This chapter examines the many broad similarities between the two chosen stories, and the presentation of racism in them both. They both point out the hypocrisy and injustice of racism. The symbolic nature of each story is considered and the different contexts in which they were written are kept in mind throughout the essay. Each story is also written about separately in order to pick out its individual qualities. Finally, the fictional techniques of both stories are contrasted and the paper reaches and evaluative summary about the stories.
“Country Lover” by Nadine Gordimer and “The Welcome Table” are both stories which protest about racism and expose its tragic human consequences. However, they differ partly because of the context within which each story was written, but also in the way they are written and their overall emotional impact on the reader. Gordimer’s story was written in South Africa under the iniquitous apartheid regime which used the law and the apparatus of the state to impose appalling living conditions on all non-whites in South Africa, while preserving wealth and economic and educational opportunity as the exclusive privilege of South African whites. Indeed, the Immorality Act of 1950 is highly relevant to an understanding of Gordimer’s story, since the Act made sexual relations between people of different races an illegal act. By contrast, Walker’s story is set in the United States in the post-civil rights era, but Walker ( as she does in a lot of her short stories from that time, such as “Everyday use”) concerns herself with the plight of older, rural African-Americans who have been unable to take advantage of the freedoms gained by the civil rights movement and who are condemned to a life governed by the legacy of slavery. My thesis therefore, is that both stories expose and attack the brutalities and hypocrisy of racism, but do so in very different ways and with very different emotional effects.
Both stories explore hypocrisy. In Walker’s “The Welcome Table” even the title is ironic because the African-American woman who wanders absent-mindedly into a white church finds no welcome, but embarrassed shock-there is no welcome table for her in God’s house, because white and black people have their own churches. The welcome table itself is an interesting image: it is at once a reference to the table of the Last Supper, symbolized in Christianity by the alter where communion is celebrated and where Christians go to eat brad and drink wine, but it is also in heaven- the bountiful table that the old lady believes awaits her after death. In the white church which she enters and then is ejected from, there is no welcome table, despite the Christian teaching of love and forgiveness for all. As Klinkowitz ( 2001, 146) puts it, “If you are Christian, and a sincere one, do you think Jesus was present in that hypocritical white church? Or is he out there on the road with the old dying lady? In Gordimer’s Country Lovers” the hypocrisy is more personal, despite having the support of the legal system and the apparatus of the apartheid system. As a young boy growing up Paulus simply follow his natural feelings by being attracted to Thebedi. There is a beautiful innocence and a tantalizing sensuousness to the description of his physical desire for her, but as he gets older and becomes more conventional, more socialized he is happy to betray her and ultimately to kill the child they have produced to save himself from prosecution under the Immortality Act. Therefore, his hypocrisy is personal and vindictive and selfish, whereas the hypocrisy in “The Welcome Table” is more generalized and based on centuries of slavery and the oppression of African-Americans in the United States.
In both stories the economic oppression of blacks is made clear. In South Africa it was a deliberate aim of the apartheid system to deny South African blacks economic advancement; in the United States it is the legacy of slavery. In “The Welcome Table” the members of the white congregation who look at the old black lady interloper do not see a vulnerable old lady; they see “cooks, chauffeurs, maids, mistresses” (Walker, page 75) – all the stereotypical, unimportant jobs that were performed by African-American. The old lady’s poverty is clear from the state of her clothing: “the missing buttons down the front of her mildewed black dress (Walker, 75 ) In “Country lovers” too there is an economic and social divide that separates Paulus from Thebedi. His father is the local land-owner and he gets sent away to school which is the start of their growing apart from each other. Thebedi is condemned to a lifetime of menial jobs and, like all African under apartheid, is denied access to education. The social and economic gulf between the lovers is clear; living conditions in the kraal are a complete contrast to the amenities and luxuries of the farmhouse.
