The Lottery and Other Stories Summary and Analysis

"After You, My Dear Alphonse"

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Mrs. Wilson, just finishing baking gingerbread, hears her son Johnny arrive home with his friend, Boyd, who is African American and a bit smaller than Johnny. Boyd is carrying kindling wood, and Mrs. Wilson reprimands Johnny for not helping his friend and invites Boyd to join them for lunch. Johnny and Boyd act naturally with one another, but Mrs. Walpole inquires about Boyd’s family with hesitation.

She inquires about the profession of Boyd’s father; when Johnny responds that he works at a factory, Mrs. Wilson assumes Boyd’s father is a manual laborer. In fact, he is a foreman. Mrs. Wilson questions why Boyd’s mother does not work, but is chastised when Johnny points out that she too does not work.

Mrs. Wilson displays extreme condescension towards Boyd’s sister, particularly when Johnny shares that Boyd’s sister hopes to become a teacher. “Mrs. Wilson restrained an impulse to pat Boyd on the head” (68). As the boys resume playing and talking to each other over lunch, Boyd teases Johnny that he can run faster than Johnny. Annoyed that Boyd and his family are just as successful and respectable as her own family, Mrs. Wilson offers Boyd secondhand clothing. Puzzled, Boyd very politely declines her offer.

Angry, Mrs. Wilson denies Boyd any more gingerbread and chastises him for being ungrateful. She insists that she is not angry, but only disappointed in Boyd’s attitude. The boys leave to go outside and play, but Boyd remains uneasy about Mrs. Wilson’s demeanor towards him. Johnny assures him not to worry, and they resume their activities, ultimately unaffected by Mrs. Wilson’s narrow-minded condescension.

Analysis

The setting of “After You, My Dear Alphonse,” like many of Jackson's short stories, is purely domestic. In fact, many of Jackson's atrocities occur in domestic settings—the more extreme racism in "Flower Garden" and the outright brutality in "The Lottery." To Jackson, domestic havens are not necessarily safe for their inhabitants. On the contrary, they render the underlying cruelties and evils even harsher, as the juxtaposition of what appears to be safe with what is in actuality harmful heightens the impact of the latter.

This story demonstrates how the subtle pervasiveness of racism may not result in outright violence and murder but can be equally harmful, particularly in small-town communities. As mentioned in the analysis for "The Renegade," Jackson herself struggled to adapt to the culture of the Vermont village where she spent much of her adult life. In this story, Mrs. Wilson is not only racist, but in displaying this attitude towards a mere child, she is also petty and small-minded. Her attitude affects Boyd's experience at her house and causes her own son to describe her as "screwy sometimes" (69). Boyd replies to Johnny that his own mother also occasionally behaves like Mrs. Wilson. This indicates that perhaps Boyd's mother is racist as well, which leads to the subsequent distinction between children and adults in Jackson works.

Mrs. Wilson's own son does not share her views; indeed, he cannot even understand the insinuation she makes about Boyd and his family. As in "The Intoxicated" or "Afternoon in Linen," Jackson's young characters often do not take part in the social constructions upheld by adults. Thus, Boyd and Johnny remain innocently unaware of Mrs. Wilson's ulterior motives in offering Boyd used items. At such young ages, they have not yet conformed to society's biases and conventions. They remain untainted of such potentially harmful biases, including racism, and are instead good friends.

The playful phrase (also the title of the story) with which the boys address each other frames the story. The title is an allusion to Alphonse and Gaston, a popular American comic strip, the characters of which were overly polite to one another. The boys' use of this joke indicates how they are unaffected by the adult world's upholding of narrow-minded views and bigotry. This inside joke is a symbol of Johnny’s and Boyd’s comfortable friendship. They enter the Wilson house together, repeating this phrase to one another. Even after the uncomfortable disruption caused by Mrs. Wilson's implicit racism, the boys exit the house with the phrase, thus indicating that they remain unmoved by her bigotry.

The allusion to the comic strip itself is also ironic. Again, the original comic strip described two overly courteous Frenchmen who are unable to complete any task, since they are constantly demurring to one another. In Jackson's story, however, Mrs. Wilson foolishly overcompensates for her racism by attempting to appear more polite than necessary, offering Boyd secondhand items. In another stroke of irony, however, Mrs. Wilson rudely snatches the gingerbread from Boyd when he attempts to eat more. Her efforts to be gracious and charitable only reveal her bigotry and bad manners.