Academic journal article American Studies

"I Did Not Learn Their Name": Female Characters in the Short Fiction of Ralph Ellison

Academic journal article American Studies

"I Did Not Learn Their Name": Female Characters in the Short Fiction of Ralph Ellison

Article excerpt

Discussion of the status of women in Ralph Ellison's fiction has been limited to the representations in Invisible Man. A number of critics have examined these roles, and a kind of consensus has emerged that such characters are consistently subordinate to the male figures. They serve primarily as maternal images or sexual objects. The commentaries often focus on subtle differences among the stereotypes. Thus, Carolyn Sylvander and Janet Overmyer point to Ellison's tendency to make the white female figures highly sexualized, while Yolanda Pierce and Ann Folwell Stanford note the function of Mary Rambo, who is a desexualized maternal image that must eventually be escaped; Stanford and Claudia Tate examine an excised narrative of Mary that is much more elaborate in showing her as an active figure. Finally, Tate interprets the characters as useful helpers despite their one-dimensionality, and she demonstrates that both white and black women aid the narrator in his search for identity. Mary Rohrberger labels all of the women as "automatons," a term that is consistent with the critical agreement that they are "invisible" in the text.1

However, no comparable analysis has been made of the female figures in the short stories; in fact, very little has been published on the stories at all in the last ten years.2 In these fictions, the overall representation of women is more complex than it is in the novel. These characters serve as stern mother figures reminding black boys of the rules of a racialized society, as initiators into the mysteries of sexuality and performance of gender, or as guides encouraging the development of responsible black manhood. In several cases, ambiguity or ambivalence is introduced that suggests the limits of male knowledge about the world, relationships, and identity. This essay focuses on several stories from the posthumously published collection Flying Home and examines the range of representations and their functions within the stories. Some of the works are the Buster and Riley narratives from Ellison's early career, in which two boys interact with adult women. In these stories, father figures are largely absent, so mothers and teachers are essential to shaping racial and gender identity. Other works take up romantic relationships in which the women, while having small roles in the story, are nonetheless key to the narrative. Still others have women provide historical perspectives. The argument I want to make is not that Ellison makes female characters the central figures in any of his stories but rather that these characters are crucial to the storytelling. This difference from the novel may well be the result of the brevity of the short story form and its usual focus on a particular set of circumstances and a limited number of characters. These conditions can intensify the nature of relationships in ways that a novel, especially one of the breadth of Invisible Man, does not need to do. Ellison's stories are about moments in the lives of his protagonists that produce, whether the main characters fully realize it or not, some change in their lives.

In two of the Buster and Riley stories, "Afternoon" (1940) and "That I Had the Wings" (1943), the mother figures are disciplinarians who allow their concerns with white people to determine their treatment of the boys. In the first of these narratives, Buster's mother (the women are seldom given names) berates him for failing to assist her in her work. He is made to feel ashamed and silently accepts his humiliation:

"Buster, where you been, you lazy rascal! You knowed I wanted you here to help me with them tubs!"

"I was over at Riley's, Ma. I didn't know you wanted me." "You didn't know! Lawd, I don't know why I had to have a chile like you. I work my fingers to the bone to keep you looking decent and that's the way you 'preciates it. You didn't know!"3

Buster explicitly relates her verbal attack to her difficulties with whites: "She was like this whenever something went wrong with her and the white folks. …

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