Unlike the Disney movie adaptations that we all grow up with, the antagonists of fictional stories are not simply evil characters with shallow or superficial reasons as to why they turned to their dark ways. Many stories do not even have an antagonist at all with the role being exchanged by various characters and varying on the situation or events at hand. In the short stories of “Fiesta,1980” by Junot Diaz, “In the American Society” by Gish Jen, and “Everyday Use” by Alice Walker, the characters that are considered to be antagonistic are complicated characters who are dealing with specific insecurities of their lives. In order to deal with these insecurities, they overcompensate and mask their problems by controlling and oppressing those around them. The people that they control and oppress are the people that the antagonist can identify as being weaker or inferior in some way. Their antagonistic behavior is a manifestation of their insecurities and greatly affect their lives as well as the lives and actions of those closest to them.
The father in “Fiesta, 1980,” Ralph Chang in “In the American Society,” and Dee in “Everyday Use” were all dealing with distinct insecurities in their life. The father, Papi, in “Fiesta, 1980” was an immigrant, along with his family, from the Dominican Republic. When Papi first arrived in the United States, he was by himself and had to work hard to send money to support his family and for them to join him. The narrator’s description of his mother as their coming to the United States having “finally put some meat on her” highlights their poor background (Diaz 306). Papi not only had to work hard to make money, he did not have the company and support of his family. His status as an immigrant worker in the United States made him aware of the dichotomy and even tension between immigrants and non-immigrants. While he may have been treated as a dispensable entity at work, he was the patriarchal head of his family. The difference between the way he was treated at work and the way in which he was revered at home added to his insecurity because it showed him that he was not placed at the same value at all times. Because of this, Papi sought out his respect and true value with his family and relatives, even if it meant hurting or disrespecting someone.
The father, Ralph, in “In the American Society” also dealt with immigrant issues in the United States. As a Chinese-American immigrant, Ralph had come from a society and background of clear and set hierarchies. He describes his family as being very reputable and powerful in their village, often being the first ones that others turned to for help. The feudal system of China and Ralph’s family’s position in that society resonated heavily in his mind while living in the United States. Although he cherished various aspects of American life, including access to a higher education, Ralph had an inferiority complex because he expected to be treated in the same way that his family was treated in China. However, his entitlement and expectations of being highly respected and revered were unmet in the more egalitarian society of the United States, causing him to demand his veneration with the people closest to him.
Unlike the characters in “Fiesta, 1980” and “In the American Society,” Dee in “Everyday Use” dealt with racial issues more than immigrant issues. As an African-American woman from a poor family, Dee was the only one from her family who had the opportunity to continue her education to the highest levels. While in college, she was exposed to studies relating to race relations and acquired much knowledge about the dichotomy of African-Americans and whites in the United States. Although her education enlightened her to the rich history of her racial heritage, it also thrust her into the midst of racial hierarchy and tension of that time period. As a person who was pursuing a college degree and living in more urban areas, Dee was more likely to have to have dealt with bigoted and racist behavior and actions. She had to deal with the tensions of being an inferior group much more than her family in the countryside did. Because of this resentment, Dee took out her anger and tension by projecting the way that she was treated as African-American at that time on to her mother and sister.
The insecurities of the three antagonists were manifested in various ways. In “Fiesta, 1980,” Papi took out his anger and frustration as an exhausting immigrant worker on his family. As the head of his household in both financial and social ways, Papi flexed his muscle both figuratively and literally. He couldn’t demand the authority that he wanted in the workplace so he demanded it where he could: at home with his family. His demeanor was authoritarian and his children and wife often obeyed him out of fear of his verbal or physical abuse. The narrator, Papi’s son, describes his siblings and him as being afraid of their father’s actions if they did not act in a way that he approved, “We were all dressed by then, which was a smart move on our part. If Papi had walked in and caught us lounging around in our underwear, he would have kicked our asses something serious” (Diaz 306). They never protested his controlling behavior because he provided them passage to a better life as well as their basic needs. Papi would not hesitate to physically reprimand his children if they did not obey him or did something they knew they weren’t supposed to do. The narrator and his siblings were not even allowed to look into their father’s eyes lest he deem it disrespectful. This authoritarian behavior also extended to Papi’s wife. Although there were no indications of physical abuse, Papi treated his wife like one of their children. In an event where a husband would normally explain to his wife about their lateness or update them on what they were doing, Papi “just pushed past her, held up his hand when she tried to talk to him and headed right into the shower” (Diaz 306). In the scene in which the narrator and his family are at a party at a relatives house, the narrator describes his mother as shooting him a look that said, “Don’t stay long, that eye said. Don’t piss your old man off” (Diaz 311). She was glaring at her son to warn him about eating when there was a high chance that he would vomit in Papi’s car, which would in turn greatly anger him. Even relatives seemed to be afraid of him and were described as: “when she got to Papi, she froze a little, like maybe she’d seen a wasp on the tip of his nose, but then kissed him all the same” (Diaz 310). Papi’s behavior and mannerism took on machismo qualities even outside the house and the narrator goes on to say that “Papi’s voice was loud and argumentative; you didn’t have to be anywhere near him to catch his drift” (Diaz 311). Papi’s disrespect of his wife went even further than the way he talked or stayed silent with her. He was notorious to his own children for having an ongoing affair with a Puerto Rican woman. Papi did not give his wife her due right as a wife in both a religious sense or a social sense and went as far as taking his own children to visit his mistress. He did not seem to even care if they told their mother about the mistress and doesn’t even bother to talk about it with his children, despite their knowledge of the affair. The narrator foreshadows that Papi and his mother end up breaking up when he says, “I still wanted him to love me, something that never seemed strange or contradictory until years later, when he was out of our lives” (Diaz 307). He thought that he was entitled to see anyone he wanted to see and did not think it was important to explain himself, something that probably contributed to his separation from his wife and abandonment of his children.
