The following is an analysis of three authors of the following stories; “Everyday Use: For Your Grandmama” (Walker), “The Man Who Was Almost a Man” (Right) and “Barn Burning” (Faulkner). All three stories will be used to demonstrate the similar techniques employed by the authors. Some main techniques to be discussed are narration, word choice, irony and symbolism. There are many similarities found in all three selected stories.
“The Man Who Was Almost a Man”, by Richard Wright, is a story of the journey from boyhood to manhood. A seventeen year old, Dave, feels the need to prove that he is a man and thinks that owning a gun is the way to do that.
Alice Walker’s story “Everyday Use” tells a story of family and loyalty, as well as finding one’s identity. Ms. Johnson experiences inner conflict of loyalty to her two daughters, the outgoing and intelligent Dee and the scarred loner, Maggie.
Sarty, the main character in William Faulkner’s Barn Burning is experiencing a conflict in identity and family loyalty. While trying to do what is right, he must make decisions which will affect his relationship with his family. Sarty must choose between being loyal to his father, who is a criminal and doing what is morally right.
The narrations that the authors use contribute to the reader’s understanding of the text. Richard Wright’s use of selective omniscient narration allows the reader insight into Dave’s conflicts and apprehension. Wright describes Dave leaving the field towards home, contemplating his superiority over those he works with and how he can teach them to respect him;
Them niggers can’t understan nothing. One of these days he was going to get a gun and practice shooting, then they couldn’t talk to him as though he were a little boy. He slowed, looking at the ground. Shucks, Ah ain scareda them even ef they are biggern me!
This example shown how Wright describes both how he feels and what he is doing and seeing. The reader can sense Dave’s feelings of inferiority.
Third person, limited point of view is used by Faulkner in “Barn Burning”. Faulkner uses the limited point of view to see Sarty as a child and as a man. Sarty, like Dave (Wright), is close to adulthood and is feeling the pressure to be a man and make his own decisions but feels conflicted by his duty to be loyal to his family.
“You’re getting to be a man. You got to learn to stick to your own blood or you ain’t going to have any blood to stick to you. Do you think either of them, any man there this morning, would? Don’t you know all they wanted was a chance to get at me because they knew I had them beat? Eh?” Later, twenty years later, he was to tell himself, ” If I had said they wanted only truth, justice, he would have hit me again.” But now he said nothing. He was not crying. He just stood there (Schwiebert, 426).
Faulkner gives readers the advantage of knowing Sarty makes it, and he is able to reflect upon his childhood.
The third author, Alice Walker, uses third person narration, which is Ms. Johnson in “Everyday Use”. Ms. Johnson expresses her envy of her daughter Dee because she is so worldly. Throughout Ms. Johnson’s story, the reader finds the narrator questioning herself as she begins to see Dee’s true nature and her obliviousness to her heritage. In the beginning however, Ms. Johnson imagines herself being the mother Dee wishes she would be;
I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue (Guerin, et al., 389).
Ms. Johnson knows it’s a dream before she wakes. The narrator is harsh on herself, claiming to be uneducated which explains her envy of the college educated daughter, Dee.
The narration of each story is used to emphasize the theme. All three stories share a common theme; identity. In each story there is a character who, as a result of some drastic action, adopts a new identity.
In “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”, Dave is trying to prove to himself more than anyone, that he is a man. He feels that this new identity will bring him respect. In order to achieve this new identity, Dave purchases a gun from Joe, the store keeper. Unfortunately, instead of becoming a man, using the gun actually causes him child-like embarrassment when he accidentally shoots and kills Mr. Hawkins mule, Jenny.
Somebody in the crowd laughed… “Well, looks like you bought yourself a dead mule, Dave.”… All the crowd was laughing now. They stood tiptoe and poked heads over one another’s shoulders. “Well, looks like yuh done bought a dead mule! Hahaha!” (Wright, 7)
This embarrassment and anger causes a more urgent need for proving himself a man. Dave becomes one step closer to finding his identity in the final paragraph of The Man Who Was Almost a Man; when he chooses to go off into the unknown world on his own.
