Heritage, Culture and Class in Familial Conflict
Literature has been influenced by the society, from time to time. The questions of relation, heritage, culture and class have played a big thematic role in American literature. These concerns have been exemplified through works such as Alice Walker’s ‘Everyday Use’, Louis Erdrich’s ‘The Red Convertible’ and Flannery O’Connor’s ‘Everything That Rises Must Converge’. In these stories, a familial link is seen through the characters used. For instance, Dee and Mama in ‘Everyday Use’ share the relationship of a mother and daughter. Such relationships have been used to advance the theme of conflict between the characters in the respective stories. From analysis, it is seen that such familial conflicts enable the writers to achieve a successful reflection on the issues of heritage, culture and class in the American society.
Alice Walker authored ‘Everyday Use’ as part of ‘In Love and Trouble: Stories of Black Women (1973)’, a short stories collection. The story reflects on her experiences in earlier life, albeit with a fresh set of characters. Her influences in life also play a role. For instance, she adopts an African name for the character Dee from her experience in Uganda, an East African nation (Madden, 130). The story focuses on interconnection of past times and the present, and the conflicts that may result. Heritage refers to things that are considered of great value to a community. For instance, community-specific architecture, literature and art may be valued. The question of heritage results into friction between Dee and her family. The characters in the story are of black origin. When Dee goes to school, she changes her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, an African name. Mama even has difficulties pronouncing the name. Despite sharing the same skin pigmentation, Mama highlights that the name does not reflect their heritage. She tells Dee that her name was sourced from her Aunt Dicie converse to Dee’s beliefs. The conflict is intensified when Dee informs Mama that she does not understand her heritage (Walker 386).
An individual’s mode of dress reflects their heritage and culture (Vasquez 1). This also serves as a key differentiator between their membership and other cultures. For instance, Indian clothing differs from Western modes of dress. When Dee arrived home, she wore different clothes (Walker 385). Her mother disapproved of her clothing and appearance. Education is partially responsible for stratification in the society. For example, individuals that have acquired higher educational qualifications are more likely to attain higher social standing though greater incomes. Dee is well educated unlike her family. For instance, Mama only managed to study until the second grade. Due to the resulting class differences, there is conflict between Dee and her family. When she went home during the holidays, Dee tried to force ideas and educational concepts on her family. Mama usually resented this (Walker 383). When Dee goes home, she desires their family’s quilts. However, Mama had promised them to Maggie a while back. To justify her need for them, Dee argues that Maggie is not smart enough to preserve them (Walker 387). This heightens the unspoken rift between the two sisters. However, there are efforts in minimizing the conflict in the story. In the proceedings, Maggie allows Dee to take as many quilts as she wants.
The Red Convertible is a short story by Louise Erdrich, from her collection titled Love Medicine. The story is focused on two brothers, Lyman Lamartine and Henry. Consequently, it explores the dynamics of their relationship prior to Henry’s deployment in the Vietnam War, and after his return. The story is set in the Chippewa Native American reservation in North Dakota. It is therefore important to note their Native American heritage and culture. However, the story is spread to Alaska during Lyman and Henry’s road trip there. Prior to Henry’s deployment, he shared a healthy relationship with his brother. This is seen through the common activities that they regularly undertook, such as the drives in the convertible. However, this takes a turn once Henry returns from the War. Following analysis of the story, it is seen that Henry felt trapped in a war that did not make sense to him (Madden 69). As a Native American, he saw it as a white man’s war that he did not understand (Erdrich 476). To Henry, the White man was embodied by various objects following his return. This creates a rift between him and Lyman, who does not understand Henry’s views (Erdrich 478). After all, he never felt trapped in the war, as he did not participate in it.
In Native American culture, the red color is highly symbolic (Madden, 70). Firstly, it symbolizes the desire to be free. Henry shares the same desire. However, he maintains great thought before deciding to exercise it. This results into friction with his brother Lyman, who does not understand why Henry will not drive with him in the red convertible. For instance, Lyman considers him jumpy and mean. Consequently, Lyman is angered and hammers the car. When Henry sees the damaged car, his desire for it is rekindled. He puts great work in it for a month and finally fixes it. In Chippewa culture, gifts are granted to the family of the deceased. When Henry attempts to hand over ownership of the car to his brother, he is met with resistance. Lyman sees ownership of the car as a precedent of Henry’s death, which he naturally opposes. The conflict is partially resolved as the brothers recall their past relationship. However, the conflict resumes following Henry’s symbolic death. In rejection of Henry’s idea of freedom, Lyman sinks the red symbolic car in the river (Erdrich 482).
Everything That Rises Must Converge is a story by Mary Flannery O’Connor, from 1961. The story focuses on the conflict between Julian and his mother. The conflict results from questions concerning their heritage (Madden 153). It is most vivid through the differences in White appreciation of other cultures. The difference in their respective generations heightens this conflict further. Julian desires to grow wealthy in his life. This prompts his mother to speak of her grandfather’s wealth during his time as a farmer. She consequently mentions the vast number of slaves that he owned. Their slave-owning heritage embarrasses Julian. This creates a tension between the two, as Julian believes in equal opportunity for the White and Black races (O’Connor 22).
The tension mounts when her mother implies that black people should be allowed to rise, albeit separate from the White society (O’Connor 24). In compensation for his mother’s statements, Julian is determined to sit next to a black person when they board the bus. Julian’s mother was influenced by a cultural period of extensive formality. When Julian removes his tie, she describes his look as that of a thug. At that instance, Julian highlights their cultural differences. He states that true culture is found in the mind, and not in physical manifestations (O’Connor 43). This results into bickering between the two at the bus stop. When the bus arrives, Julian drifts into thought. He thinks of how he may annoy his mother. For instance, Julian thinks of bringing a black lawyer home for dinner. Such scenarios highlight the extent of conflict between the two relatives. When his mother is attacked by a black woman following a gesture that was considered insulting, Julian is relatively happy (O’Connor 102). However, the conflict is not solved in its entirety following the death of Julian’s mother.
Through analysis of the literature, the theme of conflict is seen to be more prevalent in family backgrounds. It is attributable to differences regarding culture, heritage or class between the family members. Through conflict, authors are able to develop their themes and plots effectively. Similarly, they assist in providing insights on American questions on culture, heritage and class.
Erdrich, Louise. The red convertible. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2009. Print.
Madden, Frank. Instructor’s Manual to accompany Madden Exploring Literature. New York: SUNY Westchester Community College, 2004. E-book.
O’connor, Flannery. Everything that rises must converge. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1965. Print.
Vasquez, Juan. “Characterization and Symbolism in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”.” Characterization and Symbolism in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”, 2013. Web. 23 Oct 2013. <http://www.lonestar.edu/13778.htm>.
Walker, Alice and Barbara Christian. Everyday use. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 1994. Print.
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