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The Good Mother – A Passive Life

The Good Mother – A Passive Life

“We live in a world…where the decisive deed may invite the holocaust.” –John Updike

An interesting question that emerges while reading The Good Mother is: Why did Anna let it happen? Of course, this question must be included among many others, most of which elicit ambiguous answers: What really happened? Was there fault to be assigned? If so, who was at fault? What is a good mother? Can a woman be a good lover and a good mother? Where must sexual boundaries be drawn between children and couples in a household?

Regardless of what it is, the answer to the question Why did Anna let it happen is that she was rendered almost powerless by her gender, class, and social and family background to do anything but let it happen. She spent her life letting things happen.

Anna Dunlap, recently freed from a boring marriage and involved in a sexual awakening with an unconventional man, probably thought of herself as liberated in a very literal way before and during her affair with Leo Cutter. “I had a sense, a drunken irresponsible sense, of being about to begin my life, of moving beyond the claims of my own family, of Brian, into a passionate experiment, a claim on myself.” (p. 10) As events played out, however, it became obvious that Anna had not escaped her history and that her “liberation” was just an illusion.

Anna grew up in the shadow of her wealthy, domineering grandfather, her emotionally absent father and her cold, achievement-oriented mother. Her mother ran her life, pushing Anna to practice piano in the hopes she would become a professional musician one day. Anna was learning that she was not in control of her life; she was forced to let life (through her mother’s ambitions for her) happen to her.

When she visited her grandparents’ summer home in Maine, Anna witnessed her grandfather’s overwhelming dominance and saw her grandmother, mother and aunts engaged in interesting but meaningless (in Anna’s view) “women’s” conversations. When Anna was fourteen, her mother, realizing Anna was not a musical genius, loosened her grip on her daughter and, in fact, ceased to praise her for anything. As Anna’s body changed and she became attractive to boys, she tried to define herself through sex, which she found empty and unsatisfying. Once again, Anna was not in control; she let it happen.

Eudora Welty’s A Worn Path

Following Welty’s A Worn Path

The stories meld together into a long history of oppression. Slave ships transport thousands of Africans from the Gold Coast into America’s grip, callously beginning black America’s racial saga. Laborers collapse after hours of shredding their fingers on cotton plants. Sobbing mothers tenderly clean up the flesh that cat-o-nine tails ripped off their child’s back. America eventually witnesses the Emancipation of slaves, and even relative “equality,” but an African American’s obstacles will never completely subside. Eudora Welty, in her short story “A Worn Path,” symbolically illustrates the hurdles that African Americans face: hurdles that white Americans never had to face. Welty symbolically shows, through the perseverance of an aging black woman, that African Americans can and must conquer these unjust obstacles in order to complete the path to racial equality.

In each of the roadblocks that she encounters, the protagonist Phoenix Jackson metaphorically confronts the underlying struggles African Americans face. While traveling to town to acquire medicine for her grandson, Phoenix must untangle her dress from a thorny bush. She must climb through a barbed-wire fence. She gets knocked into a ditch by a loose dog. She faces the barrel of a white man’s gun. Though these events could have happened to anyone, Welty intends to allude to racism. The hunter would have helped Phoenix, were she white, to her destination. The attendant at the health clinic would have addressed her more respectfully than “Speak up, Grandma… Are you deaf?” (Welty 97). And were she white, she would not be facing these trials alone; someone would have joined her on the journey or simply gone to get the medicine for her. Each of these events, though, represents a larger scope: an unkind racial slur, a separate and run-down restroom, or a hateful stare, humbling a colored person to hang his head in shame.

Instead of being accompanied on the road, as an elderly person deserves, Phoenix must deal with her problems herself. In depicting Phoenix’s perseverance for her grandson, Welty demonstrates the importance of combatting racism. The grandson represents the younger generation, the generation worth sacrificing for. Welty recognizes that the path to equality will be hard: “Seem like there is chains about my feet, time I get this far… Something always take a hold of me on this hill? pleads I should stay” (94). Phoenix faces tests like crossing the log above the stream and getting past memories of bulls and two-headed snakes.

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