Alice Walker & Ralph Ellison
Character Analysis of Dee in Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use” and the Narrator in Ralph Ellison’s “Battle Royal”
Works of literature by black American writers have evoked feelings of hopelessness and suffering of their fellow black Americans by putting them into context with the social changes happening in the American society. Take as an example the short stories “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker and “Battle Royal” by Ralph Ellison. Both stories depict racial discrimination in subtle, yet meaningful ways. In Walker’s short story, discrimination is subtly expressed by through symbolic representations of the characters’ demonstrated disregard or value put into their African heritage. In Ellison’s work, years of racial prejudice and discrimination are depicted in a pseudo-battle where the harsh realities faced by black Americans are uncovered and laid bare for the Narrator to see and witness.
These manners of discussing racial prejudice and discrimination are effectively portrayed through the main characters of the stories. Dee in Walker’s tale represents the present generation of black Americans who seem to adhere to their African heritage because it is a popular sentiment among the people she interact with in the predominantly white American society. The Narrator, similarly, resembles Dee’s hypocrisy of their original African heritage by trying to conform to what the white society expects him to be: an educated man who will make his progress by “bowing” or ignoring the injustices happening to him and his fellowman. It is also remarkable to see that the characters of Dee and the Narrator as examples of black American people who experiences awareness or unawareness of their fellowmen’s plight in life within the white American society. The texts that follow thoroughly discusses and analyzes the similarities and differences of the two characters, illustrating how each had dealt with the issue of racial prejudice and discrimination.
In “Everyday Use,” Walker depicts through the characters of Dee and Maggie the contrasting nature that the younger generation of black Americans had become. On one hand, Maggie represents the black Americans who have learned to value their African heritage by subsisting to the same values, beliefs, lifestyle, and perspective as their ancestors had lived. Dee, on the other hand, represents the generation of black Americans who have lost appreciation of her heritage simply because she has learned the ways of the white Americans, adapting to their culture, while at the same time, trying to create an image of a genuine black American through her external appearance.
It is evident that Walker characterizes Dee as the hypocrite between her and Maggie, a ‘traitor’ of her own culture and heritage because of the apparent disgust she shows to the two people who embody the true African heritage — the narrator, Dee’s mother, and her sister, Maggie. Dee’s hypocrisy is shown in the way she had expressed her disapproval of the ways of her mother and sister, claiming that they are “wasting” their African heritage by not appreciating the culture of their ancestors, which are manifested in the quilts and dasher that Dee had tried to own for herself. Dee’s criticism of her mother and sister, stating, “[y]our heritage … You ought to try to make something for yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it,” is a paradox to the life that she lives. Her education, lifestyle, fashion, and likeness for popular fads (e.g., her joining the Negro movement despite her lack of awareness and true appreciation of the culture of her forefathers) serve as manifestation of her total assimilation of American culture, resulting to her disdain of the poor lives that her family is living, as well as her dislike for anything that reflects the harsh reality that black Americans remain poor, adopt crude ways of living, and continue to be marginalized and discriminated.
As the story ends, Walker illustrates the true nature of Dee’s character: like the sunglasses she wore when she left home, Dee is the picture of the black American individual who wanted to show that she is proud to be a member of the black American race; yet, she does not show true appreciation of what her true identity is (“She puts on some sunglasses that hid everything above the tip of her nose and chin”). In effect, Dee in “Everyday Use” have not reached full realization of her true self, not appreciating the people that she has for a family simply because they are poor and uneducated. This, for Walker, is proof of her hypocrisy and true regard of her being a black American.
The Narrator in “Battle Royal” assumes a similar characterization as Dee’s in “Everyday Use.” In Ellison’s literary work, the protagonist is haunted by a confession that his grandfather gave him while in his deathbed, where he divulged that he had been a “traitor” to his fellowmen. The enigmatic nature of this confession is demonstrated in the Narrator’s apparent confusion of what his grandfather’s words meant; later in the story, Ellison illustrates through his protagonist’s character the meaning behind the grandfather’s treachery: that the Narrator himself would fall under the lure of a good and comfortable life in exchange for his fellow black Americans’ continued treatment of prejudice and discrimination by the “white folks.”
The choice of the title, ‘battle royal,’ also reflects the seemingly grand treatment that white American society shows to the black Americans. However, as what the Narrator found out, hidden behind the smiling and accepting faces of the “white folks” is a lingering dislike for their race, prejudice and discrimination that can potentially become violent and cause deaths, as symbolically illustrated in the boxing match that the Narrator had become involved in. The Narrator’s attempt to protest subtly about the discrimination still rampant in American society was met with hostility (” … We mean to do right by you, but you’ve got to know your place at all times … “), which prompted him to once again appear submissive in front of his audience, who are all white Americans.
Like Dee, the Narrator exchanged the plight of black Americans for his college education, a treachery that haunted him all his life, creating an internal conflict within him, trying to choose between aspiring for a good life through a good education or sacrificing his education for the sake of achieving justice and equality in the white American society. While Dee’s treachery was manifested through her hypocrite appreciation of her race’s and family’s cultures, Ellison shows the Narrator’s treachery by ignoring his father’s wise advice upon his death. The lure of attaining a good college education prevailed over his realization that without the presence of both white and black Americans, black Americans are actually considered as ‘play things’ that bring entertainment to the “white folks,” people whom they can ridicule, spit at, and curse whenever and many times they feel doing these things. The Narrator’s relief that, “I even felt safe from grandfather, whose deathbed curse usually spoiled my triumphs,” shows the unfortunate fact that he had chosen to become “blind” to the harsh treatment and discrimination he had experienced that evening, as long as he achieves the much-coveted college education he wanted to have.
These similarities between Dee and the Narrator also reflected differences in the way the two characters confronted the reality of prejudice and discrimination among black Americans by the society. Dee’s character failed to show an awareness of the true events surrounding her, which led to her jaded realization that African culture is valuable simply because of its ‘exotic’ appearance, and not because of the meaning that the culture had created in the lives of the black American people. This awareness and ignorance is blatantly shown in her exclamation that Maggie will turn the family’s two prized quilts into “rags,” not realizing that these things are made in their family for the purpose of putting them into “everyday use,” and not just to “hang them” as mere decorations or ornamentations in the house.
The Narrator, in contrast to Dee, shows awareness of the sorry plight his race was situated in. This is evident in his constant references to his “grandfather’s curse” whenever he receives material gain or opportunities from the “white folks” despite the knowledge that they actually treat him as lower than and unequal to them. His awareness also led him to develop an internal conflict, and he cannot decide whether he did the right thing accepting the college scholarship despite the cruelty and violence inflicted on him during the night of “battle royal.” As the story ends, the Narrator chose to choose his scholarship and ignore the cruelty he had experienced. Ellison, however, considers this decision wrong, and this is highlighted in the dream that the narrator had, wherein stamped within his scholarship certificate are the words, “Keep This Nigger-Boy Running.”
Ellison, R. E-text of “Battle Royal.” Available at: http://www.geocities.com/cyber_explorer99/ellisonbattle.html.
Walker, A. E-text of “Everyday use.” Available at: http://www.bow.k12.nh.us/jmcdermott/everyday_use__by_alice_walker.htm.
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