Week 5 Discussion Revised essay37
Antagonized by the Text, Or, It Takes Two
to Read Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use”
After publishing his study of Racine in 1963, Roland Barthes came under fire
for what many critics of the French literary establishment saw as a misreading
of the iconic dramatist. One particularly hostile member of the Sorbonne, Raymond Picard, charged Barthes with denying the possibility of self-evident “objective knowledge in literary criticism” (Keuneman xiv). “The stage was set,” François
Dosse recounts, “and all the elements assembled for the duel, which was cast like
some great Racinian tragedy of the twentieth century” (223). But Barthes refused
to take the stage. He responded to Picard’s attack, which was entitled New Criticism
or New Imposture?, with a short treatise of his own entitled Criticism and Truth.
Philip Thody characterizes this exchange by explaining that “instead of taking up
Picard’s somewhat acerbic criticisms and responding with a comparably mordant
wit, [Barthes] moved the debate on to higher ground” (viii). Despite Picard’s best attempts to pick a fight, Barthes, it seems, avoids any antagonism altogether. Yet, there
is a strain of antagonism at work in Criticism and Truth, an antagonism between
critic and text: “as soon as one claims to examine the work in itself, from the point
of view of its make-up, it becomes impossible not to raise broad questions of symbolic meaning” (Barthes 16). This concept of symbolic, or second-order meaning,
which Barthes addresses most notably in Mythologies, transforms the critic into a
perennial antagonist dedicated to demystifying, demythologizing, and unmasking
A wave of recent criticism suggests that the predominant view of the relationship between critic and text in literary studies today is one of antagonism. However,
what should be a dialogic battle most often turns out to be a one-sided interrogation
of the text, which theorists have variously described as “paranoid,” “suspicious,” and
“symptomatic.”1 “As literary critics,” Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus observe, “we
[have been] trained to equate reading with interpretation: with assigning meaning
to a text or set of texts” (1). In fact, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick argues that “in the context of recent U.S. critical theory [. . .] to apply a ‘hermeneutic of suspicion’ is, I believe, widely understood as a mandatory injunction rather than a possibility among
other possibilities” (5). Best and Marcus and Sedgwick have tackled this problem,
as Rita Felski does in her essay “Suspicious Minds,” by situating the hermeneutics
38 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
of suspicion as one unique approach among many.2 But as Felski points out, this
discussion has focused primarily on “the suspicious dimensions of contemporary
styles of criticism” and not “the related issue of how works of literature encourage
suspicion in readers” (216n). Rather than jettisoning the language of antagonism
altogether as others have done,3 this essay takes up the issue of textual agency, considering how texts incite, provoke, and generally antagonize readers. Recognizing
the agency of the literary text in its antagonism with the reader, I argue, revises our
current critic-driven hermeneutic by abandoning unnecessary limitations on the
practice of reading that drown out the text’s voice and ultimately enslave the critic
to the never-ending practice of demystification.
Texts have the agency to antagonize because of their capacity to elicit and control cognitive and emotional responses through formal features such as point of
view and characterization. To be sure, many prevalent approaches to reading offer
some recognition of textual agency. The formalists and New Critics argue tirelessly that critics should attend to the text itself. John Crowe Ransom, for instance,
stresses “the autonomy of the work itself as existing for its own sake” (598). Reception theorists, such as Wolfgang Iser, conceive of reading as a phenomenological
process in which “the reader uses the various perspectives offered him by the text
in order to relate the patterns and the ‘schematised views’ to one another, he sets
the work in motion, and this very process results ultimately in the awakening of responses within himself” (280). Stanley Fish’s influential brand of reader-response
theory, while clearly focused on the reader, is most interested in the “experience”
constituted by the relationship between literary texts and interpretive practices
(164). Each of these critical approaches acknowledges the literary text as a site or
catalyst of meaning, but each also ultimately subordinates the text to the authority
of the reader/critic, denying the possibility of mere description, or, what Fish calls
“demonstration” of the text itself (367). I do not suggest that we abandon these or
other diverse ways of reading. I simply want to offer an approach that specifically
calls attention to the text’s participation in the dialogue of reading. Put another way,
whereas Fish outlines “affective stylistics” in an early essay titled “Literature in the
Reader,” here I examine the affective effects literature has on the reader.
The effects a text has on its reader have typically been credited by critics as
varied as Fish and Fredric Jameson to the cultural or linguistic context in which
the text is written and read.4 This impulse is representative of a larger trend in literary studies and the humanities more broadly to hammer the ploughshare of criticism into a spear of scientific or political study, perhaps to avoid the appearance
of irrelevance or obsolescence.5 Paul Ricoeur says of Freud, Nietzsche, and Marx,
the patron saints of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” that “all three create with the
means at hand, with and against the prejudices of their times, a mediate science
Antagonized by the Text 39
of meaning, irreducible to the immediate consciousness of meaning” (34 original
emphasis). Geoffrey Galt Harpham makes a similar observation of the various
humanities fields, including literary theory, that have been preoccupied with linguistics over the last century and “have sought to transform their discourses from
speculative enterprises into scientific or at least somewhat more empirical disciplines” (4). But any well-rounded theory of reading must account for complex and
various facets of the text, and this means attending not only to the more seemingly
scientific realms of language and culture, but also to the affective dimensions of
cognitive and emotional response. Late in her recent essay “Context Stinks!” Felski
asks what it would mean to “do justice” to the emotional, perceptual, and affective
responses texts elicit “rather than treating them as naïve, rudimentary, or defective?
