Women – Rats in a Trap
Alice Walker’s short story ‘Roselily’ was published in 1973 as part of her first published collection of short stories – In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women. The collection was very favourably reviewed and helped bring Walker to the attention of the public. The collection also won the Rosenthal Award of the National Institute of the Arts. Since then it has often been anthologized and studied in American schools, although not without controversy. According to Donnelly, “For its ‘irreligious’ stance, ‘Roselily’ was banned in California in 1994. Apparently Christian, Roselily is tied equally to folk beliefs and superstition, and is a marrying a Muslim.” (123) It has the distinction of being attacked by Christian fundamentalist groups as well as Muslim ones for its irreverent or critical presentation of both religions. Walker is the living American writer whose works have been banned the most often in the USA – either for their explicit sexual content or their anti-religious sentiments. What early reviewers found so innovative in Walker’s stories was the fact that she gave a voice to a social group that had often been ignored in American Literature – the women of the rural South. (Washington). She has continued to give this group a voice in other work such as the story ‘Everyday Use’ and the novel The Color Purple. By examining ’Roselily’ in detail, this paper will show how Walker uses every means at her disposal (even the title) to present a woman uncertain about her future and frantically thinking as she goes through a marriage ceremony. Roselily has been exploited by men all her life – and she fears that this exploitation will continue even in her new life in the North.
Even the protagonist’s name shows how torn and divided she and her state of mind are. Roses are traditionally associated with love and romance, and there are even examples of the rose being used, in the literature of the past, as a symbol for the female sex organ. Roselily has known love and passion – she already has four children from previous relationships. The lily, by contrast, represents purity and chastity. Through marriage and through sex within marriage, the protagonist will become pure like the lily and so even the title of the story is significant. The first part of her name looks back to her unmarried past and the four children born outside marriage; the second part looks forward to the chaste respectability that marriage to her new husband will bring her. She has been a rose (the object of lust and desire), but she will become a lily (purified through marriage – supposedly).
The structure of the story is brilliantly conceived in order to slowly reveal the truth about Roselily’s past, present and future, and to demonstrate through its structure the dilemma she faces. Quotations from the Christian marriage service alternate with paragraphs which tell us what Roselily is thinking or experiencing as the marriage ceremony proceeds. This constant interleaving of the words of the service with the feelings and perceptions of Roselily are a way of embodying the way that Roselily is having doubts. She is torn between the past and the future, between happiness and great doubt, between the South and the new life that awaits her in the northern city where her new husband lives. If as readers we find it slightly confusing to begin with, then that is Walker’s intention – we are experiencing the confused feelings of Roselily, as well as learning details of her life. Walker also uses the words of the marriage ceremony very cleverly to juxtapose them with other thoughts that call the future happiness of marriage into question: as Washington writes:
Yet as she listened to the words ‘We are gathered here in the sight of God to join this man and this woman together,’ she thinks of “ropes, chains, handcuffs” – thoughts far removed from the way marriage is advertised. (16)
What is giving her economic freedom may be trapping her in a different way altogether.
What is Roselily about? Werlock (567) puts it very succinctly when he says that the story “depicts a young, black woman unsure whether she is in love and worried that she might be inviting trouble.” Christian (57) is more expansive: “Walker sees Roselily ...as a woman trapped and cut down by archaic conventions, by superstition, by traditions that in every way cut women off from the right to life.” It is certainly true that Roselily does not know whether she is really in love; she also abhors her current situation as a working single mother, but she is not wholly convinced that she will be any happier in the north. To a certain extent, she is being forced into marriage by economic necessity, as Beaulieu (450) argues:
Her love for him exists only as a recognition of his ability to improve her condition as a single working mother. Roselily acknowledges feeling trapped and unfulfilled, yet marriage and life in a northern city seem better than her current situation.
