"The Survivor" is a relatively difficult narrative to follow, because it shifts between a present and a series of flashbacks set aside in italics. They appear as the protagonist, Jewel, remembers them.
Throughout her reminisces, Jewel keeps referencing a car crash. There is an indication that her abusive husband Paul might have died in a car crash that she survived, though it is never clear whether this is a literal or figurative event.
Jewel wakes up on a bus and is momentarily disoriented about her location. The narrative enters her stream of consciousness (but remains in third person) as she recollects on her past, which has been torn apart by domestic violence. The man sitting next to her tries to strike up a conversation about the weather, but Jewel ignores him and looks forward to seeing Grandmother Candy, who always cures her troubles. We learn that Jewel is nine months pregnant.
She remembers visiting Grandmother Candy (whom she sometimes calls Miss Candy) on her farm in upstate New York. During that visit, Miss Candy had showed Jewel pictures her (Miss Candy's) two former husbands, both of whom were unkind to her in their own ways. Jewel wanted to talk to Grandmother Candy about her own turbulent relationship with her husband Paul, but instead ended up discussing her (Jewel's) acting career.
Back in the present, Miss Candy picks Jewel up from the bus stop. Jewel thinks she feels her water break, but it turns out to be a false alarm. At Miss Candy's home, Jewel remembers how, after Jewel garnered good reviews for her first film, Grandmother Candy had promised her that she would have a successful career. She wonders if she is going crazy. Jewel thinks back to a time when she had to simulate delivering a baby as part of a film. She was having an affair with her director, Paul, the father of her actual child. It is ambiguous whether the pregnancy in this flashback is the same as the one Jewel is experiencing now. This memory is the first that suggests Paul was abusive. She also thinks of how Paul took his eyes off the road, another reference to the car crash that is never explained.
Grandmother Candy asks Jewel why it took her ten years to leave Paul. She does not respond, and Miss Candy adds that she is glad Jewel has come to her, and that she was worried when Jewel disappeared for a few months after leaving Paul. Miss Candy announces that Jewel’s loud, overbearing niece, Cathy, is coming to visit. Jewel remembers a time that Paul stayed in a hotel for a few days because he was disgusted by her severe morning sickness. After he left, she considered suicide.
Jewel next remembers a time when Cathy urged her to get back together with Paul, shortly after they broke up. To explain her opinion, Cathy had told a story about people who tried to fix a ruined stew, but only made it worse through their meddling. The people in the story eventually called a woman from Philadelphia, who threw out the stew and helped them start over. Jewel thinks about a story she once told Candy, about changes that were made on set while filming her movie. As Jewel daydreams about filming a scene on a boat, Cathy arrives.
Just as Cathy enters, Jewel goes into labor. Grandmother Candy and Cathy deliver the baby, and Jewel decides “to empty her head to get some room for something befitting the sea urchin now howling for her blood” (117).
Although “The Survivor” is thematically similar to Bambara’s other stories in its emphasis on feminism and poverty, its style includes a broad variety of experimental techniques. “The Survivor” is one of Bambara’s most impressionistic stories, as it includes stream-of-consciousness narration. It is also one of the few (the other being “Happy Birthday”) in this collection that are narrated in the third person. Interestingly, “The Survivor” and “Happy Birthday” are the darkest stories in this collection, both in tone and in subject matter. Students can discuss whether the third-person narration enhances the dark tone or provides the reader with distance and perspective on the characters’ misery.
Most of the action in “The Survivor” takes place in Jewel’s inner consciousness, and Bambara provides most of the exposition using flashbacks. Other stories in Gorilla, My Love – most notably, “My Man Bovanne” – also rely on flashbacks to reveal information about the characters. However, “The Survivor” is unique in that the majority of what we know about this story comes from Jewel’s recollections of past events. Bambara’s preoccupation with memory, and her use of structural experimentation, suggests that she may be influenced by Modernist writers such as Marcel Proust and William Faulkner.
This fragmented narrative adds a significant air of ambiguity to the story. It is worth collecting the story details in one place: Jewel is a film actress who had an affair with and later married her director, Paul. Paul was abusive, but she stayed with him, and became pregnant with his child. They had a period of separation, during which time Jewel was not in communication with her family for a while. At some point during this period, it is possible that she and Paul were in a car that crashed, and Paul died in that crash. It is arguable that Jewel mixes reality and fantasy in her memory - it would be in line with her career as an actress, after all. What this reading means is that whether the car crash happened or not is less relevant than what it means - she is a survivor of a bloody and brutal accident of a relationship, and must now learn to survive alone.
Throughout this story, Bambara uses imagery and setting to establish mood. Her detailed descriptions of the cold rain in the beginning of the story reflect Jewel’s troubled emotional state and her feelings of isolation. The weather descriptions also add an air of menace to the story’s atmosphere, because Jewel is in a weakened physical state due to her pregnancy. Bambara’s descriptions of the punishing cold lend a very real sense of danger to Jewel’s situation, which is consistent with the emotional and physical violence she experienced at Paul's hands.
In “The Survivor,” Bambara depicts pregnancy as a visceral and harrowing experience. Pregnancy in the 1970s was much safer than it was in previous decades. However, Bambara increases the suspense surrounding Jewel’s experience of childbirth by including several false alarms in which it seems like Jewel will miscarry or have the baby far from a hospital. These occur when she is standing in the cold waiting for Miss Candy to pick her up, and when she remembers the time she slipped while talking to Cathy. (At that point in the story, it has not yet been revealed that her conversation with Cathy about the stew is a flashback.)
The secondary characters in “The Survivor” reinforce the story’s emphasis on the difficulties of being a woman, and the ways that family and friends can help women overcome these obstacles. Like Jewel, Grandmother Candy has faced turbulence and abuse in her relationships with men – she has been married and divorced twice. Yet despite these problems early in life, Miss Candy has grown into an independent, nurturing figure. She functions as a model for the strong, altruistic woman that Jewel might become after she works through her own issues. Although Jewel dislikes her young niece, Cathy also demonstrates independence and a fierce devotion to her family. Even though “The Survivor” portrays a marriage gone wrong, it also demonstrates the way that a supportive family can help a person survive trying times. In this sense, the story’s message is similar to the messages of female friendship that appear in “The Johnson Girls” and “Raymond’s Run.”