To be less shame-faced about being shaken or stirred, absorbed or enchanted? To
forge a language of attachment as intellectually robust and refined as our rhetoric
of detachment?” (585).6 The answer is that new avenues of insight open up. Just as a
conversation can be developed by adding another perspective, the antagonism between text and critic expands exponentially when the opportunity to address the
question of meaning is extended to someone, or in this case, something, other than
This hermeneutic challenge only finds its most current expression in the criticism of Best and Marcus, Sedgwick, Felski, and others. Six years before Ricoeur even
coined the phrase “hermeneutics of suspicion,” Susan Sontag published her classic
manifesto “Against Interpretation,” in which she argues for the abandonment of
hermeneutics in favor of “an erotics of art” (14). Sontag contends that the “function
of criticism should be to show how [art] is what it is, even that it is what it is, rather
than to show what it means” (14). Best and Marcus offer a potential “erotics of art” in
their theory of “surface reading” as an alternative to “symptomatic” or “suspicious”
reading. One of the modes of surface reading, they suggest, is reading with “attention to surface as a practice of critical description.” In this attitude, “texts can reveal
their own truths because texts mediate themselves; what we think theory brings
to texts (form, structure, meaning) is already present in them. Description sees
no need to translate the text into a theoretical or historical metalanguage in order
make the text meaningful. The purpose of criticism is thus a relatively modest one:
to indicate what the text says about itself” (11). Drawing on Sontag’s challenge, and
building on more recent approaches such as “surface reading,” I urge that we recognize the agency of the text in our reading by asking two basic questions: What does
the text want me to think? What does the text want me to feel?
These two questions raise two prerequisite problems that must be addressed
before we can move on in our attempt to recognize the text as agonist. First, does
this approach not shrug off W.K. Wimsatt and M.C. Beardsley’s intentional and af-
40 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
fective fallacies? Second, is there some compelling reason for granting the work of
literature an agency that is independent of its authorship? The solutions to both
problems are intimately bound up with one another. To question the cognitive and
affective intentions of the text is not merely to displace questions of authorial intent. Wimsatt and Beardsley themselves argue that “the poem is not the critic’s own
and not the author’s (it is detached from the author at birth and goes about the
world beyond his power to intend about it or control it). The poem belongs to the
public. It is embodied in language, the peculiar possession of the public, and it is
about the human being, an object of public knowledge” (“The Intentional Fallacy”
470). While these critics may make troubling assumptions regarding the “public”
nature of the ownership of art and language, I see in their argument the kind of
agency attributed to the text that I, too, would like to explore. They have suggested
that the work of literature is not coextensive with its authorship, and I am validating
that argument to some degree by addressing the work itself as an active agent. At
the same time, my approach seems to commit the affective fallacy by creating “confusion between the poem and its results,” which, as with the intentional fallacy, supposedly leads to the “disappear[ance] of the poem itself as an object” (“The Affective Fallacy” 31 original emphasis). While I am certainly interested in the affective
results of reading a literary text, the fact that I attribute these effects to the text itself,
and not solely to an author, reader, or context, ultimately prevents such a reading
from committing the fallacy that concerns Wimsatt and Beardsley in their classic
treatise. The problem with critical approaches to literature that imagine themselves as somehow outside or beyond intent and affect is that they tend to adopt
the language of objectivity, as is the case with Wimsatt and Beardsley.7 Regardless
of whether a critic approaches literature with an eye toward reader, writer, text, context, or some combination of these, she cannot escape intention and emotion. The
best she can do is to be mindful of what she imagines as the source of these factors.
Reading with close attention to what the text wants is surely an approach with a
broad affective index, but it is not any more or less affective than the predominant
forms of “suspicious reading” (Felski, “Suspicious Minds” 215–16). M.H. Abrams
summarizes his assessment of the “Newreading” styles of his contemporaries—
Harold Bloom, Jacques Derrida, and Stanley Fish—by noting that with these
methodologies readers “gain a guaranteed novelty, of a kind that makes any text directly relevant to current interests and concerns” (588). Felski offers an illuminating
and thorough “acknowledgement of criticism’s own affective registers” when she
argues that “suspicious reading [. . .] is not just an intellectual exercise in demystification but also a distinctive style and sensibility with its own specific pleasures”
(“Suspicious Minds” 215–16). Abrams and Felski, writing over thirty years apart,
help us see that criticism, no matter how scientific, is always concerned with the
emotional response of the reader. To acknowledge affective responses is to begin
Antagonized by the Text 41
to recognize the text as an active agent in the practices of reading and interpretation. The new avenues of insight that become available as a result are the outcomes
of attending to what M.M. Bakhtin calls “the active role of the other” in the “subsequent speech or behavior of the listener” (70 original emphasis, 69).8 In this case,
the work of literature is the “other,” and we begin to recognize its active role by examining the thoughts and feelings that are produced in us as we read. The author is
not entirely absent from any reading of a literary work, but the “subsequent speech
or behavior” that I investigate here is that which bears the traces of the “active role”
of the text. After all, it is the text we hold in our hands, not the author. These cognitive and affective responses can thus be understood as equal and opposite reactions
to the actions of the literary text.