In “In the American Society,” Ralph manifests his dissatisfaction with the American social system by treating his family and employees as inferior to him. Since Ralph is greatly influenced by the way in his he remembers his family being treated and yielding power in a feudalistic society in China, he is disappointed when this respect of him does not carry over in the greater American society. No one knew of his great past and in the United States and in the modern world, money earned the respect that was previously derived from honor. With his family, Ralph imposes filial piety and respect to elders, especially to the older men. Since his family consists of himself, his wife and his two daughters, Callie and Mona, he views himself as the head of the household. The narrator, Ralph’s eldest daughter Callie, describes their reaction as her little sister states she doesn’t care about her father’s opinion, “But of course, we all did care, and knew my mother could not simply up and do as she pleased. For in my father’s mind, a family owed its head a degree of loyalty that left no room for dissent” (Jen 295). Ralph completely transferred family dynamics of Chinese culture and applied it to his own family in the United States. Although he wasn’t being treated the way he wanted outside his house, he was sure to implement it where he could: with his wife and daughters. Just like Papi in “Fiesta, 1980,” Ralph’s family similarly did not dare to oppose him since they depended on him for their basic needs and respected him enough to show him the honor he wanted. They may have had different ways in which they wanted to express their respect for Ralph but obediently chose to show it in the way that he desired. During the last scene, the way in which the narrator describes the father walking in front of his wife and daughters is symbolic of him being the head of the family: “We were in a gulch, which made it hard to see anything except the gleam of his white shirt moving up the hill ahead of us” (Jen 305). Although the main reason that Ralph took over the management of the restaurant was to allow his daughters to get a college education, he still had sexist views about his daughters that may have been influenced by his life in China. When his daughter, Callie, was not doing something that he needed her for, Ralph states that what he needs “is a son” (Jen 300). He related strength and support with gender even when his daughters and wife had been his pillars of support all along. He even purposely wore stained clothing in order to “show how little he cared what anyone thought” (Jen 295). Ralph imposed his failed feudal system order on his employees as well. He was described in the story as demanding “a similar sort of loyalty of is workers, whom he treated more like servants than employees” (295). As his financial status grew, so did Ralph’s ill treatment of his employees. When his restaurant was successful, he saw this as a complete reflection of himself and ironically, he placed financial accomplishments as his basis for respect unlike the Chinese way of placing honorable deeds as its basis. Ralph would expect his employees to carry out tasks that weren’t in their job description just because he, as their boss, had asked them to do it. He saw himself as such a great person that the employee ought to be honored to be asked to pull weeds at his house or even scratch his back. Even when the employees complain to him about his behavior and later resign from their positions, Ralph ignores the issues as nothing relevant or caused by him. Even when he does help his employees, he does it in a very patriarchal way. “Those are my boys,” he says to his wife when she asks why he is working so hard to get them out of legal trouble (Jen 300). Ralph describes them as his boys and not his men because boys have a less mature and capable connotation than men do. His description of his employees as his “boys” displays his view of his fatherly- and by no means equal - protection over them. Ralph also saw himself as being above the law when he attempts to cajole and bribe a judge’s clerk into helping his employees get out of trouble. He saw his restaurant as being equal to a town or village in China and just as he had given bonuses or extra money to his employees in need, Ralph was also obliged to help out his employees in their legal troubles. Ralph was a man who wanted the advantages of being American - making financial gains and acquiring higher education - while also taking advantage of being Chinese. His mix of cultures cause his family to be finely cognizant of his opinions and desires while also causing him to not get along with his employees. However, this same autocratic behavior that stifled his wife and daughters and created discord between him and his employees was the same behavior that prevented him from being disrespected at their friend’s party. Ralph did not tolerate the condescending attitude and behavior that the guest-of-honor, Jeremy, and instead of going along with his drunk antics, threw his jacket in the pool in dramatic fashion and left. He thought of himself as too important to have his self-dignity and self-respect questioned in front of everyone. Ironically, what caused Ralph’s failure in running his business helped him walk out of the party without being humiliated or disrespected.
