The traditions of a family serve to help create the collective identity of that family. For some people, this is a benefit because it helps them find their own sense of morals and ethics and allows them to enter the larger world with some of the basic questions of life already answered. To some people however, the pressures of the familial culture can be an inhibitor of their individuality as their own inner sense of what is appropriate is counter to the rules put to them by their family’s traditions. The influence that the family has on the individual seems to be up to the individual; they have the option of living up to the customs and traditions of their family or in rejecting those customs and accepting an identity altogether different. The two types of traditional influence can be seen in various short stories from American literature including Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” Margaret Walker’s poem “Lineage,” and Seamus Heaney’s “Digging.”
In Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” two sisters exhibit the difference between family tradition and the intrusion of other cultural influences into a family dynamic. The two sisters at the heart of the story are very different; one, Maggie, is a traditional girl who has stayed with her mother throughout her life and has only an ambition of marrying and beginning her own family. The other sister, Dee, is the complete opposite. Her world is much larger and so her personality is different. She has been influenced by an education and with the ideas of the new set of people, so much so that there is very little left of her that indicates her upbringing. Dee has never been comfortable with the values of her family members and has spent her life trying to divorce herself from their principles and live in a way that she believes to be better than her kin. When she arrives home, she and her male friend have both embraced an identity for themselves where they take on attributes of what they perceive is traditional Africanism. The conflict comes to a head when Dee attempts to take some quilts which have belonged in the family for generations. Dee sees them as artworks; as pieces to examine as further proof of her new identity but Maggie and her mother use the quilts for blankets. The girls’ values are entirely different and it is evident from the text that mother and Dee will never be as close as mother and Maggie because their values are too different. When a person breaks away from the perspective of the family unit, it can be difficult to communicate functionally ever again. That does not say that Dee is right in breaking away but that her view of the world is simply different and that this is a consequence of separation from familial tradition. In Walker’s story there is either accepting of family and all its positives and negatives, or a total breaking away from those values and a formulation of a unique identity that it not necessarily for the better. She does not seem to allow for a middle ground.
The narrator of Margaret Walker’s “Lineage” is separated from the actions of her ancestors or as she calls them her “grandmothers.” This voice is reflecting back on the people who came before her and in comparing herself to those ancestors she finds herself lacking. Her grandmothers were able to use their muscles and work in the land. They were physically strong and by extension mentally strong because they were able to perform these labors in order to support their families without giving way to despair over their own retarded ambitions. Unlike her grandmothers, this narrator does not believe she is living wholly. The scents and sounds she equates with the grandmothers indicate lives that were fully lived. She however, laments that she is not strong like her grandmothers. It is unclear if she is despairing because she has not lived up to her potential, or if she is emotionally weak, but she looks upon herself as less than those who came before. This can be an important part of familial custom and tradition because it is common that if someone in your family was powerful or had achieved some level of success either in the home or in the larger world, the pressure will be upon you to match their success or indeed surpass them. It is clear that this narrator does not believe herself capable of this and has given up.
Unlike the other two narratives which deal with the pain of differentiating between traditional family customs and the individual, Heaney’s work is focused on the happy combination of tradition and ambition. Seamus Heaney’s poem “Digging” has a narrator who is watching his father from his window where he is writing while his father performs manual labor in the garden. The narrator’s father gardens with his spade just as other members of their family did before them. They are a family of diggers, of men who work with their hands, until the narrator who is different. This narrator realizes that he is different from the men in his family in that he writes rather than labors manually, but he also relates to them because he says that he will use his pen to dig; that is to say, he will do his work with his pen but with the same skill and dedication as his forefathers. He shows that you can respect the traditions of his kinsmen without following directly in their footsteps. The narrator honors his family tradition by working hard rather than by doing precisely as they did.
The three different works show different perspectives on the conflict of heritage and individuality. The stronger a person’s familial culture, the more pressure is upon the individual to agree with that culture and take part of it. Alice and Margaret Walker seem to think that the customs of the family must be taken up or else a person risks isolating themselves from the family. Heaney on the other hand believes that a person can embrace the virtues of the family while still obtaining their own individual identity.
James, Missy & Alan P. Merickel. Reading Literature and Writing Argument. 5th ed. Upper
Saddle River: Pearson-Prentice Hall, 2013. Print.