This approach was borne out of my own relentless antagonism of Alice Walker’s
oft-anthologized story “Everyday Use,” and perhaps even more so out of the sense
of personal satisfaction derived from teaching novice readers how to turn the
screws of suspicion deeper into the text. The story, originally published in Walker’s
1973 collection In Love & Trouble: Stories of Black Women, problematizes notions of
cultural authenticity through a series of conflicts between a mother and daughter
over everyday items such as a butter churn, a bench, and a collection of quilts. The
story is narrated by Mrs. Johnson, mother of two young women named Dee and
Maggie, and recounts a visit in which Dee returns to her mother’s and sister’s rural
home from the city. Accompanied by her boyfriend, Dee, now Wangero Leewanika
Kemanjo, snaps Polaroids of her family house and establishes herself as a spectator
come to see her authentic roots. Along the way, she claims various household items
as mementos of her heritage. The story reaches its climax in an emotional confrontation between Dee and her mother in which the headstrong daughter desperately wants to take some hand-sewn patchwork quilts back to the city with her, but
Mrs. Johnson insists on saving them for Maggie’s marriage. Dee explodes, accusing
her mother and sister of being unable to truly “appreciate” the quilts, which should
be hung up and preserved instead of being put to everyday use. Dee leaves in an
exasperated bluster, but not before encouraging her sister to try to make something
of herself in this new day. On the story’s surface, then, Dee is an inconsiderate sister
and petulant daughter who carries herself as arrogantly superior to the rest of her
family, and whose only appreciation for her home stems from the distance she has
created between it and herself.
The trajectory of the literary criticism devoted to “Everyday Use” reflects critics’
evolutionary dissatisfaction with a surface reading, however, and illustrates the
mandate of a one-sided antagonism where “the most significant truths are not immediately apprehensible and may be veiled or invisible” (Best and Marcus 4). Critics
such as Houston Baker, Charlotte Pierce-Baker, and Nancy Tuten have become the
foils against which others have mounted Dee’s defense. Sam Whitsitt, for instance,
42 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
responds to the Bakers’ charge that “Dee is evil, [. . .] inauthentic, [. . .] and a traitor”
by insisting that “Walker has little sympathy for identity politics whose logic turns
the contrary and the wayward into traitors” (449). In contrast to Tuten’s argument
for Dee’s superficiality, Susan Farrell maintains that “while Dee is certainly insensitive and selfish to a certain degree, she nevertheless offers a view of heritage and
a strategy for contemporary African Americans to cope with an oppressive society
that is, in some ways, more valid than that offered by Mama and Maggie” (179).
All of these interpretations hinge on the conflict over the quilts, which, as Barbara
Christian explains, serve as metaphors throughout “American literature and culture” and as an important legacy “bestowed on [Walker] and other contemporary black women writers” (“Introduction” 4). The antagonism of the text has revealed valuable insights into the social, cultural, and political contexts surrounding
“Everyday Use” by developing Dee into a champion of strong black women, but
has also perhaps precluded other experiences with the story that become available
when, as Christian says elsewhere, we embrace “the possibility of the integration of
feeling/knowledge, rather than the split between the abstract and the emotional”
(“The Race for Theory” 72).
Such experiences only presented themselves to me when, at the height of my
self-congratulatory feelings of intellectual enlightenment, students challenged my
defense of Dee as a trailblazing and independent black woman. During class discussions, it always seemed as though I and a couple of students who did not want to
appear as though they had failed to “get it” were the only ones in Dee’s corner. When
pushed, I too had to admit that I did not “like” Dee, but that I could respect her and
sympathize with her attempts to make something of herself in a world in which
black women are expected to conform to the problematic and stereotypically passive roles played by her mother and sister, posing no threat to the social order. And
there it was, my “sympathy” for Dee. Call it epiphanic, call it revelatory, but I realized all at once that I did not like her and that I pitied her. I, the stalwart defender of
the “real” Dee whom the text had done its best to conceal beneath a surface of abrasive language and actions, acknowledged that it was impossible to see how anyone
could truly “like” Dee. After parsing the cultural and political implications of the
story along with other critics and with my students, I came to realize, as Felski
suggests, that “the significance of a text is not exhausted by what it reveals or conceals about the social conditions that surround it. Rather, it is also a matter of what
it makes possible in the viewer or reader—what kinds of emotions it elicits, what
perceptual changes it triggers, what affective bonds it calls into being” (“Context
Stinks!” 585). So, I asked my students (and myself) why the story would be crafted
in such a way as to make us both dislike and pity the one black woman who sets out
to break paths and develop her own unique sense of identity? In other words, what
does the text want us to think and feel about Dee? Why are these responses more
Antagonized by the Text 43
pronounced in Dee’s case and less so in the cases of Mrs. Johnson and Maggie? Perhaps just as importantly, how does the text cultivate these thoughts and feelings?
