Study Guide

"Elethia" Characters in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down

By Alice Walker

"Elethia" Characters

Elethia

Eagle Eyes

The eponymous heroine of the story, Elethia is a young woman who takes a job in the kitchen of Old Uncle Albert's restaurant and notices something hinky about the lifelike "dummy" in the window.

It's Elethia's careful listening to the stories from the old-timers that helps her put two and two together to work out that the dummy is REALLY UNCLE ALBERT'S DEAD, STUFFED BODY.

Okay, we'll calm down now.

Brave "New" World

Once Elethia and her friends do their good deed, Elethia is never, ever the same. It's like she gets a form of PTSD: she feels paranoid about every noise and always looks over her shoulder— maybe someone wants to come after her body, too?

But the most astonishing thing about Elethia's experience is how her vision of the world changes. Suddenly, it has become a more sinister and dangerous place for her and her friends. She begins to see the real bodies of minorities populating museums:

She discovered some of the Indian warriors and maidens in the museums were also real, stuffed people, painted and wigged and robed, like figures in the Rue Morgue. There were so many, in fact, that she could not possibly steal and burn them all. (Elethia.8)

We don't know if Elethia really knows that these figures are real bodies. But she has the feeling that they are. After Uncle Albert, any perverse thing is possible, right? We get one tiny clue from Walker, who tells us that as Elethia grows and moves on in life, she sees Uncle Alberts everywhere: "Elethia was especially disheartened to find Uncle Alberts in her textbooks, in the newspapers and on t.v." (Elethia.16).

So Uncle Albert has become shorthand for something much less concrete: he's the smiling Black man put on display by white culture to reinforce stereotypes of "the happy slave." (Check out "A Letter of the Times, or Should This Sado-Masochism Be Saved?" for more on this). And on that note, Walker leaves us with this last telling detail about Elethia: "And she was careful, no matter how compelling the hype, Uncle Alberts, in her own mind, were not permitted to exist" (Elethia.19).

Elethia, then, has learned a valuable lesson. She's had to rely on the memories of the old-timers to keep her perception of slavery and oppression clear in her mind, but having had the experience of Albert Porter to guide her, she's not going to buy into the stereotypes that keep the country from moving forward in its thinking about race.

Uncle Albert Porter

Albert Porter is a Black man of local legend. His "stuffed likeness" winds up in the window of Old Uncle Albert's, a whites-only restaurant in Elethia's town. The older Black folks who had known Albert in his real life hail this "effigy" as a kind of celebrity.

Except it turns out that the "stuffed likeness" isn't some kind of wax figure—it's Uncle Albert's real body, stuffed and preserved after his death as if he were a bear or a deer or something somebody shot on a hunting trip.

When Elethia makes her gruesome discovery, she takes action, and she does it because she knows important details about Albert from the gossip of the old folks. It's the story about Albert reclaiming the testicles of a lynched young man that convinces her to retrieve Albert's body: "Albert Porter was the one who took 'em down and buried 'em" (Elethia.12).

Albert clearly valued a person's bodily integrity, and Elethia thinks he deserves the same respect.

Albert's chutzpah shone through at other times in his life, too—and got him into a lot of trouble. His stubbornness, for example, got him beaten by his white masters. In fact, the only unnatural thing about the dummy in the restaurant window is that it has teeth: "…it do seem strange to see that dummy that sposed to be old Albert with his mouth open. All them teeth. Hell, all Albert's teeth was knocked out before he was grown" (Elethia.15).

It's this moxie and heroism that Elethia and her friends honor by removing his body from the window display.

Elethia's Friends

These are the guys who are up for the adventure of removing Albert Porter's body from the window of the restaurant and then hauling him off to the incinerator at the high school for "cremation." They are Elethia's "tight buddies" (Elethia.7).

Walker tells us that they "went into the army because they were poor and that was the way things were" (Elethia.16), while Elethia went on to college.