He started down the road, toward the tracks. Yeah, here she comes! He stood beside the track and held himself stiffly. Here she comes, erroun the ben. . . . C mon, yuh slow poke! C mon! He had his hand on his gun; something quivered in his stomach. Then the train thundered past, the gray and brown box cars rumbling and clinking. He gripped the gun tightly; then he jerked his hand out of his pocket. Ah betcha Bill wouldn’t do it! Ah betcha. . . . The cars slid past, steel grinding upon steel. Ahm ridin yuh ternight, so hep me Gawd! He was hot all over. He hesitated just a moment; then he grabbed, pulled atop of a car, and lay flat. He felt his pocket; the gun was still there. Ahead the long rails were glinting in the moonlight, stretching away, away to somewhere, somewhere where he could be a man. … (8)
In Faulkner’s “Barn Burning”, Sarty, the son of Abner, spends the majority of the story in emotional confusion. Loyalty to his father causes him mixed emotions as to what is the right thing to do when dealing with his father’s barn burnings. The story begins with Sarty attending the meeting of the Justice of the Peace, where his father once again is accused of burning down a neighbor’s barn after an argument. The narrator tells of Sarty’s confusion and desperation to do what is right. “… the smell and sense of just a little fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood (Schwiebert, 423). This description of an ongoing inner battle explains Sarty’s guilt of not hating the neighbor as his father does. “…our enemy he thought in that despair; ourn! Mine and hisn both! He’s my father!” Such fierce desire to feel the loyalty his father expects is displayed. When Sarty is called up to possibly testify, the reader can feel Sarty’s relief when told to sit down with out testimony. The young boy is caught between loyalty and the morals instilled in him from society (Ford, 1).
It is Abner’s paranoid thinking and quiet threats that give Sarty the inner battle between what’s morally right and family loyalty. It is this ever-present pull that causes such feelings of guilt for Sarty. In one scene he defends his father’s actions but shortly after he is angry with his father for putting the family in such dire conditions (i.e. constantly having to move, poverty stricken, etc.). Sarty’s true test of loyalty comes at the end of the story when it becomes clear that Abner will be burning the landlord’s barn down after the incident with the rug. Sarty is enraged, but the guilt never subsides. For a short period of time, Sarty is actually an accomplice to his father’s actions by running to the stable and getting the oil to use to set the fire; this he does in the name of loyalty.
This is the old habit, the old blood which he has not been permitted to choose for himself, which has been bequeathed to him willy nilly and which had run for so long (and who knew where, battening on what of outrage and savagery and lust) before it came to him. I could keep on, he thought. I could run on and on and on and never look back, never to see his face again. Only I can’t. I can’t… (433).
The reader can sense his desperation. The child is so desperate for a way out, but the loyalty to his father overwhelms him.
Ms. Johnson of “Everyday Use” expresses a similar sense of loyalty. At first her loyalty is seen as defending her daughter Dee because she is so extreme. Dee has always had a “nothing can stop me” attitude, which has caused her to become cold and condescending, even to her family. It’s Dee’s self-righteousness that Ms. Johnson tries to defend in the beginning of “Everyday Use” by making excuses for her daughter, much like Sarty did for his father.
Dee wanted nice things…She was determined to stare down any disaster in her efforts…At sixteen she had a style of her own and knew what style was…Her feet were always neat-looking, as if God himself had shaped them with a certain style.
The mother’s loyalty to her child is an extension of the “pleasure principle” in which Dee lives by, she is “naturally attracted to her pleasure driven daughter” (Guerin, 154). Although loyal to her other daughter Maggie in the sense of maternal loyalty, she does not exhibit this until the end when she makes a decision to give the quilts to her, instead of Dee. It is once Ms. Johnson’s moral vision oversteps the pleasure-vision, that she see’s both daughters as they are (154). Dee wants it all. As she goes through the home, taking the churn top and dasher, to know doubt be used as conversation pieces back at school, she comes across the old quilts passed down by her great-grandmother.