The overwhelming answer to the first question, no matter how the text is antagonized, is that Dee is not very likeable. These negative thoughts and emotions
are incited by a number of formal features, but perhaps most notably by the narrative point of view. If the story were narrated by Dee, or even in third person, its
characterization of the prodigal daughter might be completely different. But in the
first-person voice of Mrs. Johnson the narrative develops a prejudice toward Dee
even before she returns home for her visit. Each and every description of Dee’s
independence and strength is accompanied by a sense of envy, worry, or frustration. Her physical beauty seems gaudy when her mother compares it to her own
“manish” features and Maggie’s “lame animal” carriage (2470). Dee’s determination
and flair are packaged with her mother’s anger: “She was determined to stare down
any disaster in her efforts. Her eyelids would not flicker for minutes at a time. Often
I fought off the temptation to shake her. At sixteen she had a style of her own: and
knew what style was” (2471). The education Dee receives thanks to the generosity
of her mother and the church is contrasted with Mrs. Johnson’s lamentation that
“I never had an education myself” (2471). And when the family home burns down
some years prior, our narrator recalls thinking, “why don’t you do a dance around
the ashes? I’d wanted to ask her. She had hated the house that much” (2470). Every
positive character trait or aspiration is tainted by Mrs. Johnson’s unflattering perspective.
The first-person narrative voice, the fact that Mrs. Johnson is both narrator and
character, has an immediate and forceful effect upon our perception of Dee. As
Wayne Booth explains in his landmark work The Rhetoric of Fiction, “No narrator
or central intelligence or observer is simply convincing: he is convincingly decent or
mean, brilliant or stupid, informed, ignorant, or muddled. Since there are few such
qualities that even the most tolerant of us can observe in full neutrality, we usually
find our emotional and intellectual reactions to him as a character affecting our
reactions to the events he relates [. . .] we cannot react to it dispassionately” (273,
original emphasis). Thus, it seems obvious to say that if Dee herself, or even Maggie,
were narrating the story we would come away with a different perception of Dee’s
character. The fact remains, however, that all we have is Mrs. Johnson’s voice. This
limited perspective forecloses the possibility of seeing the events and entities in the
story from Dee’s point of view at any time. That is, the text actively prevents us from
identifying with Dee. Any novice literary critic might counter that Walker employs
a first-person narrator in order to invite our suspicion. After all, when confronted
with a first-person narrator should we not immediately question that character’s
reliability? From Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy to Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s
unnamed narrator in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” it seems that every first-person nar-
44 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
rator is unreliable, and thus not to be trusted. This lack of trust is, in part, what
prompts our suspicion, and again, I do not want to discard our antagonism of the
text altogether. I merely want to stop pushing the envelope long enough for it to
push back. Therefore, I ask, what would happen if we could take Mrs. Johnson at
her word, and trust her portrayal of her daughter?
In his popular guide to narrative, The Art of Fiction, critic and novelist David
Lodge argues that “the point of using an unreliable narrator is indeed to reveal
in an interesting way the gap between appearance and reality, and to show how
human beings distort or conceal the latter,” even if, he goes on to say, “this need
not be a conscious, or mischievous intention on their part” (155). “Everyday Use”
certainly addresses the chasm between appearance and reality as it opens with
Mrs. Johnson’s description of a dream she has that is influenced by “those TV shows
where the child who has ‘made it’ is confronted, as a surprise, by her own mother
and father, tottering in weakly from backstage” (2469). In this dream, Mrs. Johnson
and Dee appear on such a show, but the tables are turned: “Dee is embracing me
with tears in her eyes. She pins on my dress a large orchid, even though she has told
me once that she thinks orchids are tacky flowers” (2470). This dream state is immediately contrasted by a narrative turn in which Mrs. Johnson explains, “In real
life I am a large, big-boned woman” (2470). Following Lodge’s understanding of
the unreliable narrator, Mrs. Johnson is not especially unreliable. She seems well
aware of the gap between appearance and reality, and sees no need to distort that
gap outside of her dreams. Mrs. Johnson belongs among “the narrators who, however human and limited and bewildered,” Booth explains, “earn our basic trust and
If Mrs. Johnson is to be trusted, then perhaps what is most notable about her
position as narrator is the distance she creates between Dee and the reader of the
story. The first paragraph begins: “I will wait for her in the yard that Maggie and
I made so clean and wavy yesterday afternoon. A yard like this is more comfortable than most people know.” The second paragraph begins: “Maggie will be nervous until after her sister goes [. . .] She thinks her sister has held life always in the
palm of one hand” (2469). The story starts with Mrs. Johnson’s narration of her
own state of mind and of Maggie’s. She presumes to know Maggie’s thoughts, but
does not make the same presumption about Dee’s thoughts: “I used to think she
hated Maggie, too. But that was before we raised the money, the church and me,
to send her to Augusta to school” (2470). At one time, Mrs. Johnson thought she
knew her eldest daughter’s mind, but it has become clear that Dee’s notions are unknowable. Thus, the distance separating the reader of the story from Dee’s thoughts
cannot be overcome in the course of the narrative because we have no other perspective besides Mrs. Johnson’s. This distance culminates in the conflict between
Dee and Maggie at the story’s end, which, like suspicious reading, is incredibly one-
Antagonized by the Text 45
sided until Mrs. Johnson jumps in and defends Maggie. In this confrontation, Dee
is pitted as the ferocious attacker against a meek and mild innocent, and her best
qualities are ultimately overshadowed by her treatment of her mother and sister.
