Study Guide

"Nineteen Fifty-Five" Characters in You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down

By Alice Walker

"Nineteen Fifty-Five" Characters

Gracie Mae Still

Muse

Gracie Mae Still, Walker's first-person narrator, is modeled after Willie Mae "Big Mama" Thornton, the first woman to record "Hound Dog" (the song that led to Elvis Presley's fame). Gracie Mae herself has an admirer in Traynor, a white boy with dreams of being a star. Traynor is smitten with "the song" and has his rep buy it from Gracie Mae.

Gracie Mae is a big woman with strong opinions about Traynor's performances. She doesn't like the "nasty little jerk" he does from "the waist down" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.29) on the stage. (That's Elvis again.) But she can't deny that "the boy" (as she calls him) has got her song down pat. It's even a little bit creepy:

Well, Lord have mercy, I said, listening to him. If I'da closed my eyes, it could have been me. He had followed every turning of my voice, side streets, avenues, red lights, train crossings and all. It gave me a chill. (Nineteen Fifty-Five.30)

But this is the only time she feels uncomfortable about the arrangement. Gracie Mae doesn't really seem to mind the admiration, and she certainly doesn't mind the money, though she does mind some of the gifts. (Never give someone a 500-acre farm. Just saying.)

Chalk and Cheese, Sort Of

Traynor and Gracie Mae are an unlikely combo. He's a skinny white boy with feminine good looks (in the beginning), while she's a stately 300-pound Black woman. He's got a bunch of white fangirls mobbing him on stage; she sang in nightclubs about bad love.

But Gracie Mae calls Traynor "son" right away—and that even surprises her. She sees something vulnerable in Traynor that concerns her: it seems like he's being used up by his fans and his record company, who have no regard for his well-being. Typical.

Gracie Mae doesn't escape unscathed from her life, either. While she seems assured of herself as she is, there are hints that she's struggling, too. She calls her fat, for example, "the hurt I don't admit, not even to myself, and that I been trying to bury it from the day I was born" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.152).

We don't know the source of her hurt, though she does talk about the "good for nothing" men in her life. Was she affected by her lack of success in the music industry? Gracie Mae is tight-lipped about her own pain—even when asked point-blank by Traynor. And maybe that's her connection with "the boy": nobody really knows what either one of them is all about.

Traynor

Elvis Has Not Left the Building…Yet

Traynor is the Elvis character in this story. He's got the moves, the looks, and a pretty darn good voice, too—he just doesn't have the hardcore experience or the writing chops to pen a hit pop song. That's where Gracie Mae Still comes in.

We know from the deacon that Traynor loves Gracie Mae's music, and that he would do anything to know what her songs mean and where her ideas come from. Gracie Mae doesn't know what to make of Traynor when she sees him. He' s just a feminine-looking white boy who doesn't say much at their first meeting.

In fact, Gracie Mae says Traynor "looks like a Loosianna Creole" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.8), and the deacon explains that "the boy learned to sing and dance livin' round you people out in the country" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.12)—yeah, he's laying on the charm there. The point is that Traynor is an admirer. He sees Gracie Mae as the real thing, and he wants to share that with the world.

Like a Broken Record

Traynor moves on to fame and fortune just from singing Gracie Mae's song. And he loves that song—but he still doesn't understand it. He whines to Gracie Mae, "I've sung it and sung it, and I'm making forty thousand dollars a day off it, and you know what, I don't have the faintest notion what that song means" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.41).

But Gracie Mae tells him that he's got it all wrong. "Whatchumean, what do it mean? It mean what it says" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.42).

The point is that Traynor is overthinking it. Really, what Traynor is trying to do is find meaning for himself in that song, hoping it will define him in a way that he can't do just at the moment. But all his life, Traynor doesn't fully get the meaning of that song, no matter how many times he sings it. As a result, his sense of fulfillment is in the dumps.

Sometimes, You Get What You Need. Or Not.

Gracie Mae becomes a mother figure to Traynor. She tries to coach him through the meaning of the song and give him some life advice on the way. But Traynor's life gets sadder and sadder. He can't write his own songs. His marriage gives him no joy. Gracie Mae tells him:

"No need to grieve […]. No need to. Plenty more where she come from."

He perked up. "That's part of what that song means, ain't it? No need to grieve. Whatever it is, there's plenty down the line." (Nineteen Fifty-Five.94-95)

Traynor hangs on to that bit of common sense wisdom for dear life. But it's never enough. He knows that his whole act is a sham because what the audience really loves about his music is 100 percent Gracie Mae.

Only they don't want her. They want the Traynor package.

Traynor does grieve for the whole crazy, mixed-up situation. He wants Gracie Mae to be recognized, and he wants his fans to know the truth about his music so that they can love him for real. In a fit, he tells Gracie Mae, "You need an honest audience! You can't have folks that's just gonna lie right back to you" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.131).

But Traynor isn't going to get what he needs. Ever. And that's the tragedy of his death, as Gracie Mae sees it when she watches his adoring fans fuss over someone they never really appreciated.

"The Deacon"

This dude is Traynor's agent, the guy who gets Gracie Mae to sign her song over so that Traynor can cover it. Gracie Mae calls him "the deacon" because he's dressed up like a Baptist preacher.

He's also the whitest guy she's seen, complete with rabbit-pink eyeballs: "I'm thinking of those sweaty-looking eyeballs of his. I wonder if sweat makes your eyeballs pink because his are sure pink. Pink and gray and it strikes me that nobody I'd care to know is behind them" (Nineteen Fifty-Five.19).

Yeah, he's shady. And he's clearly out to rip off Gracie Mae. We can only imagine that the reason she gets any of what she deserves is that Traynor is on it. It's certainly not out of the goodness of the deacon's heart.

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