23. 23. Haight-Angelo 23 explored mother-daughter relationship in Paley’s own life: The mother in her story is “‘born in a time of fools, to live among the fools’” (1084), for which the author pities her: “I’m not going to leave her there in that house crying. (Actually, neither would Life, which unlike me has no pity)” (1084). Though fascinating to presume that Paley potentially has her own maternal issues, it is mere speculation beyond wondering if there are any parallels between her mother and son characters and her own mother. In that sense, only the author knows, and she’s chosen to keep such knowledge to herself. Other Familial Relationships Yet another interpersonal thread that ties the maternal relationships in each story together are the mother and child’s respective relationships with other family members. It is prudent to consider the strength and validity of each mother’s romantic adult relationships, as much as it is important to observe instances of sibling rivalry amongst her children, where applicable. More often than not, the mother-daughter and mother-son relationships in the aforementioned stories are presented as single-parent functions. Neither Mama in “Everyday Use” nor Julian’s mother in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” mentions a father figure in the course of either story. Similarly, Paley’s mother and son characters are devoid of any paternal interaction. Conversely, though fathers are mentioned in “Two Kinds” and “I Stand Here Ironing,” their roles are minimal. In “I Stand Here Ironing,” Emily’s father is explained away quickly, mentioned only in relation to the “good-bye note” that he leaves, stating that he “‘could no longer endure … sharing want with us’” (Olsen 1053). Later, Olsen’s narrator has children after Emily, presumably with another man, but he is never mentioned or described, let alone shown interacting with the children that he helped to create. Interestingly, before Emily is
  24. 24. Haight-Angelo 24 sent to the children’s home in the midst of her mother’s Great Depression-era struggles, she lives for a short time with her father: “When she finally came, I hardly knew her, walking quick and nervous like her father, looking like her father, thin, and dressed in a shoddy red that yellowed her skin and glared at the pockmarks. All the baby loveliness gone” (Olsen 1054). Though Paley does not appear to fit the Daddy’s Little Princess archetype, a case can be made that Emily’s mother finds her daughter to be a stand-in for her absent husband, for which Emily is (probably subconsciously) blamed, in the vein of Carruthers’ father-daughter postulating. Olsen also implicitly states in an interview that the mother character does not particularly lack anything in spite of not having a dutiful husband; indeed, “Ironing” is “autobiographical” (Charters 1052) in that Olsen too is left by her own husband to raise her first child alone. Of her own predicament and her narrator’s, Olsen defensively offers that she feels “no personal guilt as a single working parent over her daughter’s predicament … since ‘guilt is a word used far too sloppily, to cover up harmful situations in society that must be changed’” (Charters 1052). Frye adds: Olsen is not in the business of “guilty self-laceration. Rather she is searching for an honest assessment of past behavior and its consequences and for an accurate understanding of the role of cultural necessity which nonetheless allows for individual responsibility” (290). Still, Emily’s mother is not Emily; though the mother can justify her husband’s absence with the rationale that “She had a new daddy now to learn to love” (Olsen 1054), it does not mean that Emily does not, or will not blame her mother for her own father’s absence in the future. As Carruthers offers, even family therapists often fail to treat the father as an “equal parent” to the mother, one “whose involvement is needed by their families”. Thus, fathers may feel “demeaned” and “devalued” in their respective family relationships (Carruthers). It is unclear whether June’s father in “Two Kinds” feels emotionally slighted; like Paley’s