If we spend all of our critical energy antagonizing the text we may, in fact, come
to some important and revelatory conclusions regarding the ending of this story.
Before returning to the city, Dee digs through an old trunk in her mother’s bedroom and comes out asking for two quilts that had been “pieced” by Grandma
Dee and then quilted by Mrs. Johnson and her sister. Maggie drops something
in the kitchen and slams the door. Mrs. Johnson explains that she is saving the
quilts for Maggie’s wedding, and Dee gasps in shock, “‘Maggie can’t appreciate
these quilts!’ she said. ‘She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday
use’” (2474). Mrs. Johnson defends Maggie and asks what Dee would do if she had
them, to which Dee responds that she would “hang them.” This one short passage
is as rich as any novel, and contains multitudes of invitations and provocations
for suspicious reading. Following the critical conversation, my own impulse is to
point to this passage as a moment in which three racist and sexist molds are shattered. Mrs. Johnson, Maggie, and Dee can each be read as stereotypical archetypes,
easily recognizable in the literary history of the United States. Mrs. Johnson is a
twentieth-century mammy, master of her domestic domain, all but unaware of the
world beyond. Maggie is the downtrodden “yes woman,” forever subservient and
acquiescent. Dee is the loud and abrasive woman who does not know her place and
eventually gets what is coming to her. These stereotypes seem to suggest the three
roles available to black women in the 1970s.
A successful antagonism of the text thus reveals that “Everyday Use” has set a
complex narrative trap, building up these troubling stereotypes only to tear them
down in the end, and revealing Dee as hero, not villain. Mrs. Johnson stands up
to Dee at the story’s end in a fulfillment of her recurring dream in which she is
as quick-witted and confident as Johnny Carson on The Tonight Show. She is not
the Aunt Chloe or the Dinah of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. When Maggie urges
her mother to let Dee have the quilts, the reason behind her acquiescence is that
she can remember her grandmother without them, and perhaps even more telling
is the fact that she “knows how to quilt” (2474). Maggie has the power to piece
together the history that these quilts represent. She can literally write history
through quilting. Dee, despite the demeaning treatment of her mother and sister,
is, in fact, capitalizing on what she describes to Maggie as “a new day for us” (2475).
Her desire to “hang” the quilts speaks to her attempts to document the legacy of
slavery in her own life much as a curator might in a museum, creating a distance
that enables her to move beyond the oppressive aspects of this heritage. “Spatially,”
Scott Romine contends, “the story is organized as a home invasion perpetrated by
a cultural tourist,” and thus Dee’s poor treatment of her mother and sister is likely
46 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
to cause readers “to miss how the narrative surreptitiously carves out a space and a
logic for the hung quilt” (118). What Romine’s insight reveals is that the characterizations of Mrs. Johnson and Maggie do not create as much of a drastic “aha!” moment as does that of Dee. Any insight that we are likely to miss creates a heightened
sense of satisfaction when it is stumbled upon. It should come as no surprise, then,
that Dee’s character has received so much attention because it is Dee who seems the
most unappealing and yet has perhaps the most striking virtues.
