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Sense of duty and honor to one's heritage and family! What is it about that feeling that beckons individuals to fulfill that responsibility? Is it because they feel pressured to do so by their family, or is it the culture of a family that pressures the individual into fulfilling that duty. Whatever the reason, this idea of one's responsibility to their heritage and family is the most evident and arguably the most important theme in Alice Walker's "Everyday Use" and Eudora Welty's "A Worn Path". Both narratives provide and in depth look at the barriers that divide families, and the challenges they go through to overcome them.
The main theme in the short story "Everyday Use" concerns the character's connections to their ancestral roots. In "Everyday Use," Dee's beliefs about her heritage and family contrast those of her mother and little sister Maggie. Maggie and her mother's connection to their heritage lie in their memories and traditions of their foremothers. They would rather remember their ancestors for who they were as people, not as members of a specific society. Dee's bond to her heritage comes from collecting and displaying her ancestor's possessions as African art. Dee believes that she is asserting her African heritage by changing her appearance, her personality, and even her name, in spite of the fact that her family has lived in the America for several decades. Her mother states that when Dee sees the new house, a three-room shack with no real windows and a tin roof, "she will want to tear it down." (Walker 445) When Dee arrives at her mother's house her appearance confirms this trend. She is dressed in intricate clothing with an assortment of gold jewelry and she crudely informs her mother and sister that's she now goes by the name of "Wangero." Maggie and her mother are bemused and somewhat intimidated by Dee's new image as "Wangero." Dee's selfishness and need for independence is demonstrated at a young age when she watches her humble home burn to the ground, with "a look of concentration on her face." (Walker 444) Later, "Dee wanted nice things" (Walker 445), particularly clothes, and was obsessed with capturing a fashion and lifestyle that contrasted with her humble roots. In contrast to Dee's material life is Maggie's and her mother's pride in their home and heritage, and their satisfaction with their own lives. They have made the front yard "clean and wavy, a yard like this is more comfortable than most people know." (Walker 443)
Because of their opposing views, each member of the Johnson family values their possessions for different reasons. Dee searches the house for objects she can display in her own home as examples of African-American folk art. Maggie and her mother value the same objects not for their artistic value, but because they remind them of their loved ones. Dee admires a butter churn, and when Maggie says it was carved by their aunt's husband "His name was Henry, but they called him Stash" (Walker 447) Dee replies mockingly that her sister "has a memory like an elephant's." (Walker 447) But the story implies that Maggie's elephant-like memory for her loved ones and her appreciation for their handiwork is a more authentic way to celebrate their heritage than Dee's "artistic" interests. Dee's interest in the butter churn and the quilts is brought up because they are "priceless" objects. She wants to have them as antiques and would not think of using them for "everyday use." However, "everyday use" in the narrator's opinion is the best way to value the past, and to keep it alive.
Phoenix Jackson, the protagonist in the short story "A Worn Path", is a character who defines the theme of duty to ones family. She is the symbol of determination, endurance, and the will to survive in the face of adversity and death. In the character of Phoenix, Welty is able convey the virtue in doing selfless things for others. Her selfless concern for her grandson is the most powerful representation of giving and self-sacrifice. Critics have noted that her total determination in making the long journey on foot and alone points to these qualities, as does the mythological meaning of her name Phoenix, an Egyptian bird symbolizing resurrection. Christian symbolism is also quite clear in the narrative. For example, the fact that the story is set during the Christmas has led many critics to parallel Phoenix's journey with that of a religious pilgrimage. Phoenix Jackson's overwhelming sense of duty to her grandson is the only thing that seems to keep her focused on the long and hazardous journey to town. Because she is the only person her grandson has to rely on, "We is the only two left in the world," (Welty 69) she tells the nurse, she is determined to make the trip to town to get the medicine that will relieve his injured throat. Her responsibility dominates her personality, overcoming her progressing senility, her poor eyesight, and her difficulty in walking. Phoenix again demonstrates her dedication to her grandson when she speaks to the hunter about her journey into town, she tells the hunter "I bound to go to town, mister, the times come around."(Welty 67)
While much of the story's power comes from the imagistic and symbolic use of language, the action in the story shows Phoenix in direct conflict with the outside world, a society run by white people who have little respect or understanding for her situation. A man hunting in the woods assumes that she is going to town simply to see Santa Claus, while a nurse somewhat politely calls her as a charity case and offers little compassion for the troubles of Phoenix or her sick grandson. The nurse however has a duty and a responsibility to keep giving Phoenix the medicine as long as she keeps coming to get it. She says that, "the doctor said as long as you came to get it, you could have it, but it's an obstinate case."(Welty 69) Even the hunter who helps Phoenix out of the ditch, and the young woman on the street, who ties up her shoes, seem to act purely out of duty, not out of compassion or love. Only Phoenix's actions, making the difficult journey into town for her grandson, are due to a true sense of responsibility and are motivated by a true love.
Most people are compelled by this sense of duty and responsibility for their families and their heritage at some point in their lives. People wouldn't be who they are today if it wasn't for their ancestors and those that came before them, and if it wasn't for the love and life lessons that families provide for each other then individuals would have no idea where their place in the world is, or what to do with the gift that is life. People will often go to extreme lengths to prove or simply fulfill their own sense of duty to the ones they love. Some might argue that they only do this because they feel that they must, or that there will be some unknown consequence if they don't, but I would like to think that people do what they do for the ones they love because it has positive effects for them, as well as themselves. It's human nature to want carry out responsibilities that have been laid down and set before us, not just the need to please others.
Works Cited Page
Gioia, Dana and X.J. Kennedy, eds. Literature: An Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. Tenth ed. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007.
Tom Hopkens. "A Worn Path Critical Analysis." Eudora Welty Literary Criticism. 14 Oct. 2002. Google. 15 Apr. 2010.
Anthony David. "Everyday Use Literary Criticism." Women Literature Newsweek. 7 May. 2004. Google. 15 Apr. 2010
Walker, Alice. "Everyday Use." Literature: Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 64-68. Print.
Welty, Eudora. "A Worn Path." Literature: Introduction to Fiction, Poetry, Drama, and Writing. New York: Pearson Longman, 2007. 443-447. Print.