Both stories also revolve around the idea of fear. In Gordimer there is the horror of miscegenation which leads to the murder of the baby, but there is also Paulus’s fear of prosecution- not just for murder, but for having had sexual relations with Thebedi in the first place. For Paulus’s father the whole incident seems more a matter of social embarrassement. He is quoted at the end of the story by the local press as saying. “I will try and carry on as best I can to hold up my head in the district.” (Gordimer, page 11). In “The Welcome Table there is also an element of social embarrassment – the white church-goers do not know how to deal with the old black lady who has strayed mistakenly into her house, but there is also a more visceral, racist frar of the unknown, the Other: “Many of them [the white congregation] saw jungle orgies in an evil place, while others were reminded of riotous anarchists looting and raping in the streets” ( Walker, page 75). In neither story are the white people capable of seeing a human being like themselves and then feeling the natural human compassion one would extend to another human being.
Nadine Gordimer has spent most of her life fighting and criticizing the apartheid system. As Hallengren (2004, page 34) puts it:
For fifty years, Gordimer has been the Geiger counter of apartheid and of the movements of people across South Africa. Her work reflects the psychic vibrations within that country, the road from passivity and blindness, to reseistance and struggle, the forbidden friendships, the censored soul, and the underground networks. She has outlined a free zone where it was possible to try out, in imagination, what life beyond apartheid might look like.
Early in the story the love between Paulus and Thebedi is described in an idyllic pastoral location: Paulus’s sexual attraction to her is clear when she has walked in the river-“the girl came up the band and sat beside him, the drops of water beading off her dark legs the only around one eye, while around the other, etched and mapped as if for print, ages more threatened to live.
Walker’s use of the word “centuries” suggests the centuries of oppression and mistreatment endured by African-Americans. Having been ejected from the church, the old lady meets Jesus and talks to him joyously until she dies by the side of the road. How are we to read this ending? On one hand, it is ironic because the Jesus who appears to her is blue-eyed and Aryan and is based on a picture that the old black lady stole from the Bible of her white employers. This image of Jesus is a construction of the dominant white culture as Porter et al point out: “Alice Walker’s short story illustrates the difficulty of rescuing Jesus from a racist, Euro-American ideology.” (2004, page 191), “This white, blue-eyed Jesus accompanies her- but we are never told if her encounter is truly redemptive or not, or if Jesus can be disentangled for the pages of the white slave owner’s Bible.” As readers we are left to formulate our own response to the ending. Has Christianity been used as a told of social control to offer African-Americans a spiritual outlet for their frustrations? Even if that is the case, the old lady does at least die happily, although outcast by the society that has used her and her ancestors.
Although both stories share very similar concerns, they are written very differently. Gordimer’s story is linger and more detailed; it takes place over many years and we witness a relationship growing and changing; the characters ate named and personalized, and, therefore, when Thebedi breaks down and cries in court we are more likely to feel empathy for her. By the same token, we are more likely to be emotionally engaged in Paulus’s act of betrayal and the murder of his own son. However, at the end of the story Gordimer distances us from the characters by concentrating on the judicial procedure in the court and the reporting of the case by the newspapers. By contrast, Walker writes more succinctly and her action is confined to one day (although the old lady;s corpse is not discovered until the next day). Walker uses no names and this gives her story a timeless, universal feel to it which almost serves to elevate the old lady to the status of Everywoman or, at least, Every African American woman. “The Welcome Table” has elements which remind us of Biblical parables, as Scholl (2008, page 118) points out: “In its many ironic reversals of social roles, expectations and events, this story uses the formal structure if a parable suggests its derivation from the biblical heritage of Walker’s church-going childhood.” Biblical parables are designed to teach. Does Walker’s story have the same function? It would appear to teach us a very simple lesson about the importance of compassion to the downtrodden and oppressed, but it is also clearly critical of the so-called Christian values of the white church from which the old lady is ejected. Christian doctrine suggest that love or one’s neighbor is all important: Jesus in the New Testament has nothing to say about race and formal or informal segregation.
Of these two stories, Walker’s “The Welcome Table” is slightly more successful because of its brevity and its parable-like nature. Gordimer’s story, while sharing the same broad target of racism and its iniquities, has a different impact because it is a story of love gone wrong, love denied by social conditions, love controlled by the law.
References for Comparative essay
Katherine Mansfield – The Garden Party 83 -100 in Sedaris, David Children playing before a statue of Hercules 2005
Alice Munro, Half a Grapefruit 101-120
Hypocrisy and injustice of racism
The Imperial Nightmare Studies in English Literature
Anthology David Wheeler
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