Walker allows her to express her fears about moving: “She supposes New England, the North, to be quite different from what she knows.” (Walker 9). She is thinking about New England because her fourth child lives there – given to its father who is married and came to the South to fight for the civil rights of African-Americans. It is clear that he took the baby home and presented it to his wife, not as his illegitimate offspring, but as an orphan child in need of a home. What we are told about the father of her fourth child is not very complimentary: it seems he was a white New England liberal who committed adultery by sleeping with Roselily before taking her baby from her. He is presented as weak and ineffectual:
She wonders if he [her fourth child] will be stronger than his father. His father cried off and on throughout her pregnancy. Went to skin and bones. Suffered nightmares, retching and falling out of bed. Tried to kill himself. (Walker 9)
We are not given any clue as to the identity or identities of the father of her first three children, but it is clear that he/they gave neither the social respectability or marriage nor the financial means to support herself and three children.
It is clear that Roselily’s state of mind is confused and nostalgic:
She thinks of her mother, who is dead. Dead, but still her mother. Joined. This is confusing. Of her father. A gray old man who sold wild mink, rabbit, fox skins to Sears, Roebuck. (walker 10)
This passage of memory implies that she fears she will lose her connection with her roots in the South. There is also the simpler idea, perhaps, that she wishes her parents were there to see her getting married. Because she is not married, while all her friends are, Walker makes it clear that she has always, in one way, yearned and longed for marriage: “She blinks her eyes. Remembers she is finally being married, like other girls. Like other girls, women?” (Walker 11). That phrase “like other girls” suggests that she has been used by men in the past, who have not married her, despite giving her four children. At this point in the story she is crying and there seem to be mixed reasons for her tears: marriages and weddings are emotional occasions and important events. At such events the congregation may be moved by the joy of the occasion, but also sadness at the changes that marriage might bring. At one stage Roselily thinks of cemeteries and the long sleep of grandparents mingling in the dirt. She believes that she believes in ghosts. In the soil giving back what it takes. (Walker 10)
It is clear that she is worried about leaving her Southern roots and the traditions of her family.
She is also crying because of the unknown. She has no real notion of what the north and Chicago is really like, imagining in her anxious state
She thinks of the air, the smoke, the cinders. Imagines cinders big as hailstones; heavy, weighing on the people. Wonders how this pressure finds its way into the veins, roping the springs of laughter. (Walker 9).
However, at one point she is certain that she is making the right decision:
But in Chicago. Respect, a chance to build. Her children at last from underneath the detrimental wheel. A chance to be on top. What a relief, she thinks. What a vision, a view, from up so high. (Walker 8)
She is “impatient to see the South Side”, so worn out by her life of work and motherhood in Panther Burn, so tired
With doing everything for three children, alone. Impatient to leave the girls she had known since childhood, their children growing up, their husbands hanging around her, already old, seedy. Nothing about them that she wanted or needed. (Walker, 11)
Despite all these positive feelings about the move to Chicago and the bleakness of her life in Mississippi, “She does not even know if she loves him.” (Walker 11). She is acutely conscious of his identity as a Muslim and knows that her life will change as a wife in an Islamic house, and there are pints in the story where Roselily feels that she will trapped in a different way in Chicago, as Pratt (7) writes:
What comes home to the reader in this brief episode, however, is that her husband -to-be has no understanding of her spiritual condition. He will expect her to exchange her job of sewing straight seams in overalls, jeans, and dress pants for one of making and caring for strong black babies.
Roselily is not certain that she can live as a Muslim wife:
She cannot always be a bride and virgin, wearing robes and veil. Even now her body wishes to be free of satin and voile, organdie and lily of the valley. (Walker 10).
She does understand that Islam is radically different from Christianity, but seems to associate it with a religion that traps and imprisons women in a different way:
She thinks of ropes, chains, handcuffs, his religion. His place of worship. Where she will be required to sit apart with covered head. (Walker 8)
Islam, she fears, may imprison her even more, even if she no longer has to work and has domestic bliss.
