Published by Alice Walker in 1973, Roselily is a short story narrated through the lens of a preacher’s wedding sermon in third-person. The main character is a black woman, thinking about her hopes and fears as she is about to be married into a new life.
Roselily | Summary
The story starts with the introduction of the main character and the scenario- a woman named Roselily, about to be married on the porch of her house in her mother’s old wedding dress. She attempts to brush off the twigs and dry leaves, but it is in vain. She knows that her Muslim husband-to-be dislikes these things– especially the highway just near the house, giving the white passers-by a view of the wedding. And she also knows that he blames the lifestyle and upbringing in her home of Mississippi for all of it.
It is then revealed that she is from a black family living in the country, and already has three children. When she wishes for the briefest moment that she did not, she feels shame well up in her chest. It makes her look the preacher in the eye and try her best to believe in God, despite not being a woman of staunch faith. We come to know that the groom is Muslim, and she is expected to convert after the marriage. She thinks about how she will move with him to Chicago soon, a place that makes her think about cinder and soot. But she knows it will be a place for her to start afresh and build a life as someone respectable.
She then mentions her fourth child– living with his father in New England and having a successful life. However, his sophisticated upbringing made him unable to live with Roselily. She once again thinks about her upcoming future with her new husband, the changes she will have to make while following his religion. She thinks of her dead mother and old father, waiting in the yard. Watching her giggling younger sisters makes her feel old, and when she then remembers her late grandparents, it occurs to her that she believes in ghosts. She worries about the groom’s promises to her- a rested life in Chicago, staying at home and taking care of kids, and wonders how long she can live like that. She wishes she asked him to clarify back then, but she did not think twice, because she saw the proposal as an escape from her current life.
She does not think she truly loves her groom- she rather loves the way he loves her, the way she is revered. She loves his qualities- his severity and pride. Suddenly, the idea of marriage seems like a trap. She wants to live freely, and the yearning stirs in her the urge to push away the priest. In the end, the marriage is sealed. Her children look with interest at their new father, wondering about their new life– but Roselily’s now-husband stands a little bit away from the throng of family congratulating them. He knows they will not understand him, nor the fact that he is not Christian. When Roselily’s mind wanders to her future in Chicago, she feels ignorant at how little she knows of that place. And when she finally reaches out worriedly to hold her husband’s hand, he does not spare her a glance.
Roselily | Analysis
Alice Walker often uses elements of personal experience to craft her work, especially in relation to race and sexism. This story also tackles alienation, marriage, a longing for freedom, and questions of religion. It is structured carefully around a woman named Roselily’s wedding to an unnamed groom, with themes of the fear, hope and the nervousness that comes with change. An interesting addition to this piece is the use of marriage vows, which the preacher recites. For every line, a different door of Roselily’s thoughts opens up. Walker’s excellent description of setting, the fine balance between emotion, wanderlust and edge, and the broaching of several minute, sensitive topics through subtle detail is what makes this short story stand out. The stream of consciousness is also vital- this story flows like a person’s real mind and subconscious and conscious thoughts. Scattered. Sudden. Vulnerable. Emotional. Objective. All at once, with no exact structure.
The first line of the wedding vow is “dearly beloved.” And, befitting such a phrase, the scene for the wedding is described. The line “dragging herself across the world” foreshadows the upcoming discussion of her moving from Mississippi to Chicago– which, for someone who has never left the countryside, may seem like a world to her. The preacher’s next line “we are gathered here” is followed by the introduction of one of the main themes of the story- religion. The line signifies that the groom is of a different religion.
“She knows he blames Mississippi for the respectful way the men turn their heads up in the yard, the women stand waiting and knowledgeable, their children held from mischief by teachings from the wrong God.”
For a moment, she dreams she does not have three children- a thought that makes her immensely guilty. However, this flash of thought may be an inkling of her desire to start afresh, younger and ‘pure’– as is considered by religion. But the immediate guilt is, on the other hand, a sign of her emotionality as a mother and a caregiver. Those are two sides at subtle war with one another- the longing for freedom and the love for the family. The thought shames her so much that she attempts to look the preacher in the eye “as if she believes he is, in fact, a man of God.” We may assume from this that though her family is Christian (hence the Christian wedding) she, herself, is atheist.
“She thinks of ropes, chains, handcuffs, his religion. His place of worship. Where she willbe required to sit apart with covered head.” is the beginning of the next paragraph- the “covered head” hints that the groom is Muslim. The “ropes, chains” suggest that she thinks of this marriage, and the new rules she must follow, as something binding her to a pact, separating her from freedom. But then again, she is to move to Chicago, a place where she can become ‘respectable.’ Here we see thoughts of change and transformation– the new person she must become. Interestingly, in the same paragraph about “chains and ropes”, the preacher’s accompanying line is “to join this man and this woman.”