When we stop to consider why our antagonism of the text produces such a
revelatory reading of Dee’s character, what becomes clear is that the narrative has
generated this epiphany by cultivating a rationale and hatred against the prodigal
daughter throughout the story. In other words, the very fact that the revelation of
Dee’s virtues seems, well, revelatory demonstrates that the text is structured in such
a way as to provoke readerly suspicion. The text antagonizes its reader, it seems, by
masking Dee’s virtues beneath an arrogant and self-centered exterior. Rather than
recognizing the text’s agency, however, the critical conversation has ripped off the
mask and focused on the triumphant discovery of Dee’s merits (Whitsitt, Farrell,
Romine). Dee’s defense is absolutely essential to a productive reading of the text,
and so we must credit the critics who have identified and championed Dee’s better
qualities. However, what must receive equal attention is the mask of unlikability
itself. In fact, the language of “mask” is doubly deceiving here because Dee does not
pretend to be arrogant or self-centered. Her character is genuinely unlikeable. Our
disdain reaches its climax in the final moments of the story in which Mrs. Johnson
and Maggie are relieved to see Dee go as she “put[s] on some sunglasses that hid[e]
everything above the tip of her nose and chin” (2475). Aversion turns to pity as
Maggie smiles “a real smile, not scared,” and Dee’s self-aggrandizement seems
laughable even in the eyes of the most pitiable character in the story. The text nurtures contemptuous feelings for Dee from beginning to end, and yet it seems we
as readers and critics have ultimately decided to overlook her characterization because of what she represents. Dee is a strong, independent, beautiful black woman,
who blazes her own trails and makes something of herself outside her home. But
if the answer to the question “what does the text want us to think and feel about
Dee?” can only be that it wants us to detest her, then I propose that we allow the text
even more latitude by asking why it would want us to hate Dee.
Rather than mistrusting the text or trying to see past the masks it has supposedly put on, this line of inquiry looks at the surface, notices that the story is arranged to make us feel badly toward Dee, and asks “why?” The answer is straightforward and not at all inconsistent with the suspicious readings that raise Dee up
as champion of black women. The text wants us to dislike Dee because it wants us
to dislike the strong, independent, beautiful black woman who blazes her own trails
Antagonized by the Text 47
and makes something of herself outside her home. The path-breaking dimensions
of Mrs. Johnson’s and Maggie’s characters are shrouded by cognitive and affective
reactions in their own rights, as we will see in just a moment, but the strength of our
aversion for Dee renders the agency of the text to antagonize its readers especially
palpable. Dee is surely a hero in this story, but reveling in our ability to see past the
deplorable behavior that mystifies her best qualities is to allow the suspicion of the
text to run away with better judgment. After all, the narration of the story prevents
us from identifying with Dee’s point of view and consistently characterizes her as
domineering and inconsiderate. How can we extol this character when she does
not seem to be a very good person? She cannot be praised at all in terms of how
she treats her mother and sister. Even her moment of big sister advice for Maggie
is tainted by condescension: “You ought to try to make something of 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” (2475). In many respects Dee is right, and perhaps this bit of guidance is well-intended, but by this late point in the story, giving Dee the benefit of
the doubt is all but impossible. The text has rendered us complicit in thoughts and
feelings of enmity toward this strong young black woman who wants to transcend
her oppressive past and make a new day for herself.
Although it is Dee’s character that incites the most overt reactions and has
drawn the most critical attention, Mrs. Johnson’s and Maggie’s characters also
invite readerly complicity in troubling ways. In stark contrast to the disdain we
feel for Dee because of her autonomy and bravado, her mother and sister come
across as exceedingly sympathetic, when, in fact, they are each independent and
strong in their own ways. While a suspicious reading might uncover Mrs. Johnson’s defiance of conventional gender identity with her “man-working hands” and
Maggie’s power to write black history through quilting, such an approach may not
be as attuned to how the story asks its readers to paper over these qualities by provoking our sympathy. Mrs. Johnson’s narration betrays a certain naivety that renders her character humorously endearing. When Dee’s boyfriend exits the car with
a friendly, “Asalamalakim,” and she explains to her mother that she has changed
her name to Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, Mrs. Johnson struggles with the new
vocabulary: “Well, soon we got the name out of the way. Asalamalakim had a name
twice as long and three times as hard. After I tripped over it two or three times he
told me to just call him Hakim-a-barber. I wanted to ask him was he a barber, but
I didn’t really think he was, so I didn’t ask” (2473). In this moment, the narrator
is like a child telling a story while two adults exchange knowing looks over her
head. When we chuckle at Mrs. Johnson for replacing Hakim’s name with Asalamalakim, or for even thinking to ask about his occupation, we pat her on the head
and look past her more frame-breaking characteristics. The text provokes a patron-
48 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
izing stance toward Mrs. Johnson that makes readers accomplices in overlooking
the ways we create and perpetuate the stereotypes that a merely suspicious reading
If sympathy for Mrs. Johnson becomes patronizing or even condescending, then
the sympathy the text elicits for Maggie results in a kind of righteous indignation.
Mrs. Johnson first describes Maggie by posing a rhetorical question directly to her
audience: “Have you ever seen a lame animal, perhaps a dog run over by some careless person rich enough to own a car, sidle up to someone who is ignorant enough
to be kind to them?” (2470). The question requires no answer because the assumption is that most people feel sorry for those who cannot defend themselves. When
Dee and Hakim first arrive, “Maggie attempts to make a dash for the house” (2471).
