Study Guide

You Can't Keep a Good Woman Down Dissatisfaction

By Alice Walker

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Story 1: Nineteen Fifty-Five

I married but it never went like it was supposed to. I never could squeeze any of my own life either into it or out of it. It was like singing somebody else's record. I copied the way it was sposed to be exactly but I never had a clue what marriage meant. (Nineteen Fifty-Five.92)

Traynor continues to fail at the emotional side of life. He can't put his experiences into words to write his own songs, and he can't seem to make a love connection that will fulfill him. It's this sense of isolation, Gracie Mae thinks, that leads to his "trouble" and early death.

I've sung it and sung it, and I'm making forty thousand dollars a day offa it, and you know what, I don't have the faintest notion what the song means. (Nineteen Fifty-Five.41)

Traynor can't wrap his mind around Gracie Mae's song, even though he's been performing it all over the world. As a result, his success is bittersweet: he has the money and the fame, but his inability to understand the song (not to mention his inability to write from his own experience) leaves him empty inside.

Story 4: The Lover

He had been rambling on about himself for over an hour and she had at first respectfully listened because she was the kind of person whose adult behavior—in a situation like this—reflected her childhood instruction; and she was instructed as a child, to be polite. (Lover.2)

The narrator of "The Lover" has had to endure all kinds of boring conversations with self-absorbed poets. Once again, she finds herself cornered by a pompous windbag at the writer's colony where she's gone to have some personal time away from family. She's willing to throw aside her hatred of windbags when she meets Ellis—who also drones on about himself—because he's going to help her fulfill her dream of taking a lover.

Story 7: Fame

She had seen her work accepted around the world, welcomed even, which was more than she'd ever dreamed possible for it. And yet—there remained an emptiness, no, an ache, which told her she had not achieved what she had set out to achieve. (Fame.11)

Andrea Clement White may be accepting her 111th major award, but she still feels like a fraud. On the outside, she's successful, but there are some personal goals she hasn't achieved. We never learn specifically what these are, but they still nag her. She also has to suffer fools in her role as a famous author, including fawning interviewers and hypocritical former colleagues who never wanted her to succeed but are willing to bask in her glow now that she's da bomb.

Story 10: Advancing Luna—and Ida B. Wells

But now there was a cooling off of our affection for each other. Luna was becoming mildly interested in drugs, because everyone we knew was. I was envious of the open-endedness of her life. The financial backing to it. (Luna.44)

Walker doesn't know what to do with Luna after her friend tells her that she was raped by a Black civil rights worker. She wants to sympathize and support her friend by acknowledging what happened. But she also wants to acknowledge that many innocent Black men have been accused of and punished for raping white women. In her perplexity, Walker sees herself moving away from Luna and Luna seeking solace in some unattractive habits.

Story 13: A Sudden Trip Home in the Spring

Sarah could not comprehend such wealth, and was always annoyed because Pam didn't look more like a billionaire's daughter. A billionaire's daughter, Sarah thought, should really be less horsey and brush her teeth more often. (Trip.22)

Sarah Davis has some interesting ideas about wealthy people—and what they shouldn't be. Unfortunately, suitemate Pam checks all the undesirable boxes: she isn't pretty, refined, or particularly talented. This bothers Sarah more than it probably should, considering how much she hates people seeing her through a list of assumptions.

Story 14: Source

It was the kind of shrug Irene was seeing a lot. There was…dissatisfaction in it; there was also acceptance. Missing—and suddenly, it seemed to Irene—was defiance. (Source.18)

Anastasia has just told Irene that her full pantry is courtesy of public assistance. She doesn't seem to feel as wounded in her pride about it as Irene thinks she should. Part of it, Irene knows, is that poverty has a way of sucking defiance out of people. That's not really an issue in Anastasia's case—her parents can support her. But she has given in to the feeling that she has lost control over her life.

An educational project into which she'd poured much of her time, energy and considerable talent was declared "superfluous and romantic" by Washington, and summarily killed; Irene began to long for every amenity the small, dusty Southern town she worked in did not offer. (Source.1)

Irene finds herself in a sad, sad place: her ambitious literacy program gets axed before it even has time to get off the ground. But it seems that she's more miffed that her efforts have been thwarted than that the women's ambitions have been cut short. Her ability to run away to San Francisco also highlights a major difference between herself and her students—she's able to quell her dissatisfaction by shaking the dust of that poor Southern town off her feet.

"However, looking as I look, black wasn't special enough. It required two hours of explanation for every two seconds of joy." She paused again. "And it was two seconds." (Source.174)

Anastasia tries to explain her decision to identify only as white in public. Irene doesn't really react to the whole "black wasn't special enough" statement—but she definitely identifies with the lack of joy part. It's not an ideal situation for Anastasia, but claiming whiteness allows her to focus on all the other potentially awful things in her life (her words, not ours).

They doubted their own personal histories and their own experience. The food […] was bad. Bologna and pork and beans and yellow, wilted slices of lettuce. Oversweetened lemonade that attracted mosquitoes. And there was the smell of clean poverty, an odor Irene wished would disappear from this world, a sharp, bitter odor, almost acrid, as if the women washed themselves in chemicals. (Source.24)

Irene recalls the less-than-ideal atmosphere of her adult literacy class. It was a hard experience for her since she had to deal with a lot of misery on a micro-level (crummy, half-rotted food, for instance). But she's dealing from the outside. At the end of the day, she can handle her fatigue by simply going away.

They were horrified if my friends were poor and black, disappointed in my taste if they were black and middle class, and embittered if they were white; where was my racial pride? (Source.162)

It seems that, growing up in a biracial family, Anastasia can't win. Outside in the world, "friends" don't know what to do with her: she's not "Black enough" for her Black friends, and she's too Black for white friends. At home, she encounters a different kind of exasperation: her parents are never satisfied with her companions. This intensifies her sense of never belonging anywhere.

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