  25. 25. Haight-Angelo 25 unexplained relationship with her mother, the story’s narration only hints at subtleties that doubtlessly exist somewhere. On one hand, June’s father is a uniquely notable presence in the story. At the same time, he is hardly the primary caregiver for June. He does not noticeably take part in any decision-making about his daughter’s well-being; June’s mother wishes for her to take piano lessons, and so she does, even if it’s “Our family” (Tan 1224) that can’t afford the expense. June’s father’s influence is implied, but June, as a child, never sees it in play. Similarly, her father attends his daughter’s doomed piano recital, but his only contributions are yawning at the stiffness of the event, and “humming the busy-bee tune” (Tan 1227) that the winner of the recital played on his violin. Unlike June’s mother, her father is not committed to judging his daughter’s worth through her achievements; he does not champion either wife or daughter, and exists merely as silent observer to their drama. In this sense, June seems both to silently respect her father, and to regard him less as an authority figure and more as a confidante. Like Paley and her father, June’s paternal relationship appears to be based on mutual respect, rather than the push-pull of achievement-failure that defines many of the interactions between herself and her mother. After her mother dies, June even helps to “get … things in order for [her] father, a little at a time” (Tan 1229) by organizing remnants of her mother’s life as she feels that they are relevant. In essence, this is her job, whether an obedient, successful daughter or free-thinking failure; not her father’s. The sibling conflicts in each short story are the final interpersonal factor that one should consider in the context of maternal relationships. Neither Julian in “Everything That Rises Must Converge” nor Paley or her mother and son characters have siblings – potentially, the ‘other’ members of Paley’s family includes brothers and/or sisters, but they are even less notable in “A Conversation With My Father” than Paley’s own mother-daughter relationship. Similarly, Olsen
  26. 26. Haight-Angelo 26 never shows Emily interacting with any of her younger siblings in “Ironing,” though her mother observes and comments on their relationship: Oh there were conflicts between the others too, each one human, needing, demanding, hurting, taking – but only between Emily and Susan, no, Susan toward Emily that corroding resentment. It seems so obvious on the surface, yet it is not obvious; Susan, the second child, Susan, golden- and curly-haired and chubby, quick and articulate and assured, everything in appearance and manner Emily was not; Susan, not able to resist Emily’s precious things, losing or sometimes clumsily breaking them; Susan telling jokes and riddles to company for applause while Emily sat silent (to say to me later: that was my riddle, Mother, I told it to Susan); Susan, who for all the five years’ difference in age was just a year behind Emily in developing physically. (Olsen 1056-7) Frye’s analysis of the Emily-Susan connection is also notable: “When [Olsen] defines the hostilities between Emily and her sister Susan - 'that terrible balancing of hurts and needs' (Olsen 16; cited by Frye 288) - she asserts her own recognition not only of an extreme sibling rivalry but also of the inevitable conflict in the separate self-definitions of parent and child” (Frye 288). From Olsen’s narrator’s perspective, Susan was the easier child to love, both circumstantially and in a comparison of her two eldest children’s traits. Likewise, Susan does not remind her mother of Emily’s wayward father, and thus does not suffer from her mother’s defensive brusqueness the way Emily seems to merely for looking or acting like him. In the same vein, though Maggie does not notably remind her mother of her and Dee’s own wayward father in “Everyday Use,” she is similarly regarded as the Emily to her sister
  27. 27. Haight-Angelo 27 Dee’s Susan, birth order aside. Where Dee is boisterous and entitled, Maggie acts “like somebody used to never winning anything, or having anything reserved for her” (Walker 1311). Mama offers that “I used to think [Dee] hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised the money, the church and me, to send her to Augusta to school” (Walker 1307). In this sense, Maggie serves as a placeholder for all of the things that Dee can’t, or won’t be for her mother; she will never be satisfied with her family’s humble heritage, or with slumming it alongside Mrs. Johnson and her little sister. Similarly, Maggie regards Dee “with a mixture of envy and awe” (Walker 1306). She is perhaps more observant and intelligent than her mother gives her credit for being: “Maggie and I thought about this and Maggie asked me, ‘Mama, when did Dee ever have any friends?’” (Walker 1308). Whereas Dee and her Muslim friend’s presence make Maggie anxious, ergo, she seems to see her sister for what she really is; when Dee leaves in a huff, donning “sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and her chin” (Walker 1312), Maggie merely smiles at her. Conversely, Maggie holds no everyday use to her sister. Their relationship will