There are attractions to her new husband. Walker tells us “she loves his pride. His blackness and his gray car.” (Walker 11). She is also aware of his love for her which “makes her completely conscious of how unloved she was before,” (Walker 11). This thought makes her cry, because deep down she realizes that he loves her because he will change her, “redo her into what he truly wants.” (Walker 11). Note that Walker writes “what he wants” – Roselily has no freedom of choice now and this makes her feel like “a rat trapped, cornered, scurrying to and fro in her head, peering through the windows of her eyes.” (Walker 11). Werlock (568) writes:
One of Walker’s themes, prominent ... is the incompatibility between southern, traditional African-Americans and their sophisticated, more liberal northern counterparts.
But in this story Walker is exploring a slightly different and potentially more implacable incompatibility – that between a southern African-American woman and a fervent convert to Islam. Werlock is correct though in pointing out the North/South divide: as the story comes to an end, Roselily “feels ignorant, wrong, backward.” (Walker 12).
Ultimately the problem is not really to do with North/South or Christian/Muslim, but to do with gender, as Werlock (568) also makes clear:
The other [major theme in Walker’s work] is the radically different goals of women and men, and the obstacles that men so often place in the path of women’s fulfilment of their desires.
How are we to interpret the final sentence of the story? “In the crush of well-wishing people, he [her husband] does not look back.” (Walker 12). In not looking back are we meant to see assign of hope for Roselily? In other words, should she also not look back and embrace this chance of a new life? Or is her husband’s not looking back a sign that he is too detached, too self-contained, too insensitive to make Roselily happy? We are left to wonder.
‘Roselily’ is an important story because Walker uses it to highlight the very limited opportunities for African-American women in the rural South. As a single mother to three children she is trapped economically and is exhausted through the sheer practical problems of working full-time in a low-paid blue collar job who has to look after three children on her own. However, her only alternative – escape by marriage – involves leaving her roots in the South and committing herself to a husband whose religion finds other ways to oppress women and keep them from freedom. Christian (131) sums up her dilemma well:
Though her marriage is seen by most as a triumphant delivery from her poor backward condition, she sees that as a woman, whether single or married, Christian or Muslim, she is confined.
Through the story, Walker laments the lack of genuine choice that Roselily has and the fact that she cannot, because of her background, ever achieve full freedom.
Beaulieu, Elizabeth Ann. Writing African American Women. 2006. New York: Greenwood Publishing Group. Print. This is a compendious encyclopaedia about the writings of women of colot by women of color. It approaches the whole subject from the standpoint of Women’s Studies.
Christian, Barbara. Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use.’ 1994. New York: Rutgers University Press. Print. As the title suggests this book concentrates on the story ‘Everyday Use.’ However, in doing so, Christian develops thesis about the role of solidarity amongst African-American women. Christian writes from an African-American feminist perspective.
Donnelly, Mary. Alice Walker: The Color Purple and Other Works. 2009. New York: Marshall Cavendish. Print. This is essentially a biography of Walker. However, Donnelly offers critical comment on all Walker’s fiction, including the short stories.
Pratt, Louis H. ‘Alice Walker’s Men: Profiles in the Quest for Love and Personal Values.’ In Bloom, Harold. Alice Walker. Pages 5-18. 2007. New York; Infobase Publishing. Print. This is a collection of twenty-five critical essays on Alice Walker, introduced by Harold Bloom. Pratt’s essay explores and analyzes Walker’s presentation of men across all her published fiction.
Walker, Alice. ‘Roselily.’ Pages 7 – 12. The Complete Stories. 1994. London: The Women’s Press. Print.
Washington, Mary Helen. ‘Black Women Image Makers.’ In Black World/Negro Digest, Volume 23, Number 10. Pages 10-19. 1974. Print. This is a contemporary review of Walker’s first collection of stories. It is included so that we have a sense of the initial reactions to the story. Furthermore this magazine’s readership is primarily African-American.
Werlock, James P. (2010). The Facts on File: Companion to the American Short Story, Volume Two. 2010. New York: Infobase Publishing. Print. This is a huge two volume work with entries on almost every important American short story ever written. Werlock provides biographical information and a condensed critical overview of each story in the book. It is not highly sophisticated criticism, but it is a good place to start.