A Southern Twist: Using Themes of Southern Fiction to Enhance “Silver Sparrow” by Tayari Jones
“Silver Sparrow,” by Tayari Jones, is a story told in the first person by Dana, the narrator, telling a story about her childhood while looking back as an adult. It takes place in Atlanta, Georgia during the 21st century, although specific dates are not known. Dana’s childhood and family life is somewhat rare; her father is a bigamist. Even at a young age, Dana had some understanding of bigamy. Throughout the story, Dana discusses the jealousy she feels for Chaurisse, her sister from her father’s legitimate marriage, even though Dana was born months earlier. Jones’ describes the pivotal interactions between Dana and her parents when they discuss the situation their family experiences. The climax of the story occurs when Dana finds out that she is part of her father’s secret family. Learning this causes Dana to become more jealous of her sister. However, the twist in the story happens when Dana learns why she should not be jealous of her sister. Gwendolyn, Dana’s mother, drives Dana to see Chaurisse and explains that Chaurisse “…was born too early so she has problems” (Jones 983). Gwendolyn tells Dana that Charuisse has no idea she has another sister and that they, Gwendolyn and Dana, are the only two people who know the truth about the situation.
This short story is comprised of several layers of traits that make it a work of southern fiction. “Silver Sparrow” weaves the southern setting into the piece, focuses the story around the relationships within a family, while touching on race and religion. The story has a twist within the plot that changes one’s feelings about the story. This twist is extremely important because it makes “Silver Sparrow” an exemplary work of recent southern fiction; the greater significance from this story comes from the twist Tayari Jones introduces at the end of the story.
This paper will look at the way different characteristics of southern fiction are present within Jones’ story. The role of setting descriptions, the focus on familial relationships, and the presence of race and religion within the work will be discussed. After, this paper will discuss the significance “Silver Sparrow” has as a work of southern fiction.
Southern fiction often depicts the southern setting through vivid imagery of flora and fauna, of the farms and rolling hills, and of the animals characters interacted with. Jones places readers in Atlanta, Georgia throughout “Silver Sparrow” in a different manner. Because this story takes place in the modern south, there story does not have descriptions of landscapes, farms, or dirt roads. The use of landmarks and street names show the modern twist Jones has put on southern fiction. Faulkner in Light in August and As I Lay Dying vividly describes the rural landscapes his characters live within and come across on their journeys and Faulkner and Hogan depict animals in their work to add to the setting of their novels. Jones does not do that. Instead, Jones uses the modern markers of setting to show the changes occurring within the genre of southern Fiction.
The “West End” neighborhood is used to describe an area of Atlanta where “one sect of the Back-to-Africa movement [was] headquartered” (979). The narrator, Dana, introduces several locations throughout the story: the store where her parents met (“Davidson’s downtown”) (979), the street her mother turns off of (“Gordon Road”) and the park across the street from Chaurisse’s school (“John A. White Park”) (983). While they do not necessarily add anything to the plot of the story, they do add to sense of authenticity of this work.
However, the theme of southern small town gossip is present in the story. Dana states: “if you spend any time in beauty parlors, you will hear the tales of new widows surprised at the funeral by the other grieving widow and her five kids” (979). Beauty parlors and barbershops are contemporary staples of communities in the south. They are locations where individuals gather together and are able to gossip among their peers. However, James, Dana’s father, dislikes the gossip that occurs within Atlanta. James says “Atlanta aint nothing but a country town and everyone knows everybody. You have to learn to keep yourself quiet” (982). James fears that Dana’s comments about Chaurisse and James’ other wife will be spread around town.
Like “The House of Usher” and As I Lay Dying, “Silver Sparrow” focuses on the relationships within a family. Dana describes the dynamics of her family, as she understood as a child: “In my mind, Chaurisse was his real daughter. I was just the outside child. With wives, it only mattered who got there first. With daughters, the situation was a bit more textured” (979). This “textured” relationship between Dana, her father, and his two families is explored throughout this story. Through Dana’s narration, we learn about each character and the past of the family. This first person narration is similar to the narration in As I Lay Dying but we only receive the views of one character instead of numerous. Dana describes the role of her mother within their family dynamic:
There are other words, I know, to describe a woman like my mother and when she is tipsy, angry, or sad, she uses them to describe herself: concubine, whore, mistress, other woman. There are just so many and none are fair. And there are nasty words, too, for a person like me, the child of a person like her, but these words were not allowed in the air of our home (Jones 979).
Dana does not view her mother as a “mistress” or “other woman” but tells readers the way her mother views herself under specific circumstances. Gwendolyn shapes Dana’s point of view about their families relationship even as an adult: “I have to agree with my mother that a lot of people suffer from a failure of imagination. They think there is only one right way to do things, only one right way to be happy” (980). Throughout the story Dana defends her mother’s actions. Gwendolyn shakes Dana to make sure she understands that they need to openly communicate. Dana says that the shaking “wasn’t a big deal” and that “she shook [Dana] a little bit…not enough to scare her” (983). Out of context or without Dana’s narration, readers could view this action as slighly abusive but Dana reassures readers that it was not her mother’s intention. Dana states that “it’s hard to be a mother” and she saw herself as “just a smaller version of” Gwendolyn (983). Dana admires her mother and the strength her mother maintains while living a secret life.