remain stagnant unless or until that changes; as always, on Dee’s terms. Amy Tan’s “Two Kinds” is unique in that non-blood-related characters have very sisterly relationships. The short story itself is a small piece of Tan’s novel, The Joy Luck Club, which follows not only June’s relationship with her mother, but her mother’s friendship with her own age-mates, collectively the Joy Luck Club. In “Two Kinds” itself, June is forced into interaction with Waverly, one of the Club member’s own daughters. “We had grown up together and shared all the closeness of two sisters squabbling over crayons and dolls. In other words, for the most part, we hated each other. I thought she was snotty” (Tan 1226), June offers. Compounding their sour sisterly relationship is the fact that June’s mother and her Auntie Lindo constantly compare notes on their daughters. Waverly, locally known as “‘Chinatown’s Littlest Chinese Chess
  28. 28. Haight-Angelo 28 Champion’” (Tan 1226) is defensive of her position as the ‘better’ daughter at several points in the story. When June prepares for her piano recital, Waverly sits in the audience with a “sulky expression” (Tan 1227) on her face. Later, her dismissal of June’s lack of piano playing prowess is all too similar to June’s own struggle for acceptance from her mother: “Waverly looked at me and shrugged her shoulders. ‘You aren’t a genius like me,’ she said matter-of-factly. And if I hadn’t felt so bad, I would have pulled her braids and punched her stomach” (Tan 1227). Like Emily-and-Susan and Dee-and-Maggie, June’s sibling rivalry with Waverly is directly connected to their own respective maternal relationships. Like June, it is implied that Waverly suffers under the same implication that she is only worth something to her mother if she measures up to an ideal, one which characters like June, Emily and Maggie have long since given up trying to attain. External Factors All of the authors of the aforementioned five short stories bring personal faith, life experiences and opinions on the problems within their respective societies and eras to their writing. Thus, each story acts as a barometer of the time for which it was created as much as it is an intensely private observation of each mother’s interpersonal relationship with her child(ren). For Amy Tan and the characters in O’Connor’s and Walker’s stories, race relations must be taken into account; Tan, in the context of Chinese-American immigration; and O’Connor and Walker representing respective White and Black perspectives on the African-American civil rights movement of the mid-20th century, with O’Connor’s tale thoroughly interwoven with her Catholic dogma. Similarly, a case can be made that Olsen’s “Ironing” is an apt assessment of
  29. 29. Haight-Angelo 29 Great Depression-era America, as much as it is a treatise on unconditional maternal love in spite of diminished circumstances. Finally, Paley’s “A Conversation With My Father” uses an argument with her father as a hypothetical debate on the merits of postmodernism, which simultaneously parallels with her mother and son characters’ acknowledgment of their society’s “youth culture.” Of the Chinese-American culture portrayed in “Two Kinds,” author Amy Tan is quick to note that she is often placed in classroom literary canons “for all the wrong reasons”: “I am alarmed when reviewers and educators assume that my very personal, specific, and fictional stories are meant to be representative down to the nth detail not just of Chinese Americans but, sometimes, of all Asian culture” (Tan 1550). She goes on to expose numerous tales of well- meaning readers and critics offering more credit to her for shaping the western world’s view of the Chinese-American landscape than she feels they ought to. More to the point, Tan argues, “I don’t write to dig a hole and fill it with symbols. I don’t write stories as ethnic themes. I don’t write to represent life in general. And I certainly don’t write because I have answers. If I knew everything there is to know about mothers and daughters, Chinese and Americans, I wouldn’t have any stories left to imagine” (1551). Even providing strong role models in her characters, Tan says, is not her goal. At the same time, as novelist Valerie Miner argues, “Tan’s special gifts are her storytelling ability and her ‘remarkable ear for dialogue and dialect, representing the choppy English of the mother and the sloppy California vernacular of the daughter with a sensitive authenticity’” (Charters 1221). Such authenticity, Charters infers, is what makes “the resilient bond between mother and daughter” (1221) come to life, even if they are not meant to represent any particular status quo.
