Alice Walker relies on the feminine, creative energy of “Mother” to paint a striking picture of not only what her characters look like — but how their physical features and personality traits inform the story. A close read of both her fiction and essays reveals this as one of the most moving aspects of her work
In her much-studied short story “Everyday Use,” Mama, Walker’s narrator, describes herself as “large big-boned woman with rough man-working hands,” who “wears flannels nightgowns to bed and overalls during the day… and [who] can kill and clean a hog as mercilessly as a man.” The reader understands immediately this is a woman of grit, a survivalist, and a matriarch who knows who she is, and is not. In this instance, the woman her daughter Dee wants her to be, “a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake…”
Walker’s description of both of Mama’s daughters, through her observant narrator, creates a powerful juxtaposition between them, and establishes the complexity of the two worlds (embodied by Dee’s visit) in collision. We first meet Maggie as the narrator imagines she will appear until Dee leaves: “She will stand hopelessly in corners, homely and ashamed of the burn scars down her arms and legs, eying her sister with a mix of envy and awe.” This imagining stirs the reader’s curiosity about the fire, as well builds tension around Dee and her visit.
The comparison of Maggie to a lame animal and the way Maggie carries herself, is a full tableau of Maggie’s physicality — and more importantly, conveys the psychological effects of the fire and the subsequent family dynamic. Dee has been untouched by this, and during the fire the narrator describes her “standing off under the sweet gum tree… a look of concentration about her…”
Dee’s visiting-day dress of “yellows and oranges enough to throw back the light of the sun,” recalls the earlier image of Maggie’s dress “falling off of her in little black papery flakes.” The image of Dee’s hair, “two pigtails that rope about like small lizards,” is somehow primal and sinister, and perhaps evocative of Dee’s motives.
Walker captures Dee’s boyfriend, whom the narrator has never met, with a few, simple, yet telling details. He is “short, stocky fellow with hair to his navel is all grinning,” suggested a more “cultured” urban life Dee is leading, which the narrator doesn’t trust; and Dee’s attempt to cast off her past, and still grab those parts of it that please her.
In her essays, Walker is equally skillful. For the lesser figures, it’s as if she snaps a Polaroid or applies the exact, light brush strokes. Her companion Charlotte Hunt in “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” is “a large pleasant-faced white woman in dark glasses.” Mrs. Patterson is a handsome, red-haired woman in her late forties, wearing orange slacks and gold earrings,” and has “penny-brown” eyes. We meet Rosalee, “a stocky black-skinned woman in her thirties, wearing a green polo shirt and white jeans cut off at the knee.” As Walker interacts with her, we hear her voice, too: “Rough, pleasant, as if she is a singer who also smokes a lot.”
Walker’s more detailed portraits of Mrs. Moseley and Dr. Benton in this essay serve a dual purpose: Spark our curiosity about Hurston along with Walker’s, as well pay homage to the people in Hurston’s world, before she died. The image of Mrs. Moseley is one of my favorites.
Initially, Walker uses light brush strokes: A neat lady in a purple dress and white hair, frowning. Mrs. Moseley gets out of the car, and it’s here that the full image unfolds. We are seeing Mrs. Moseley as Walker does in real time: “A thin, sprightly woman with nice, gold-studded false teeth, uppers and lowers.” The use of italics with “straight” and hand on her hip, in addition to the “well-shaped legs,” tell the reader this woman is not your average “old lady.” Rather, she’s a force.
To describe her own mother, Walker relies primarily on her mother’s garden in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. In the one mention of her mother’s character, Walker concedes her she may not even appear as such: “She seemed a large, soft, loving-eyed woman who was rarely impatient…”
For Walker, the garden is mother as artist: “…so brilliant with colors, so original in its design so magnificent with live and creativity…”