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Stories from In Love and Trouble, like other Alice Walker’s works, are the portrayal of black women. I would interpret the term “black women” as women who have gone through all sorts of hardship and struggles, but not all women in the world or only those with black skin. I strongly argue that Walker’s characters are better represented as women who suffer the way African American women do, than as women with black skin. I will justify my argument by referring to specific examples from two short stories in the book, namely Roselily and Everyday Use.
The characters in In Love and Trouble are not represented by all women because not all women carry as many burdens as the characters in the book. One group of women excluded is the white. As Clenora points out African-American women suffer from “a tripartite form of oppression- racism, classism, and sexism” (192). All black women in the book have to bear the triple burden.
Living in a white-dominant society, they are oppressed by the white. Their race also leads to their poverty. Being in a male-dominant society, they are abused by their husbands who are themselves abused by the white. “These women [are] simply defeated in one way or another by the external circumstances of their lives” (Washington 89-90).
In Roselily, Roselily is also a victim of the triple burden. Although there is no direct description of how she is oppressed by the white, it is implied: “She can imagine God, a small black boy [my emphasis], timidly pulling the preacher’s coattail” (4).
In Roseliliy’s imagination, God has black skin, which is a sharp contrast to the traditional white God image in the Western world. The black God image shows her questioning on why there are different races, which implies her sufferings as a result of her black skin. Her race also brings about her poverty. She is so poor that she has no choice, but gives away his fourth child to his father. What is worse, her life is so hard that she marries herself off to a man to whom she is not attached. The reason she marries him is that she is “impatient to be done with sewing” and “with doing everything for three children, alone” (7).
Roselily knows clearly she will no longer be herself after the marriage: “She thinks she loves the effort he will make to redo her into what he truly wants” (8). She has no choice but transforms herself to the kind of woman her husband wants. She has to wear robes and veil although “her body itches to be free of satin and voile, organdie and lily of the valley” (6). Washington suggests “the very robe and veil she is wearing are emblems of servitude that she yearns to be free of” (92). She has to have babies for her husband although she is “not comforted” (7) with the idea. The sentence “They [babies] are inevitable” (7) even implies she has no choice but has babies. Every decision she makes is forced by her difficult conditions, rather than by her own will. Driven by her extreme poverty and her burdens, she has lost her own self totally.
Like Roselily, Maggie suffers from the triple burden as a black woman. She undervalues herself and suffers from low self-esteem owing to her “psychological scars” (Weston 154): “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes: she will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mixture of envy and awe” (47). She never notices her own worth of her cultural inheritance and her ability to quilt.
White women never belong to the same world of Walker’s characters. They do not suffer the same way Roselily and Maggie do. They at least carry no burden of race and may not live in poverty. Despite living in a male-dominant society, they are respected by males. As Chafe argues, “Black women have not had the so-called benefits of being female; they have not been sheltered, protected, or idealized by their men to the extent that [is] possible for white women” (qtd. in Beverly 38). White women and Walker’s characters hardly have anything in common. We thus cannot say that Walker’s characters are represented by all women.
Apart from black women, there are also other cultural groups that suffer the similar plight as Walker’s characters, such as Chinese-American women, mainland Chinese women in Hong Kong, and so on. I will use the case of Chinese-American women as an example to justify my point. According to Hui, ethnic minority groups, women in particular, are often considered inferior in Western societies, particularly the United States. She even finds African-American women and Chinese-American women similar in the sense that the stereotypes on both groups carry negative and discriminatory meanings. In fact, there are several parallels between the Chinese-American women and Walker’s characters. Like Roselily and Maggie, Chinese-American women are oppressed triply. Being a minority group in a white-dominant society like America, they are placed in an inferior position and are discriminated against. Since the well-paid jobs are often confined to the white, they tend to live in poverty. Women in the male-dominant Chinese society also have to endure all sorts of hardship and oppression in their own families.
They will lose their own selves after marriage. They have to serve their husbands as if they were their masters and be entirely obedient to them and in some cases may be maltreated by their mothers-in-law. There is a Cantonese custom that at the first time a woman enters her husband’s flat and becomes his wife, she is required to pass a basin with burning fire at the entrance, symbolising getting rid of all the bad luck of the woman so that she will not bring bad luck to the family. Customs like this are extremely humiliating to women. Chinese-American women are in an even worse situation than their counterparts in China as their husbands, who encounter injustice and oppression, may take them as scapegoats and abuse them. Worse, deprived of education, they feel ashamed of their lack of intelligence, in the same way as Maggie. They are often unaware of their own worth.
Walker also presents in In Love and Trouble some black women’s struggle with their own ethnicity and identity. After years of oppression and suppression, some black women become uncomfortable with their own ethnicity and have a growing desire to assimilate into the mainstream community. According to Washington, these women are “victims, not of physical violence, but of a kind of psychic violence that alienates them from their roots, cutting them off from real contact” (95). She also considers education a factor of the struggles among those black women.