  30. 30. Haight-Angelo 30 In contrast, O’Connor is equally firm that her own stories should be read not as realistic fiction, but as parables. Also, Charters points out, O’Connor’s “remarkable ear for dialogue” and her use of family relationships to explore religious motifs are notable staples (1004). O’Connor herself was uncompromisingly Roman Catholic; and while her stories certainly reflect her dogmatic beliefs, Brinkmeyer is firm that they are not “tracts” or religious propaganda. Rather, the author seeks to make her faith look realistic, not favorable. In this sense, "Everything That Rises Must Converge" paradoxically incorporates "the rising and convergence of a suppressed group (blacks) in society," as well as the "spiritual decay" of the previous generation as it levels into an "irresonant, faithless world of tomorrow" (Wyatt 68-9). This is symbolized by Julian's mother's diminished capacity as a noble woman whose family is no longer on top of the world. On the inside, she insists repeatedly to her son, she is a Chestny; on the outside, however, she and her surroundings; their current neighborhood; her grandfather’s now-dilapidated mansion, overrun with Black squatters were "once fashionable but now [are] deteriorated and dingy" (Wyatt 69). O’Connor thus confronts the racial tension apparent in Julian and his mother’s world, though her loftier intent is to incite the characters to confront their own salvation. In the case of “Converge,” this appears to be mainly aimed at Julian, epitomized early on in the story as “Saint Sebastian [waiting] for the arrows to begin piercing him” (O’Connor 1005). Wyatt points out, however, that some critics find O'Connor's characters to be "typically too ambiguous to serve as either heroes or villains" (Wyatt 66). To this, O'Connor offers that "Her protagonists may not be able to support the grace that befalls them, but she loves them nonetheless," as well as her antagonists, who conversely "become the objects of the searching grace that finds them lacking" (Wyatt 67). Upon this, Wyatt heaps that O'Connor "confronts a drastically fallen world in which
  31. 31. Haight-Angelo 31 even the remnants of religious belief are vanishing and the instruments and recipients of grace themselves may be as sordid as the damned" (67). In this, he offers, her stories are parables; her characters "dubious ... vessels of grace" (68). Author intent aside, of the five short stories previously discussed, “Everything That Rises Must Converge” is easily the one most irrevocably shaped by its cultural backdrop. That is, without consideration of the tensions between White and Black persons in the story, it ceases to have much relevance to the world beyond O’Connor’s rather abstract religious beliefs. Indeed, the story is one of frequent contrasts: Julian is disinterested in his family legacy whereas his mother literally cannot function without it. More tangibly, at the beginning of the story, Julian’s mother dons a “hideous hat” for her trip into town for her “reducing class at the Y” to help her lose weight (O’Connor 1005). The hat is purple and green and “jaunty and pathetic” (O’Connor 1005), a concise categorization of its owner according to her son. Later in the story, his mother is confronted with a Black woman during the bus trip into town who has bought the same hat, a fact which delights Julian: “The vision of the two hats, identical, broke upon him with the radiance of a brilliant sunrise. His face was suddenly lit with joy. He could not believe that Fate had thrust upon his mother such a lesson … His grin hardened until it said to her as plainly as if he were saying aloud: Your punishment exactly fits your pettiness. This should teach you a permanent lesson” (O’Connor 1012-3). As one might suspect from O’Connor, however, the permanent lesson is really Julian’s. Offended when his mother attempts to give the Black woman’s child, Carver a penny (“He don’t take nobody’s pennies!” [O’Connor 1014]), Julian continues to hold his perceived superiority over his mother: “‘Don’t think that was just an uppity Negro woman,’ he said. ‘That was the whole colored race which will no longer take your condescending pennies. That was your black
  32. 32. Haight-Angelo 32 double. She can wear the same hat as you, and to be sure,’ he added gratuitously (because he thought it was funny), ‘it looked better on her than it did on you’” (O’Connor 1015). Julian, too, has a black double, a “Negro man” on the same bus route who “immediately unfold[s] a newspaper and obscure[s] himself behind it” (O’Connor 1010). Though Julian wistfully wishes to “convey his sympathy” (O’Connor 1010) and align himself idealistically with the man in the spirit of racial harmony, it is not to be. In this, Julian’s social disgust works against him; for, like him, the Black man prefers to remain “entrenched behind his paper” (O’Connor 1010) where he can “see out and judge” while remaining “safe from any kind of penetration” or “general idiocy of his fellows” (O’Connor 1009). As if on cue, Julian’s mother prefers to make small talk with “A thin woman with