Maggie is understandably upset when she hears her sister asking to have them after they had been promised to her. However, Maggie, the shy, emotionally and physically scarred young woman will not speak up for herself. In fact, she gives in to her sister’s demand telling her mother that Dee can keep them. An argument between Dee and her mother is brought on when Ms. Johnson tries to rally for Maggie as the one who would appreciate and use the quilts, not just display them as Dee wished to do. Ms. Johnson has a moment of clarity after Maggie gives in to her older, wiser and more beautiful sister. She saw in Maggie not fear but a telling of life and her acceptance that life for her is unjust.
She looked at her sister with something like fear bit she wasn’t mad at her. This was Maggie’s portion. This was the way she knew God to work. When I looked at her like that something hit me in the top of my head and ran down to the soles of my feet. Just like when I’m in church and the spirit of God touches me and I get happy and shout. 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 into Maggie’s lap. Maggie just sat there on my bed with her mouth open (396).
It was this moment of clarity that Ms. Johnson demonstrates her family loyalty. That is not to say she chose to be loyal to one daughter and not the other, but to be loyal to herself and her emotions. This change brought on a new identity for Ms. Johnson as well as for Maggie. By being true to herself she was able to reach out to Maggie as well as show Dee that she did not always have to get her way. Ms. Johnson stood up for Maggie, showing her that, she to, has a place in the world and deserves good things, giving Maggie a new importance.
Symbolism plays a large part in all three authors’ stories, and usage of irony is found in Walker and Wright’s work. The symbolism used is a reflection of the setting, mainly the time in which each story took place.
Richard Wright uses the gun as a symbol of manhood in which Dave must own and master in order to feel like a man; which is ironic. Dave needs the gun to prove his manhood, but needing a material item to prove who or what you are, is in itself, childish. The author also uses the setting of the two locales in the story as symbolic. In the beginning and end of the story, the road is both the beginning and the ending place. These locales are a symbol of movement and transition.
In the opening paragraph, Wright writes; “Dave struck out across the fields, looking homeward through paling light (1)”. Then in closing, the reader watches as Dave “… started down the road, toward the tracks (8)”. Wright also uses the road as a suggested duality between the have and have-nots, the rich and the poor, the black and the white; and the road connects them. The represents Dave’s limited options and contributes to Dave’s feeling of entrapment. Dave can see Mr. Hawkins’ farm from his family’s home, a constant reminder of how much better Mr. Hawkins’ is in his eyes.
The quilt is what Alice Walker uses to symbolize family heritage. Dee was sent to college; she has a chance at finer things and wants what little the mother and Maggie have. Ms. Johnson and Maggie may not have as much, but they are comfortable where they are and do not feel the need to change who they are to be politically correct. These women have the understanding of their heritage where as Dee does not; though she thinks she does. Dee was concerned with being a “true” African woman, while ignoring her true history. For example, when explaining her recent change in name;
“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 oppressed me (Guerin et al., 392).”
This came as somewhat comical to Ms. Johnson, considering Dee was a family name through the generations. The name change symbolizes the times of the civil rights movement. Walker uses irony with Dee’s name change. The young woman so determined to prove herself authentic, ignores her family history.
Faulkner’s “Barn Burning” uses fire as a symbol of both the anger and resentment Abner feels towards the change in society and the out-of-control, intense emotions Sarty is experiencing.
Abner was a vet of the civil war and could not accept the changes occurring in the south, the freedoms being allowed to the African Americans. He felt disrespected by society, as the older Sarty contemplates;
…that the element of fire spoke to some deep mainspring of his father’s being, as an element of steel or powder spoke to other men, as the one weapon for the preservation of integrity, else breath were not worth the breathing, and hence to be regarded with respect and used with discretion (425).
