1. She used to read to us without pity; forcing words, lies, other folks’ habits, whole lives upon us two, sitting trapped and ignorant underneath her voice. She washed us in a river of make-believe, burned us with a lot of knowledge we didn’t necessarily need to know.
Mama speaks these words in reference to Dee’s formative years, when she would return home from boarding school in Augusta, full of newly acquired knowledge that she would lord over Mama and Maggie. Rather than her daughter’s intelligence and accomplishments triggering pride in Mama, Dee’s schooling prompts fear and intimidation in her instead. Like the fire that destroyed the family’s first house, knowledge is portrayed as a volatile and unwelcome presence that threatens the home’s safety, simplicity, and stability.
Education is the means through which Dee rejects and belittles her family, thus leading to division and alienation. At the same time, knowledge is a provocation, reminding Mama of the exposure and opportunities she was never given. Mama gives voice to her resentment at her own stalled schooling and finds comfort in her physical strength and endurance. Infused with negative connotations, education is suggested as a destructive force that harms individuals by exposing them to worlds to which they will never really belong. Some are harmed or excluded by the struggle to acquire learning and are destined to be like Maggie, hanging meekly in the doorway of a room that she will never be able to enter, shut out from the ability to change. For Mama, this threat is as real and unwanted as a fire racing through the rafters.
2. 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 him? This is the way my Maggie walks. . . . She knows she is not bright. Like good looks and money, quickness passes her by.
Mama narrates these words as Maggie joins her in the yard to wait for Dee. In this brief quotation she bluntly characterizes Maggie as a pathetic figure who shows the effects of her sheltered life and disfigurement. Maggie’s crushed spirit and withering, withdrawn nature disappoint Mama, but she ultimately chooses Maggie’s simplicity and faithfulness over Dee’s shallow selfishness. Mama feels she is the protector of one daughter and the victim of the other. She dreams of the impending marriage that will relieve her of the burden of Maggie and leave her to a quiet life. On one hand, Mama’s brutal honesty and lack of illusions seem closely connected to her strength. At the same time, Mama’s honesty is also harsh. It dramatizes the subtle yet deep gulf that exists between Mama and her daughters. Whereas Dee represents a world of extreme change, Maggie relentlessly stays the same, an all-too-present reminder of the inequities of the past and present.