protruding teeth and long yellow hair” (O’Connor 1008) whom Julian finds absolutely repulsive, rather than with someone more worthy; naturally, Julian and his mother have very opposing ideas about what constitutes worth. Yet another contrast is mentioned plainly by O’Connor, that between Julian and Carver, the latter whom sits next to Julian’s mother on the bus, and his mother next to Julian. The “symbolic significance” of the “swapped sons” is obvious; not only that, but Carver’s innocence and unabashed interest in his substitute mother aligns well with Julian’s mother, repeatedly characterized as child-like (O’Connor 1012). Similarly, Julian is likened to Carver’s actual mother, a “giant of a woman” whose sour demeanor is all too familiar to the reader. Both she and Julian are “set not only to meet opposition but to seek it out” (O’Connor 1012), a task at which they are both tragically successful, at Julian’s mother’s expense. Down but not out, Julian uses the hat incident to triumphantly hammer home the notion that “‘the old world is gone. The old manners are obsolete and your graciousness is not worth a damn … You aren’t who you think you are’” (O’Connor 1015). Symbolically, Julian’s
  33. 33. Haight-Angelo 33 prediction is his mother’s undoing; the excitement of the day, topped with his increasingly vitriolic verbal barbs ignite his mother’s high blood pressure into what appears, at the end of the story, to be a fatal stroke. As Wyatt observes, if Julian's mother's "sense of herself is unsuited to the modern temper, [Julian's own] premature world-weariness and arrogant misanthropy insulate him from any genuine relationship, even with his mother. It is his rejection of her, his figurative killing of her, that projects the 'real world' that he must enter after her death - 'the world of guilt and sorrow'" (Wyatt 71). Ultimately, Wyatt writes, Julian pushes his own beliefs on his mother until they are but strangers to one another. Similarly, and ever ironically, stagnant, overly mature Julian reverts almost to an incapacitated, child-like state upon realizing that the experience with the Black woman has triggered his mother’s fabled blood pressure trouble. Previously regarding his mother disdainfully as a "grubby child" (O'Connor 1005, Julian himself now assumes the role of an infant: "'Mother!' he cried. 'Darling, sweetheart, wait!' Crumpling, she fell to the pavement. He dashed forward and fell at her side, crying. 'Mamma, Mamma!'" (O'Connor 1015). Unfortunately, having effectively pushed his mother away so many times, she finds "nothing" recognizable in his face and succumbs (most likely) to death (O'Connor 1015). Paradoxically, Julian's mother also recedes to where she feels safe, asking for her deceased father and the Black nurse, Caroline who used to care for her as a child, in lieu of acknowledging Julian's ability to help her (which he no longer can or will). Tragedy, then, befalls the mother-son relationship in O'Connor's story, just as it does the one in Paley's "Conversation." In this, both characters “struggle for personal power which they [both] misunderstand” (Pritchett 1628); Julian, who is corrupt and “absorbed in his own ego,” Booth argues (1639), dwells on his mother’s inadequacies. His very name is representative of the “mortal sin” (Booth 1640) which neither
  34. 34. Haight-Angelo 34 Julian nor his mother are successful at saving him from. Similarly, reality exists between them, somewhere further center of Julian’s stereotypically elite Black people and his mother’s racial prejudices. Ultimately, neither of them rises from the “poor-white” (Pritchett 1629) construct that society has bequeathed to them, to their mutually great injustice. If O’Connor represents the poor, White perspective of the American South’s racial inequality, then Alice Walker picks up the slack for her Black characters in “Everyday Use.” Walker considers herself a “womanist,” a black feminist, for whom racial inequality extends beyond her specific people. “‘When I look at the people in Iran they look like kinfolk’” (Charters 1305), Walker offers, giving credence to Dee’s association with Hakim-a-barber, with whom she perceives a shared struggle. Indeed, Dee's (Wangero's) trendy lifestyle is the textbook definition of the African-American civil rights road trip, with all of the notable pit stops: "the simple integrationist imperative that followed ‘Brown v. Board of Education’ (1954) to the collective outrage of the long hot summer of 1967 and the rise of an Islamic alternative to the Christianity that black America had hitherto embraced” (172-3). Cowart continues: “Walker herself traveled to Africa, and one imagines ... Wangero [as similarly] ... Africa smitten ... she has progressed to an idea of nationality radically at odds with all that has hitherto defined the racial identity of African-Americans" (172-3). More to the point, Dee risks "deracination in [her] quest for personal authenticity" (Cowart 183), which she grasps at with palpable determination: "In her name, her clothes, her hair, her sunglasses, her patronizing speech, and her black Muslim companion, Wangero proclaims a deplorable degree of alienation from her rural origins and family," Cowart (172) notes. Furthermore, "The story's irony is not subtle: the visitor who reproaches others for an ignorance of their own heritage (a word that probably does not figure in
