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This story is distinctive, however, in that Walker stresses not only the importance of language but also the destructive effects of its misuse. Clearly, Dee privileges language over silence, as she demonstrates in her determination to be educated and in the importance she places on her name. Rather than providing a medium for newfound awareness and for community, however, verbal skill equips Dee to oppress and manipulate others and to isolate herself; when she lived at home, she read to her sister and mother “without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice.” Mama recalls that Dee “washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know. Pressed us to her with the serious way she read, to shove us away at just the moment, like dimwits, we seemed about to understand” (50). Dee uses words to wash, burn, press, and shove. We are told that the “nervous girls” and “furtive boys” whom she regarded as her friends “worshiped the well-turned phrase” and her “scalding humor that erupted like bubbles in lye” (51).
It is not surprising, then, that Mama, mistrustful of language, expresses herself in the climactic scene of the story not through words but through deeds: she hugs Maggie to her, drags her in the room where Dee sits holding the quilts, snatches the quilts from Dee, and dumps them into Maggie’s lap. Only as an afterthought does she speak at all, telling Dee to “take one or two of the others.” Mama’s actions, not her words, silence the daughter who has, up to this point, used language to control others and separate herself from the community: Mama tells us that Dee turns and leaves the room “without a word” (59). In much of Walker’s work, a character’s dawning sense of self is represented not only by the acquisition of an individual voice but also through integration into a community. Mama’s new appreciation of Maggie is significant because it represents the establishment of a sisterhood between mother and daughter. Just before taking the quilts out of Dee’s hands, Mama tells us, “I did something I never had done before” (58). The “something” to which she refers is essentially two actions: Mama embraces Maggie and says “no” to Dee for the first time. Since we are told that she held Maggie when she was burned in the fire, and since Mama’s personality suggests that she would most likely hug her daughter often, she is of course referring not merely to the literal hug but to the first spiritual embrace, representing her decision no longer to judge her younger daughter by the shallow standards Dee embodies–criteria that Mama has been using to measure both Maggie and herself up until the climax of the story.
When Mama acts on Maggie’s behalf, she is responding to the largely nonverbal message that her younger daughter has been sending for some time, but which Mama herself has been unable fully to accept. Now Maggie and Mama are allied in their rejection of Dee’s attempts to devalue their lifestyle, and their new sense of community enables Maggie to smile “a real smile, not scared.” Significantly, the story ends with the two of them sitting in silence, “just enjoying, until it was time to go in the house and go to bed” (59). Ultimately, however. Mama has the last word: it is she, after all, who tells the story. Yet her control over the text is won gradually. Walker employs an unusual narrative structure to parallel Mama’s development as she strengthens her voice and moves toward community with Maggie. Rather than reporting the entire event in retrospect, Mama relates the first half of the story as it occurs, using present and future tenses up until the moment Dee announces her new name.
The commentary that Mama makes about herself and Maggie in the first portion of the story is therefore made before the awakening that she undergoes during the quilt episode–before she is able to reject completely Dee’s desire that she and Maggie be something that they are not. Prior to the encounter with Dee over the quilts, although Mama at times speaks sarcastically about Dee’s selfish attitude, she nonetheless dreams repeatedly of appearing on a television program “the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake,” wielding a “quick and witty tongue” (48). Mama’s distaste for Dee’s egotism is tempered by her desire to be respected by her daughter. In part, then, Mama has come to define herself in terms of her failure to meet the standards of what Lindsey Tucker calls a “basically white middle-class identity” (88)–the white-male-dominated system portrayed in the television show. When Mama holds up her own strengths next to those valued by Dee and the white Johnny Carson society, she sees herself as one poised always in a position of fear, “with one foot raised in flight” (49).