When she talks about her fourth child, we come to know of her previous husband who “Was a good man but weak because good language meant so much to him, he could not live with Roselily.” We come to know that she had been married before, and the son lives with his father. It also brings up the factor of alienation. It is possible that she often felt left out or left behind, which pushed her to want to become respectable in the eyes of society. She once again thinks of cinder, smoke and air– which she associates with Chicago- and “Wonders how this pressure finds its way into the veins, roping the springs of laughter.” Smoke and dust are grey and polluting, making it difficult to see and breathe. This may be symbolic of how she thinks about her new life in Chicago– hard to see through the smoke because despite all the promises, she does not know what her life will be like. Hard to breathe because of trapped suffocation, all the new rules she will have to follow, both with the changing religion and the very institution of marriage.
The preacher then says “If there’s anybody here that knows a reason why” and Roselily thinks that nobody knows anything. When she looks at her soon-to-be-husband, she doesn’t feel like she knows him. She “feels shut away from him because of the stiff severity of his plain black suit.” This is once again an exhibition of alienation. She feels that she does not belong in his world of sophistication. “His religion. A lifetime of black and white. Of veils. Covered head.”- this chant of thoughts makes it clear that her biggest fear is that of the smothering unknown. Full of expectations and limits. She wonders how to “make new roots,” which could be her way of wondering how to fit in with this future and imbibe herself with it.
When the preacher’s lines become those of the question of objection- “is there anybody who thinks these two should not be joined together?”- Roselily herself thinks of many reasons. She thinks of her younger sisters, more fit to be married, in her mind. She is aware that the groom sees her in a different way- sees her as someone fresh, who will rest and take care of his home. But she is worried, because she “cannot be a bride and a virgin forever.” This suggests that he has put her at a pedestal and has certain expectations for her, which now, thinking back, she does not find very practical.
She describes her quick acceptance of the proposal as impatience. Impatient to get away from the ordinary life, tired of watching “fathers of her children driving by, waving, not waving; reminders of times she would just as soon forget.” This line also brings notice to the fact that each of her children have different fathers, and are probably memories she wishes to leave behind. It may also be a nod to the societal expectation of women and what is ‘gracious’ in a bride. Often in society, especially in religious settings, brides are expected to be young virgins with no previous marriage. Roselily is none of these, yet the groom has given her romantic proposals and promises- the unexpected possibility of leaving behind her old life, as well as this chance to wear a robe and veil and be ‘respectably’ married despite her conditions could have been huge factors in the haste of her acceptance. Much of these expectations and stereotypes paint the picture of rampant sexism.
Roselily does not even know if she loves him:
She loves his sobriety. His refusal to sing just because he knows the tune. She loves his pride. His blackness and his gray car. She loves his understanding of her condition.
This gives an enormous insight to her feelings of being trapped. She loves that she has found someone who did not dismiss her because of her children and past lifestyle. Thinking about the way she does not truly love him creates a whirlwind of emotion in her- she longs to live, to be free. She likens herself to a trapped rat. This may symbolise the effect a marriage has on women compared to men– it is the women who are expected to conform, and who’s freedom gets taken away in favour of obeying the husband’s wishes. She is curious about her new life, but nervous about her new conditions. Her words: “The preacher is odious to her. She wants to strike him out of the way, out of her light, with the back of her hand. It seems to her he has always been standing in front of her, barring her way.” signify more than one thing- her sudden fear and unhappiness at the thought of being married, as well as her detachment to religion itself. Being an atheist brought up in a Christian neighbourhood, the priest seemed to be a constant reminder of what she did not believe in- once more, an element of alienation.
When the preacher declares “his peace” and their marriage is official, there is a pandemonium of cheering. This description of celebration is a representation of the entry into a new life. The groom stands “curiously apart, in spite of the people crowding about to grasp his free hand. He smiles at them all but his eyes are as if turned inward. He knows they cannot understand that he is not a Christian.” We already see that he is rather aloof, and we realise that the idea of Christianity was so normal in their countryside that they could not understand someone being of a different religion- this may make the readers wonder exactly how Roselily felt as an atheist in a religious community. how she came to that decision. Has her life always been about a subtle isolation?
As the story draws to a close Roselily “thinks of Lincoln, the president. That is all she knows about the place. She feels ignorant, wrong, backward.” It is once again an indication of how she does not feel ‘respectable’ and is also a direct link to the idea of isolation. It is only solidified when “She presses her worried fingers into his palm. He is standing in front of her. In the crush of well-wishing people, he does not look back.” She finally uses the word ‘worry’ after paragraphs of musing, yet he does not notice her emotion. The line “He is standing in front of her” symbolises more than just their literal position- she feels that he is miles ahead of her, in terms of education, knowledge and status. He seems almost untouchable, despite their now-married status, and she feels lonely and detached from his world– because for all his promises and proposals, he does not turn around to look at her.