  35. 35. Haight-Angelo 35 the lexicon of either her mother or her sister) is herself almost completely disconnected from a nurturing tradition" (Cowart 172). Cowart continues: "Assimilation, torching the ghetto, Islam, the Africanist vision - Walker treats these alternatives with respect, even as she satirizes her character's uncritical embracing of one after another of them" in Wangero, who sees her mother and sister as exemplary visions of "character[s] bred in adversity" (Cowart 174) from which she has worked so defiantly to disassociate herself. In essence, Cowart offers, Wangero is "hopelessly selfish and misguided" (175), appropriating for herself the "cunning and quaint implements and products of [her] past" (Cowart 175) the way that her White oppressors would. Like O'Connor's showcasing of Julian's misplaced pride, the lesson for Dee to take back to her sophisticated world in "Everyday Use" is not subtle. Cowart, too, recognizes the parallels between O'Connor's writing and Walker's: "O'Connor contrasts intellectual pretension with certain transcendent realities: Original Sin, Grace, prospects for redemption. Walker, meanwhile, assesses ideas of cultural identity within a community only a few minutes' drive from the home in which O'Connor spent her last years" (182). Whereas O'Connor "allows so little real value to black aspiration" in stories like "Converge," however, Walker "parodies the iconoclastic tricks that O'Connor uses over and over again" (Cowart 182). In this sense, both writers uphold eloquent, though "competing ideologies", O'Connor's "spiritual folly of a godless age" to Walker's interest in "social shortsightedness" (Cowart 182). Tornsey offers up the metaphor between quilting and women's writing (1556), a notion which Cowart heartily champions:
  36. 36. Haight-Angelo 36 Walker contrives to make the situation of Wangero, the visitor, analogous to the cultural position of the minority writer who, disinclined to express the fate of the oppressed in the language and literary structures of the oppressor, seeks a more authentic idiom and theme. Such a writer, Walker says, must not become a literary Wangero. Only by remaining in touch with a proximate history and an immediate cultural reality can one lay a claim to the quilts - or hope to produce the authentic art they represent. Self-chastened, Walker presents her own art - the piecing of linguistic and literary intertexts - as quilt-making with words, an art as imbued with the African American past as the literal quilt-making of the grandmother for whom Wangero was originally named. (172) Paley also chastens herself in “A Conversation With My Father,” allowing her dad to criticize her life’s work while simultaneously showcasing both her postmodern prowess and her close relationship with her father. “Her space dissection of her characters is never performed at the expense of sympathy for the human condition,” Charters writes (1080). Thus, though Paley’s style is experimental, her “supple gift for language” and her “‘funny, sad, lean, modest, energetic, acute’” (Sontag; cited by Charters 1080) storytelling gives the reader a sense of the author’s “compassion, humor, and hope” (Charters 1080). Of her experimental leanings, Paley’s father accuses her of not being able to “‘look [anything] in the face’” (Paley 1084). Indeed, both the narrator of “Conversation” and the style of writing hedge around a plain-faced demonization of either the mother or son character. In response, Paley can only offer weak platitudes: “‘it could really happen that way, it’s a funny world nowadays’” (1084). For the narrator, hope comes in the notion of open, endless possibilities for the mother in her story to undertake. Her father, however, will have none of it; even the idea that the mother has a child out of wedlock is
  37. 37. Haight-Angelo 37 damning. Whereas Paley argues that such details are of “small consequence” (1082), to her father, it is everything, a fact that Paley rationalizes away due to her father’s previous occupation first as a doctor, and then an artist for whom “details, craft, technique” (1082) are of the utmost importance. There is no firm grudge to be had between father and daughter in “Conversation,” however, merely Paley’s forethought that her father was sick and that she should merely attempt to placate him; “we were very close” (Paley 1526), she offers. Tillie Olsen’s “Ironing” is another example of a story shaped largely by its surroundings. Olsen tries to separate herself from the arguable burden of the title of motherhood, under which she nonetheless gets placed. Not only that, claims Canadian author Margaret Atwood; Olsen is often revered for undertaking the “heroic feat” of having “held down a job, raised four children, and still somehow managed to become and remain a