Hyphenated Identity in "Good Country People" and "Everyday Use"

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Date: Spring-Fall 2010
From: Shenandoah(Vol. 60, Issue 1-2)
Publisher: Shenandoah
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 3,520 words

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At the opening of "Beyond the Peacock: The Reconstruction of Flannery O'Connor," in the collection of essays In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens, Alice Walker points out that in 1952 she and O'Connor lived "within minutes of each other on the same Eatonton-to-Milledgeville [Georgia] road" (42). Although Walker was eight at the time and O'Connor was twenty-eight, thinking about this geographic proximity inspired Walker to visit both O'Connor's home and her own former home in a single afternoon and to muse about the connections between her life and that of a woman who was, for Walker, "the first great modern writer from the South" (52). As Walker states,

It was for her description of Southern white women that I appreciated her work at first, because when she set her pen to them not a whiff of magnolia hovered in the air (and the tree itself might never have been planted), and yes, I could say, yes, these white folks without the magnolia (who are indifferent to the tree's existence), and these black folks without melons and superior racial patience, these are like southerners that I know (52).

In their short stories and novels, both writers depict black and white women who are individuals, not particularly appealing or idealized, but true to their creators' observations of the conditions of women in the American South.

As feminist scholars look more closely at the imbalance of power in gender and race relations in this region's history, they point to the precarious position both black and white women have held in Southern culture. As Louise Westling argues in Sacred Groves and Ravaged Gardens, neither black women nor white women had any real power in the ante or postbellum South: "Traditional defenses of slavery were intimately intertwined with declarations about the veneration and protection of white women. Yet these women in fact shared inferiority and powerlessness with blacks as subjects of the ruling patriarchs. 'There is no slave, after all,' commented Mary Chesnut with some bitterness in 1861, 'like a wife'" (21).

Two stories that reveal the analogous powerlessness of Southern white and black women are O'Connor's "Good Country People" (1955) and Walker's "Everyday Use" (1973), which make use of not only the shared landscape but also the shared tensions within families despite the obvious differences in cultural inheritance. Each story develops a conflict between a mother and a daughter in which the mother attempts to perpetuate the values of the society which has produced her. Ironically, despite the privilege of her landed position, the white mother is as powerless to imprint her values on her daughter as the less affluent African-American mother. However, the stories go beyond this generational struggle to question the construction of feminine identity, both black and white, in the South. In each story, the daughter renames herself but can't completely escape the name her mother has given her. Thus, each of the daughters is vulnerable to the "impasse of hyphenation," a term used by postcolonial critics to describe the predicament...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|A233492489