Dana’s narration provides information about her feelings of her father. Her father dislikes when Dana calls him “sir” because it makes him feel like “an overseer” (981). However, after learing that Dana is the secret child and not Chaurisse, James allows Dana to call him sir. We learn that James gives Dana two-dollar bills when he is proud of her and she receives these after learning that she is the secret (982). We sense James’ guilt for explaining the relationship to Dana and he gives her $6. Additionally, Dana recounts learning she is a secret after her and her father return to the dinner table. Dana thinks to herself “You are the secret. He’d said it with a smile, touching the top of my nose with the pad of his finger” (982). Replaying James’ actions helps reiterate that he thinks it’s something cute and minor while Dana is troubled by it, replaying the situation over in her head. As readers, we are able to form an opinion of James. Dana does not say that she is mad at her father for the conversation but she replays the action that distrubs her and changes her mood.
These depictions of the other characters in “Silver Sparrow” are very similar to the depictions of characters within As I Lay Dying. Narrators in both stories do not say that they dislike the actions of the other characters but they do specifically continue to comment on specific actions. The Bundren children never say that they think of Anse as a bad person but they do comment on his actions which lead readers to see him in a particular light. Dana admires her mother’s strength and constantly praising her. Conversely, Dana never states that she’s mad at her father. Because she dwells on their conversation and replays his actions, readers are able to form their own view of James because of Dana’s focus. Narrators do not outwardly state which their feelings about other characters but they do comment on actions and support decisions; this is a theme within works of southern Fiction.
Themes surrounding race and religion are present within “Silver Sparrow” but are not reoccurring within the plot of the story. Dana describes her teacher, Miss Russell, as “a white lady” and “the only white person [she’d] ever seen” (980). Up until this point in the story, readers are unaware of Dana’s race. Learning that her teacher is the only white person she’s interacted with leads us to infer that Dana and her parents are black. Tensions involving race in the south are also introduced but not explored too heavily in this piece. Dana explains an incident that occurred with her classmate John Marc. He said “I never been over a nigger-house before” (981). Dana explained that the “air in the room stopped circulating…[she] knew something had gone horribly awry…[and she]…never saw him again” (981). Even though John Marc said his comment in “such a polite way,” the emotions and meaning surrounding the word “nigger” offended Dana’s mother (981).The inclusion of issues surrounding race add another southern fiction layer to the story.” Like Light in August, Power, “Desiree’s Baby,” and “The Appropriation of Cultures,” race plays a part in this story. Although the role of race is greater in the other pieces mentioned, race is clearly a reoccurring theme within works of southern Fiction.
Religion is another theme that is constantly present within southern fiction. While there is only one mention of religion in “Silver Sparrow” it carries a lot of weight because it occurs at the end of the story. After finding out that Chaurisse is unaware that she has a sister, Dana tells her mother “God knows everything” and her mother replies by saying “That’s true…and so do we” (984). The mentioning of God is important because it comes at the climax of the story. Dana no longer has reason to be jealous of her sister because she’s learned about her disabilities. Unlike her sister, Dana knows about her family’s situation. Religion is important enough within the life of Dana and Gwendolyn for Dana to liken her knowledge of the situation to the knowledge God has. Similarly, race is a large enough piece of southern Fiction for it to be mentioned in this short story twice. Unlike Jones, O’Connor was largely influenced by religion and it was present within the message of her works. Jones uses religion as a way for Dana to synthesize the information she receives at the end of the story.
This piece by Tayari Jones follows the plot trajectory of southern fictions. The story has rising action, climax, and falling action but climaxes again. This second climax or “twist” comes at the end of the piece and changes some of its meaning. It adds something unknown by the readers and characters earlier in the piece. In “Silver Sparrow” Dana learns that she is the secret child which is the climax. The twist occurs when Dana learns that Chaurisse has health problems and has no idea that Dana exists. We do not learn about Dana’s reactions to this information as a child or as an adult recalling this exchange with her mother. This is similar to the ending of “Desiree’s Baby” where we learn about the heritage of Desiree’s husband and that is of mixed decent. Without this piece of information , the meaning of the story changes. We sympathize for Desiree because she wrongfully left; she is not the only reason to blame for having a mixed race baby. Additionally, Anse Bundren in As I Lay Dying surprises readers by returning at the end of the novel not only with his new teeth, but with a new Mrs. Bundren which further proves that Anse is selfishly motivated. This twist does not only occur to add additional drama to these stories, it adds deeper meaning to the work.
Without the twist that occurs at the end of “Silver Sparrow”, readers would feel the same way Dana did at the beginning of the story; they would sympathize with Dana because of the relationship she cannot openly have with her father. Readers would also feel torn because of the bigamy that occurs. Since it is something irregular in mainstream society, it would be hard to accept and support the relationships James has with both of his families. The twist, however, allows Dana, and the readers, to feel bad for Chaurisse and her situation instead of feeling bad for Dana. The readers are able to accept the story as strange or different because of the bigamy but no longer feel bad for Dana. While we do not know what happens in the rest of Dana’s life, readers are able to move on after seeing Chaurisse because of the additional information provided.
The second climax, or twist, that occurs in southern Fiction also allows readers to see themes within “Silver Sparrow” and learn lessons. Granted, various stories teach lessons, this piece is not written with an agenda to sway readers to believe in bigamy or support it. By seeing the challenge Dana faces because of her family and then seeing her realize she should not be jealous of Chaurisse, we learn to accept the things we cannot change. Additionally, we learn to not be jealous of others when you do not know their situation. This story teaches acceptance of one’s life and situation. While we’ve learned to ask “What’s wrong here?” while looking at southern fiction, Tayari Jones uses the nuances of southern Fiction and adds her twist to it. Not only do readers ask “What’s wrong here?” while reading the story but these lessons and themes lead readers to ask questions like: What is normal?, What makes a family?, and Should one feel jealous of another without knowing the full story? Because of the many dimensions of southern fiction, readers can take away many lessons and ask questions about their own lives.
Jones, Tayari. “The Outside Child.” Callaloo 30.4 (2007): 979-84. Print.
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