This fire represented Abner and it was the haunting thing that Sarty needed to get a way from in order to become a man. This is why Sarty made the decision to alert Major de Spain of his father’s intentions.
Finally, word choice reflecting the authors’ tone, will be used as a final analysis of the three authors. Wright’s, “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”, the African American’s use very simple, grammatically incorrect dialogue; representing a time when they were oppressed and lacking formal education. However, the white characters, Mr. Hawkins and Joe used longer more correctly used dialogue. An example when Dave showed up early to Mr. Hawkins’ farm hoping to be able to shoot the gun;
“Hey! That you, Dave?” He turned. Jim Hawkins stood eyeing him suspiciously. “What’re yuh doing here so early?” “Ah didn’t know Ah wuz gittin up so early, Mistah Hawkins. Ah was a fixin t hitch up ol Jenny n take her t the fiels.” “Good. Since you’re so early, how about plowing that stretch down by the woods?”
As mentioned previously, Walker uses irony within her dialogue. In A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literaturethe authors’ state that although Ms. Johnson claims to be uneducated…
the reader must soon note that the mother does not narrate as one without education would; nor does she speak in a less than standard dialect, although with a few colloquialisms, to be sure; nor is she at loss for words, whether as narrator or as speaker (119).
The mother’s low regard of herself is based on the fact that her daughter Dee has always treated her as less than intelligent. For instance, the mother comments on how Dee would read to her and Maggie, getting them as involved as possible, only for Dee to stop just at the point when the two listeners might finally understand. Walker’s sentence structure demonstrates the narrator’s intelligence.
The sentence structure and dialogue in “Barn Burning” reflects the setting and characters. The sentences are long and give a slow and deliberate appearance as Faulkner reflects the ways of the South. Abner’s dialogue is quick and ignorant, a reflection of who Abner was, a spontaneous and ignorant man. Sarty’s dialect as a boy was reflective of him an smart boy who still has some learning to do; in comparison, the older Sarty demonstrates intelligent reflection.
“You done the best you could!” he cried. If he wanted hit done different why didn’t he wait and tell you how? He won’t git no twenty bushels! He won’t get none! We’ll gether hit and hide hit! I kin watch… (431)”
Faulkner also portrays the adolescent Sarty as fast speaking, reflective of his over abundance of mixed emotions.
All three authors, Walker, Wright and Faulkner have similar techniques demonstrated in the above analyzed stories. The narration used in all three stories was essential to discuss. Faulkner’s narrative voice gave readers a look inside Sarty’s emotions both during his childhood and as an adult looking back. The first person narrative in “Everyday use”, although it could be construed as one-sided, allowed the reader to experience not only the characters actions but to get a feel for what was happening in the world at that time, such as the civil rights movement. Wright’s narration was equally important in revealing the cause of Dave’s obsession with becoming a man. The authors’ use of symbolism and irony reflect the chosen setting giving a deeper meaning to the stories, which goes beyond the words on the pages. Dialogue used in all three stories gives the reader insight into the emotional and physical presence of each character. All three stories were intense and beautifully written, which is why decades later they are still discussed among the literary world as well as in educational institutions.
Barnet, Sylvan, Berman, Morton, Burto, William. An Introduction to Literature. 7th ed. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1981
Guerin, Wilfred L. et al., A Handbook of Critical Approaches to Literature. 4th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999
Schwiebert, John E. Reading and Writing from Literature. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 2001
Ford, Marilyn C. “Narrative Legerdemain: Evoking Sarty’s Future in ‘Barn Burning'”. The Mississippi Quarterly 51 (1998): 1. Questia. Online Library. 8 October 2006 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?action=readCheckedResults&resultDocId=5001408870&resultDocId=98292286
Wright, Richard. “The Man Who Was Almost a Man”. PDF file format, 16 November 2006