In “Everyday Use,” Dee was a character who saw her education and life experiences as enlightening her beyond the level of her mother and sister in the countryside. At first Dee was a decent individual towards her family and would read to them without judging them or looking down on them. As time passed and she began to prove herself in academics, she began to look down on her mother and sister as inferior in knowledge. Dee has a college education and has lived in urban areas, exposing her to much more than her mother and sister. The narrator, Dee’s mother, is cognizant of this dichotomy between them and displays her insecurity when she fantasizes about the way she ought to have been to make her daughter proud: “I am the way my daughter would want me to be: a hundred pounds lighter, my skin like an uncooked barley pancake. My hair glistens in the hot bright lights. Johnny Carson has much to do to keep up with my quick and witty tongue” (Walker 240). Dee has learned the history of African-Americans in the United States and thinks that she knows better than her mother and sister on how to honor their heritage and stand up for themselves. However, instead of educating them, she looks down on them and attempts to control them in the same manner that ironically, she learned that African-Americans as a whole were treated. One of the roots of education is the act of teaching. Instead of teaching her mother and sister what she learned, Dee uses education as a way of making herself seem better than them. Education is a metaphorical division between Dee and her family; ironically, however, she is actually more ignorant than them. Dee is a character who although has knowledge, does not realize how contradicting and hypocritical she is. She claims to be a cherisher of heritage by wanting specific objects from her family's history. However, she fails to cherish the true essence of her family's heritage by dismissing their way of life. While she accuses her sister, Maggie, of not being able to preserve the sanctity of the quilt that their grandmother made, her sister is the one that continues their grandmother's legacy. Maggie learned to quilt from their grandmother and also chews tobacco like she did. On the other hand, Dee has left the activities of her grandmother and family's lifestyle, ways, and culture and merely wants to preserve their superficial objects. Dee looks at her family heirlooms as superficial indicators of her heritage and family history. She specifically asks for the quilts that have not been “stitched with a machine on its borders,” in order to seem more authentic, even if it held just as much family value as the hand sewn ones. The manner in which Dee demands the quilts as well as the milk churn and bench display her entitled attitude towards her mother and sister. Dee takes Polaroid photos of her mother and sister “in their element” as if they are exhibits in a museum. If she hadn’t thought of herself as better than her mother and sister, she would have insisted on taking photographs with them and not merely of them. The setting of the story is significant for it is where Dee grew up and therefore a piece of her personal heritage. She fails to see this and sees it as something she wants to forget in order to progress. In the last scene, she makes a pitiful attempt at trying to get her sister to help herself and her mother out of improving their lives: “You ought to try to make something of yourself, too, Maggie. It’s really a new day for us. But from the way you and Mama still live you’d never know it” (Walker 246). This scene of their house with a dirt floor and old-style living did not affect Dee whatsoever and she continued to belittle their way of life and speak to them in a condescending tone. Dee knows that her mother and sister lack the education and even the heart to stand up to her so she attempts to control them and get anything she wants out of them. When she is shown resistance from her mother in acquiring the quilt, she resorts to putting down her sister, stating, “She’d probably be backward enough to put them to everyday use” (Walker 254). Dee did not see her sister Maggie as her equal or even close to it and consequently talked to her in that way. Dee even claims to have changed her name to an African name, Wangero Leewanika Kemanjo, in order to honor her heritage. Ironically, however, she was named after one of her grandmothers, which would mean that her name does carry historic value. Her name changing is yet another step that Dee takes in separating herself from her mother and sister. Dee’s male friend also makes an allusion to Islam, the religion that most slaves that were brought to the United States followed when he says, “Asalamalakim, my mother and sister!” to the narrator upon arrival (Walker 242). Dee’s friend’s verbal greeting was another superficial indication that they were both concerned with preserving their African-American heritage. Instead of being grateful for all they did to support her and send her to college, she does not cherish heritage is by not taking care of her family. Her mother, a person who is her link and living heritage, lives in a very modest home and has a back-breaking means of making a living. Dee seems to be well-off and even has a car, an allusion to her wealth and something that her mother mentions as "other" people having, yet Dee does not seem to help her or her sister out in any way. If she truly cherished her heritage, she would cherish her mother and sister and would strive to make their lives better. Instead of using her education and experience as an aspect that would allow her to help her family, Dee sees it as a vehicle to look down on her mother and sister and to control them in any way she could.
Papi, Ralph, and Dee in the stories of “Fiesta, 1980,” “In the American Society,” and “Everyday Use,” respectively, were characters who were much more complex than what their surface revealed. They were people who were insecure in specific areas and manifested their insecurities through oppression, abuse, infidelity, and disrespect to compensate for where they felt at loss. These antagonistic characters greatly shaped the stories and accompanying characters by either forcing them to act or behave in a certain way or even make them rise to the challenge of defying them.
Bibliography Diaz, Junot. “Fiesta, 1980.” The Hudson Book of Fiction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2002.
Jen, Gish. “In the American Society.” The Hudson Book of Fiction. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 2002. 294-305. Print.
Walker, Alice. “Everyday Use.” The Hudson Book of Fiction. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill, 2002. 239-246. Print.