She is shy, perhaps even scared of her sister. Thus, when Dee begins to poke around
the house for artifacts to take back to civilization, her desire for the quilts that
Mrs. Johnson has been saving for Maggie’s wedding is the last straw, not only for
Mrs. Johnson, but for readers as well. Dee’s exclamation that Maggie cannot “appreciate” the quilts and that she would be “backward enough to put them to everyday
use” rouses us to Maggie’s defense. Rather than listening to Maggie when she says
that Dee can have the quilts, we are now angry enough to know what is best for
Maggie, and to take up her case as though she were entirely unable to defend herself. In fact, as Mrs. Johnson points out to Dee, Maggie knows how to quilt. She
does not need our sympathy or virtuous anger. By inciting these reactions, the text
makes us complicit in subordinating Maggie’s power to her more stereotypical persona as a shy, fearful black girl who knows her place. She has the authority to create
the kind of history that Dee wants to hang on the wall, and yet we feel righteous in
our impulse to defend this poor girl from her sister.
Conversely, the lack of fellow-feeling for Dee leaves two clear conclusions. First,
what sets Dee apart from her mother and sister is that she leaves home, gets an
education, and makes a conscious effort to distance herself from the racial oppression that has determined her past. Second, the ways in which she accomplishes this
separation are represented as ungenerous, hostile, and arrogant, eliciting feelings
of disdain in readers of the story. Thus, it is easy to empathize with Mrs. Johnson
and Maggie, but to empathize with Dee is nearly unthinkable. Why would the text
want to cut its reader off from the only black female character who has Dee’s good
qualities? The best answer is that it wants us to recognize our own simultaneous
feelings of fealty toward two black women whose stereotype-defying traits surface
within the familiar confines of the domestic sphere, and feelings of hostility toward
a black woman who ventures beyond those boundaries. The text wants us to despise Dee so that we despise our own prejudices and ask ourselves: why do I hate
the only black woman who tries to “make something” of herself? It wants us to participate in masking Mrs. Johnson’s and Maggie’s heroisms. A reading that attends
Antagonized by the Text 49
to the antagonistic agency of the text opens affective responses of guilt, culpability,
and even anger that might otherwise be smothered under personal satisfaction or
The guilt and culpability incited by Dee’s characterization through her mother’s
point of view are unambiguous. I feel guilty for disliking an empowered black
woman and for associating strength and independence in a black woman with arrogance, selfishness, and meanness. After all, when a man, or perhaps a woman
with different identity markers, comes across as strong or autonomous, do I always
imagine him or her in a negative light? At the same time, I feel angry at the text for
provoking these feelings through what seems a clear case of entrapment. When my
students and I first discussed our frank feelings regarding Dee, many were upset
that the story seemed to “make” them hate her and then condemn them for doing
so. Our conversation took place during the political season in which “gotcha journalism” was the talk of the twenty-four-hour news cycle, and students drew comparisons between this brand of questioning and the structure of “Everyday Use.”
The term that kept rising to the surface of our discussion was “fair.” Many students
insisted (and I admit I felt the same way) that it was not fair for Dee to be characterized as both self-starting and unlikable. This protest was meant to suggest that it
was not fair to the reader. The students and I felt that we had been alienated, taken
advantage of, and that it was not fair to us for the story to antagonize its reader in
this way. Now, we can add to the list of feelings elicited by the story: guilt, culpability, anger, and exploitation. The reader may feel exploited by the text, but this
lack of fairness is a paltry mirror for Dee’s situation. We might answer the question
of whether or not it is fair for the text to make us feel guilty and culpable with yet
other questions: Is it fair that the black woman who fits Dee’s aspirational description has more often than not been represented as arrogant, selfish, and mean rather
than strong, industrious, and focused? Have such representations been the products of limited and biased perspectives as is the case with Mrs. Johnson’s narration
of her daughter’s visit? Is it fair that Mrs. Johnson’s and Maggie’s atypical traits get
shouted down by our sympathy and self-righteousness?
These questions mark the outer limits of reading the surface of the text as opposed to plumbing its depths. I have described “what the text says about itself”
(Best and Marcus 11), and all that is left for the literary critic is to respond in kind to
the text, to extend the dialogue. Whereas a suspicious reading lifts the stereotypical
masks off of each character in the story, attending to the agency of the literary work
makes us mindful of the ways in which we participate in masking each character’s
traits. Walker’s story compels me to reconsider the ways I read and react to racialized and gendered norms in literature and in culture more broadly. This text raises
the questions: what roles are deemed acceptable for African American women in
contemporary United States culture? Are these roles similar to or different from the
50 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
roles of most white women, black men, white men, other racialized groups? How
have these roles evolved over time? Perhaps asserting that the text should be read
as an attempt to expose and alter assumptions about black women in United States
culture seems too simple, but who could counter that such assumptions, among
others, are not a serious problem? If “Everyday Use” can effect some change of
mind and behavior in this regard, then it is not only an antagonistic agent but also
a monumental work of fiction.