Dee in Everyday Use represents this type of women, who are struggling with their own identity. She despises her family and the heritage. She insists changing her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo regardless of the fact that she was named after her grandmamma and aunt:
“Well,” I say. “Dee.”
“No, Mama,” she says. “Not Dee,’ Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo!”
“What happened to Dee’?” I wanted to know.
“She’s dead,” Wangero said. “I couldn’t bear it any longer, being named after the people who oppress me.” (53)
This conversation indicates her disrespect to her grandmother and aunt. She thinks they oppressed her. She even does not take into consideration the importance of the name “Dee” in linking one generation to another. Besides, she does not regard highly or treasure her family’s heritage. When she was offered a quilt by her mother, she refused and criticised it as “old-fashioned” and “out of style” (57). Her later change of notion of the quilts and attempt to get them are simply caused by the fashion She does not really appreciate the quilts, not to mention linking the quilts to her family history or ancestors. Dee feels shamed with her family and her roots and rejects her identity as an African American. She claims herself to be an authentic African and dresses herself in the so-called authentic African style and using an African name, but all these are due to the fashion. She is still confused with her own identity.
Lots of Chinese-Americans are confused and struggle with their own identity, in the same manner as Dee. This is particularly the case to those females of the second generations. Their hardship and oppression caused by their race and gender would lead to their negative feelings towards their own ethnicity and heritage. They will try to assimilate themselves to the mainstream white society in an attempt to get rid of all those sufferings and burdens. Some Chinese-Americans despise their family tradition and customs and some even avoid speaking Chinese, which is probably the most significant symbol of their Chinese identity.
As the name of the book indicates, Walker’s characters live in “love” and “trouble”; while “trouble” refers to all those burdens they carry, ‘love” refers to the linkage among the black women. One feature that Walker’s characters have in common is their close bond with other female family members, especially the mother-daughter bond. It is this kind of bond that unites them together and gives them strength and extraordinary endurance to survive all the hardship, oppression and humiliation brought about by their status as African-American women.
In Everyday Use, the narrator and her daughter, Maggie, represent black women who value highly their linkage to their female ancestors as well as family members. Their paying special attention to their linkage to their ancestors can be seen in the naming of the family. Three members in the family use the name “Dee’, including the narrator’s daughter, her aunt and her grandmother. Such inheritance of the name symbolises the linkage among the family. That is why the narrator is so shocked when her daughter abandons the name and says she does not want to be named after the people who oppressed her. Besides, both the narrator and Maggie appreciate and value highly the two quilts because they are the heritage of their family and link their generations to their ancestors: “They [the quilts] had been pieced by Grandma Dee and then Big Dee and me [the narrator] had hung them on the quilt frames on the front porch and quilted them… In both of them scraps of dresses Grandma Dee had worn fifty and more years ago” (56). Maggie wants the quilts as her dowry out of her love of her family and they are also her memory of her grandmother. The quilts represent “the creative legacy that African Americans have inherited from their maternal ancestors” (Christina 3).
The narrator also tries to protect the quilts by preventing them from being taken away by Dee, who does not understand the value of the heritage and treats them as art. The narrator keeps them for Maggie, who is attached to the family and knows how to preserve the heritage. On top of the linkage among generations, the story also shows the strong mother-daughter bond between the narrator and Maggie. In spite of their small amount of direct interaction with each other, they have a very close relationship. They are so close that words are not really necessary: “After we watched the car dust settle I [the narrator] asked Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go top bed” (58). They enjoy each other’s company even without speaking. They also understand each other and share the same set of value on their cultural identity and heritage. Maggie never worries her mother, a sharp contrast to her sister Dee, who only gives the narrator troubles.
Similarly, there is a strong family bond in traditional Chinese families. Suffering from the oppression from the patriarchy, their low opinions of themselves and the oppression from the society, Chinese-American women often unite together, which is the strength for them to survive all those hardships. Although it is a taboo in the Chinese society to use exactly the same given name as any member in the family, it is very common for siblings to share one character in their two-character given name, which connects them together. Women tend not to have a strong bond with their brothers, which attributable to the fact that they suffer low self-esteem and do not find themselves comparable to their brothers. Like the quilts in Everyday Use, women in traditional Chinese families would pass their cultural heritage such as embroidering from generation to generation, which creates a linkage with their ancestors.
In conclusion, the characters in In Love and Trouble are neither represented as women in general nor only black women, but women who carry triple burden. While white women never suffer the same way as Walker’s characters, cultural groups like Chinese-American women parallel the characters in many aspects, from their triple burden to their struggle with their own identity and their strong bond with their female family members.
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