writer” (Charters 1052). At best, a compromise can be offered wherein Olsen writes of motherhood realistically; as Coles praises, Olsen is “unyielding and strong-minded, but never hysterical or shrill” (Coles 1436). Such a feat also makes her able to truthfully discuss her life during the Great Depression in stories like “Ironing”; “littered”, though it was, with “unfulfilled dreams” (Coles 1433). Emily and her mother lead “blundering lives” (Coles 1433), filled with mistakes, and devoid of opportunity and personal choice. Frye illustrates well the "general cultural pressure" of the Great Depression era to "define and limit the power of individual choice" (290), even characterizing the mother's aforementioned pride in breast-feeding her daughter as mere obedience to "the decree of the clock" (Frye 290). Coles, too, comments on the dull interchangeability of the social worker, yet another symbolic representation of the times: “A social worker of guidance counselor or psychologist or psychiatrist (who knows which, and who cares – a substantial number of them all sound drearily alike)” (1433). In this, Coles argues, the story reflects an “interior monologue
  38. 38. Haight-Angelo 38 devoted to the exterior” (1434); Emily and her mother are both swimming against the current as best they can; bogged down as it is with disappointment and failure and poverty. Emily’s mother is expected to make difficult choices that alter her relationship with her eldest daughter, not always positively. Even so, the narrator’s sense of regret and self-pity are fleeting; occasional bursts of emotion eek out (“She is so lovely. Why did you want me to come in at all? Why were you concerned? She will find her way” [Olsen 1058]), but Olsen “pulls back immediately” and “never once falter[s]” (Coles 1436). She remains strong, for her daughter; for herself. Conclusion As Carruthers notes, “Many families are dominated by mothers ... Some mothers enjoy the responsibilities of motherhood. Others complain about their limited freedom, justify and excuse their behavior, and may reject their partners, verbally and/or non-verbally.” Each of the maternal relationships in the short stories by Olsen, Walker, Tan, O’Connor and Paley represents a realistic portrayal of motherhood, with all of its imperfections in-tact and on full display. Sometimes the mother does something unforgiveable; sometimes the child acts out for attention, or to combat the threat of his or her mother’s affection being whisked away. Rejection is a key factor in all five stories, whether of an ideal or a person; likewise, it occurs simultaneously alongside the search for a greater truth than the current status quo provides. In spite of their flaws, however, the mothers portrayed in each story are noticeably maternal; though not strictly defined by the role of motherhood to which they often adhere, it is difficult to imagine that any particular one does not love the person whom she has created and raised in the complicated and heartbreaking and wonderful way that only a mother can love her own child.
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  40. 40. Haight-Angelo 40 Carruthers, Martyn. "Solutions for Mother-Daughter Issues." Soulwork Systemic Coaching Web site. Internet. 2010. 18 February 2010 <>. Coles, Robert. "Tillie Olsen: The Iron and the Riddle." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2007. 1433-1436. Cowart, David. "Heritage and Deracination in Walker's 'Everyday Use'." Studies in Short Fiction. 33. Newberry College, 1996. 171-184. Academic Search Premier database. Internet. 18 February 2010. "Definition of 'selfhood'." Answers Web site. 2010. 18 February 2010 <>. Frye, Joanne S. "'I Stand Here Ironing': Motherhood as Experience and Metaphor." Studies in Short Fiction. 287-292. Academic Search Premier database. Internet. 18 February 2010. "Mental Health - Becoming an Individual: Personality, Individuality, and Temperament." Internet FAQ Archives. 2010. 18 February 2010 < personality-individuality-and-temperament.html>.
  41. 41. Haight-Angelo 41 O'Connor, Flannery. "Everything That Rises Must Converge." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2007. 1004-1016. Olsen, Tillie. "I Stand Here Ironing." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 1052-1058. Paley, Grace. "A Conversation with Ann Charters." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2007. 1524-1528. Paley, Grace. "A Conversation with My Father." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 1080-1084. Pritchett, V.S. "Flannery O'Connor: Satan Comes to Georgia." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2007. 1627-1629. Tan, Amy. "In the Canon, for All the Wrong Reasons." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2007. 1549-1552. Tan, Amy. "Two Kinds." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin's, 2007. 1221-1230. Tornsey, Cheryl B. "'Everyday Use': My Sojourn at Parchman Farm." The Short Story and its Writer. Seventh edition. Ann Charters, ed. Boston: Bedford/St Martin's, 2007. 1555- 1559.
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