Most people strive to have a good social standing and the ideas and values they hold on to can often influence their place in society. Society dictates which ideas and values will be accepted and which will be rejected. The values that stick with us the most are usually taught to us as children and help to influence who we become. In “Girl” and “Good People”, the characters were raised to have religious values and to behave in a way that will make it easy for them to fit into their society. The main characters in these stories had their values imposed on them at a young age, and helped to shape who they’ve become and how they behave in society.
Religion is a cornerstone for the characters in both stories. They are taught what is acceptable in their religion, in this case Christianity, and realize certain actions could alienate them from their social groups. In “Girl”, the girl is given specific instructions on how to behave, including “don’t sing benna in Sunday school” (Kincaid, 120). She is taught that singing folk music on the Lord’s day is improper, and even though she “doesn’t sing benna on Sundays at all and never in Sunday school” (120), she is explicitly told a few times not to do it. There, it is important for her to be on her best behavior. On Sundays she is shown she must “try to walk like a lady and not the slut you are so bent on becoming” (120) because how she is perceived on Sundays can be detrimental to her public image.
In “Good People” Lane A. Dean Jr and his girlfriend Sheri’s values weigh heavily on their thoughts as they consider their options when making a momentous decision. The two are very religious and “they’d prayed on it and talked it through from every different angle” (Wallace, 152). They are worried about how their society will perceive them and if they are still good people if they go through with having an abortion and never really mention the word in conversation. Even on the phone they speak “in a kind of half code in case anybody accidentally picked up the extension” (153).
Neither of them goes to a friend or even religious leaders to talk about their situation, “not Pastor Steve or the prayer partners at campus ministries, not his UPS friends or the spiritual counselling available through his parents’ old church” (152) because they are ashamed. Specifically, Lane feels “like he knew now why it was a true sin and not just a leftover rule from past society” (152). In “Girl” and “Good People”, the main character’s religious values have an affect on who they are in society, a good person or someone “who gets to touch the bread” (Kincaid, 121).
Even though Lane Dean and Sheri had made the appointment, they were still uncertain of their decision. Lane knew he couldn’t make up his girlfriend’s mind because “he knew if he was the salesman of it and forced it upon her that was awful and wrong” (Wallace, 152) and he knows it isn’t his place to make a decision for her. However, he wishes he could know what Sheri is thinking and “get her to open up and say enough back that he could see her and read her heart and know what to say to get her to go through with it” (152). Sheri knows Lane Dean is a good person, and that he respects her enough to know he cannot force her to side with him, but he still wishes he could persuade her to have the abortion. Ultimately, it is Sheri’s decision to have the abortion, or cancel the appointment.
Similarly, included in the long list of instructions in “Girl” is “how to make a good medicine to throw away a child before it even becomes a child (Kincaid, 120), so the girl can decide for herself whether or not to have an abortion. Beside how to make medicine, the girl is taught other gender specific lessons that include cooking, sewing, laundry, and grocery shopping. She needs to learn how to sew in order to hem a dress “so to prevent yourself from looking like the slut I know you are so bent on becoming” (120) and looking indecent in public. All of these instructions are aimed to make it easier for the girl to find a husband by teaching her “how you set a table for dinner with an important guest… how to behave in the presence of men who don’t know you very well” (120). Understanding of gender roles and how to behave around men, or be a wife, are important lessons for the girl to learn in order to survive in her society.
Class affiliation plays a role in the upbringing of the girl. She is instructed to “wash the white clothes… and put them on the stone heap”(119) and “when buying cotton to make yourself a nice blouse, be sure that it doesn’t have gum on it”(119-120) because it doesn’t matter which social class she belongs to, she still needs to have clean, well-made clothes. Sewing is a useful skill for her, because she cannot afford clothes that are already made, or even premade fabric. Harsh words and phrases that are repeated throughout the story such as “slut” and “wharf-rat boy” accentuate the point that there is a certain way for her to behave in society and that if she acts like a slut or associates with wharf-rat boys, people will view her as being lower than them.
Unlike the girl, Lane A. Dean Jr seems to belong to the upper middle class based on his name, and the fact that he attends junior college while living at home with his parents. He was named after his father, and perhaps this close affiliation with the patriarch of his family makes him apprehensive of confiding in his parents about his situation. He is close with his mother as well, and she thinks Sheri is “good people…she made this evident in little ways” (150). Lane is worried their decision and their sins mean they will no longer be viewed as good people to the people in their upper class society and knows Sheri “can neither [have an abortion] today nor carry a child alone and shame her family” (155).
Trying to fit in to society, whether upper or lower class can be an arduous task with many lessons to learn and roles to play. Knowing your place and where you fit in determines your success. The ideas and values imprinted on youth to build character and deter bad behavior allow them to conform to society.
Mays, Kelly J. ed. _The Norton Introduction to Literature._ Portable 11th ed.
New York: Norton, 2013. Print.
Kincaid, Jamaica. “Girl.” Mays 119. Print.
Wallace, David Foster. “Good People.” Mays 149. Print.
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