And yet, the story does not provide clear-cut answers to any of these difficult
questions. As Dee and her boyfriend drive away, Mrs. Johnson’s final narration refuses to leave us with a tidy moral: “After we watched the car dust settle I asked
Maggie to bring me a dip of snuff. And then the two of us sat there just enjoying,
until it was time to go in the house and go to bed” (2475). Dee has just left in a huff,
although she does attempt to exhort her sister, and now Mrs. Johnson and Maggie
close the story in complete contentment. Perhaps a suspicious reading might be
able to conclude with a final revelation, but a reading that attends to the literary
work’s antagonism is mindful of the ways in which creative writing, “in having
to embody ideas and recreate the world [. . .] cannot merely produce ‘one way’”
(Christian, “The Race for Theory” 75). We are left to dwell on our disdain for Dee
and our sympathy for Mrs. Johnson and Maggie. I am pleased that Mrs. Johnson
and Maggie can sit there “just enjoying” in spite of the rough encounter, but then
I also wonder whether this contentment is the result of willful ignorance or of a
quiet confidence. What is the literary critic to do with these thoughts and feelings?
The very existence of literary criticism is a testament to the agency of the literary text. Every treatment of Walker’s story, including my own, is an utterance
that marks what Bakhtin calls a “change of speaking subjects,” which “presuppose[s]
other (with respect to the speaker) participants in speech communication” (71–
72 original emphasis). When critics speak to or write about texts, therefore, these
utterances mark a change of speaking subjects as the text “relinquish[es] the floor
to the other” (Bakhtin 71). If the text is an active participant in the dialogic exchange of literary criticism, then our hermeneutic approaches to literature must explicitly account for the cognitive and affective responses they produce as, at least in
part, products of the text’s actions upon the reader. Barthes was not far off the mark
in his desire to displace meaning from the text itself to the symbolic realm, nor was
Fish in his argument that the text does not exist “independent of interpretation”
(Barthes 16, Fish 358). Both critics suggest that the experiences of reading and interpretation are constituted by the interplay of critic and text, but such approaches
tend to shine the theoretical spotlight on the critic to the exclusion of the text. The
purposes of calling attention to the ways in which critics are antagonized by texts
are simply to examine the roles of the works whose contributions have been largely
Antagonized by the Text 51
overshadowed by their more outspoken counterparts, and to demonstrate a way
of reading that accounts for the affective, as well as the intellectual, pleasures that
works of literature offer their readers.
u Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary
1 See Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading: or, You’re So
Paranoid, You Probably Think This Introduction Is about You”; Rita Felski’s “Suspicious
Minds”; and Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus’s “Surface Reading: An Introduction.”
2 In literary studies the enterprise of demystification came of age with what Paul Ricoeur
calls the “school of suspicion,” where the senior professors were Nietzsche, Marx, and
Freud: “Fundamentally, the Genealogy of Morals in Nietzsche’s sense, the theory of ideologies in the Marxist sense, and the theory of ideals and illusions in Freud’s sense represent three convergent procedures of demystification” (34). Best and Marcus, Sedgwick, and Felski all look to Ricoeur’s Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation
(1970) for an historical account of the rise of the hermeneutics of suspicion.
3 Felski offers four non-antagonistic ways of reading in her self-styled “un-manifesto”
Uses of Literature (2008). Best and Marcus offer six ways of “surface reading” that largely
eschew antagonism in their introduction to a special issue of Representations entitled
“Surface Reading: An Introduction.”
4 See especially Jameson’s political charge to literature in The Political Unconscious.
Best and Marcus offer an illuminating explanation for the force and consequences of
Jameson’s theory in “Surface Reading: An Introduction” (1–3).
5 For one of many diagnoses of the humanities crisis, see Robert Weisbuch’s essay “Six
Proposals to Revive the Humanities” in The Chronicle of Higher Education 26 March,
1999 B4–5. For a social science study of the problems in higher education including specific details regarding the plummeting enrollment in the humanities, see Richard Arum
and Josipa Roksa’s Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses. Felski
argues that the dominance of suspicious reading “testifies to the increasing pressures of
professionalization and the scramble to shore up academic authority: the hermeneutics
of suspicion, after all, assigns a unique depth of understanding to the trained reader or
theorist, equipped to see through the illusions in which others are immersed” (“Suspicious Minds” 218).
6 “Context Stinks!” provides a different approach to examining the agency of literary
texts. Felski works in conversation with science studies scholar Bruno Latour and his
brand of Actor-Network-Theory to present the text as a “nonhuman actor [. . .] to place
people, animals, texts, and things on the same ontological footing and to acknowledge
their interdependence” (583).
7 Near the beginning of “The Affective Fallacy,” Wimsatt and Beardsley point out that they
see themselves as “exploring two roads which have seemed to offer convenient detours
around the acknowledged and usually feared obstacles to objective criticism, both of
52 The Comparatist 37 : 2013
which, however, have actually led away from criticism and from poetry” (31). For Wimsatt
and Beardsley, it seems possible for the critic to arrive at a position of unbiased objectivity,
a critical stance that is somehow free of affect or concern with any form of intention.
8 Lest we misunderstand Bakhtin as merely addressing speech, he clearly explains that
“everything we have said here also pertains to written and read speech, with the appropriate adjustments and additions” (69).
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