"Nineteen Fifty-five" by Alice Walker

23Dec04

In this short story, Walker relies on elements of blues music, specifically contrast and contradiction, in telling her tale. Through the two main characters, Gracie Mae and Traynor, Walker explores several dichotomies, including woman/man, rich/poor, and Black/white.

As the narrator, Gracie Mae creates the story, but also as a character she enables the telling of it. At the two main characters’ first encounter, Traynor remains inarticulate, allowing his manager to negotiate the purchase of one of Gracie Mae’s songs. The success of his recording leads to their future communication and the rest of the story. By buying Gracie Mae’s song, Traynor acquires a voice and thus a major part in the story. However, Traynor never seems to develop his own voice, but rather borrows Gracie Mae’s. In every performance of her song, he performs an imitation of her rather than an original rendition, and he never fully understands the meaning of Gracie Mae’s piece.

Traynor’s voice wavers and eventually is silenced in the story while Gracie Mae’s remains constant. She survives while everyone else seems to die: “Because just about everybody was dead…Malcolm X, King, the president and his brother, and even J.T.” And eventually even Traynor. Gracie Mae’s experience as a poor, Black woman is the enduring and universal experience, not Traynor’s life as a rich, white man. Traynor buys her gifts — tries to insert pieces of his experience into hers — that the reader never hears of again or that Gracie Mae sells. Her practicality trumps his opulence. Her emotions and experience that she put into her song resonate with Traynor’s audience in a way that his own words cannot. Even he thinks that his songs “don’t seem to be about nothing I’ve actually lived myself.”

A minor irritation: I really like Gracie Mae’s description and acceptance of her weight:

I’ll never see three hundred pounds again and I’ve just about said (excuse me) fuck it. I got to thinking about it one day an’ I thought: aside from the fact that they say it’s unhealthy, my fat ain’t never been no trouble. Mens always have loved me. My kids ain’t never complained. Plus they’s fat. And fat like I is I look distinguished. You see me coming and you know somebody’s there.

In comparison to Traynor, who gains weight as the story progresses, Gracie Mae’s size makes her steadfast, “somebody’s there.” Traynor’s struggle with his weight is involved with his struggle to find his identity. Gracie Mae comments on his appearance on the Johnny Carson show that he was “all corseted down” and he grows angry when the audience laughs at the sight of him trying to embrace a woman as large as Gracie Mae. Her acceptance of her size gives her the confidence and peace that Traynor never seems to have.

Here is where the irritation comes in. I don’t know what to make of the fact that Gracie Mae decides “I’ma git this shit offa me” and starts dieting at the end of the story. Not that I’m opposed to people wanting to be healthier, but it doesn’t quite seem to fit with the rest of the story.

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