Though Alice Walker’s ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ is a meditation on forgiveness and its power, its autobiographical content naturally leads the reader to question what, exactly, is being forgiven. This curiosity arises from the strange context of the forgiveness that is granted. Certainly, it seems that grief and sadness would be the primary expressions expected of a widowed woman sitting beside her husband’s body. Deathbed forgiveness is the realm of the priest, of last rites and the dying man’s repentance, none of which are in evidence in the poem. What has transpired between husband and wife that forgiveness, rather than grief, is at the forefront of this deathbed scene? This question is somewhat erroneous. It is important to note that Willie Lee’s wife does not actually forgive him. Instead, she bids her dead husband ‘‘good night,’’ addressing him as she does in the title of the poem. It is the poem’s speaker, Walker, Willie Lee’s daughter, who ascribes this statement with its meaning. In this sense, it is not necessarily Willie Lee’s wife who forgives but his daughter who does so in her mother’s stead. It is this relationship between father and daughter that bears examining.
The basic autobiographical facts that inform ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning’’ are relatively apparent. Walker’s father was named Willie Lee, and he died in 1973. The poem addressing his death was first published in 1975. In her biography Alice Walker: A Life, Evelyn C. White goes so far as to claim that Walker’s mother, Minnie Tallulah, actually spoke the title phrase over her husband’s casket during his funeral. Yet, the tragedies that befell Willie Lee, and his daughter Alice, inform the poem far more than these dry facts. When Willie Lee was eleven years old, his mother was shot in the chest before his eyes. When Walker was eight years old, she was accidentally shot in the eye with a BB gun. These two events would forever alter Willie Lee’s relationship with the women in his life. As a child, Willie Lee attempted to protect his mother from his father, Henry, an abusive alcoholic who did not love his wife, Kate. Henry kept a steady mistress for several years. Kate, in turn, later did the same. Yet, her feelings of guilt led her to end the affair. Shortly afterwards, while Willie Lee was walking with his mother, her former lover accosted them, begging Kate to resume the affair. When she refused, he shot her in front of her eleven-year-old son. Bleeding in her son’s arms, Kate asked Willie Lee to undo her corset, and the boy was forced to undress his mother in order to do so. Kate died the next day. Two months later, Willie Lee’s father decided to hire a young girl to work as a nanny and cook for the family. Henry was forced by propriety to marry the girl. Thus Willie Lee’s mother was summarily replaced by a woman who was barely older than Willie Lee’s eldest sister.
The scars from this event became painfully evident when Willie Lee’s daughter Ruth, Walker’s older sister, began to mature into a woman. Willie Lee felt that Ruth was too interested in boys, and he routinely beat her and kept her locked indoors. Beneath this brutal treatment lay Willie Lee’s fear of the repercussions that awaited Ruth’s perceived promiscuity. Walker, naturally, resented her father for his actions toward her sister. Thus, his behavior caused a rift in his relationship with both daughters. Yet, despite his overly protective instincts toward Ruth, Willie Lee simultaneously encouraged his sons to date as many women as possible, promoting the typical double standard that admonishes women for their desires while applauding men for theirs. Additionally, Willie Lee’s sexism was apparent in all aspects of his life; he firmly believed that housework and cooking was women’s work, and he and his sons did not help around the house. This was a typical attitude at the time; yet, the hypocrisy of a man subjugated because of his race, who in turn subjugated others on merit of their gender, was not lost on Walker. She often discussed this fact in various interviews and articles. Black American Literature Forum contributor Philip M. Royster quotes one such article from 1975, published the same year as ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning.’’ According to Royster, Walker states, ‘‘I desperately needed my father and brothers to give me male models I could respect, because white men . . . offered man as dominator, as killer, and always as hypocrite. My father failed because he copied the hypocrisy.’’
Aside from the scars of Willie Lee’s traumatic childhood (and their bearing on his role as a father and husband), Walker’s own traumatic childhood experience further changed her relationship with her father. At the age of eight, while playing Cowboys and Indians with her brothers, Walker was accidentally shot in the eye with a BB gun. Fearing their father’s anger, the children delayed telling their parents about the injury. When they finally did so, Walker lied about it, claiming she had walked into a wire that had poked her in the eye. These circumstances, brought about by the fear her father had instilled in her, likely contributed to the permanent loss of sight in Walker’s right eye. Walker’s parents subsequently treated her for the injury at home,and she only saw a doctor after she developed an infection and a high fever. The doctor told the family that he could save Walker’s eyesight for two-hundred fifty dollars. Though that seems a small price to pay in the early twenty-first century, the Walker family’s annual income at the time was three-hundred dollars. Walker’s brother Bill borrowed the money, but the doctor cheated them and Walker did not regain her sight. In fact, she was left with a disfiguring scar. Later, when Walker was fourteen, Bill again took on the role of caretaker, paying for an operation to have the scar removed.
This incident underscores Walker’s fear of her father, but more importantly, it underscores Willie Lee’s inability to provide adequate care for his daughter. Royster makes much of this fact in his Black American Literature Forum article. He notes that ‘‘Walker, as a child, naturally expected [Willie Lee] to be her protector, her comforter, her inspiration, her rescuer,’’ adding that, ‘‘undoubtedly, one should not expect an eight-year-old, gripped by the physical and psychic trauma of impending blindness, to cope with the imperfection of her father.’’ Yet, as Royster notes, this problem was compounded by Willie Lee’s tenuous position in the Jim Crow South. He claims that ‘‘Walker plays the role of a victim who has become angry and bitter because the person she expects to rescue her is himself a victim (as well as a persecutor).’’ It took Walker several years to understand and forgive her father, and he died before she did so. Royston observes that Walker’s ‘‘hardheartedness towards her father prevented her grieving for him until quite a while after his death.’’ He also quotes a remark Walker made in 1975, when she stated that ‘‘it was not until I became a student of women’s liberation ideology that I could understand and forgive my father.’’
Walker’s struggle to forgive her father may be why the speaker of the poem must put the words in her mother’s mouth. For instance, Thadious Davis, writing in Alice Walker: Critical Perspectives, Past and Present, inadvertently points out this peculiar approach by describing the poem’s ‘‘tone’’ as being evoked by ‘‘the civility of the mother’s voice and the compassion of the daughter’s thought.’’ Certainly, this statement emphasizes the true source of the poem’s act of forgiveness. Consequently, because of this indirect approach, one could infer that Walker was not yet fully able to forgive her father, though she may have known that she needed to. Or, at the very least, she knew that Willie Lee deserved forgiving. In ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning,’’ Walker does her best to grant that forgiveness, regardless of its source. Despite the mother’s statement, or the daughter’s interpretation of it, the value of the forgiveness that is granted remains the same. It is the sole means through which the damage people do to one another is repaired, and it also opens up the possibility of redemption, through which the spirit of the speaker’s father is honored. Davis notes that the poem thus ‘‘argues resurrection and reunion both in the here and now and in the hereafter where promised renewals and beginnings can occur.’’ Willie Lee’s presence and importance in the lives of his family members (as well as their love for him) are permitted, via this act of forgiveness, to overshadow any past wrongs. Furthermore, they open the door to understanding and empathy; and this, perhaps, is the true purpose of the poem.
Poetry for Students, Presenting Analysis, Context, and Criticism on Commonly Studied Poetry, Volume 30, Alice Walker, Gale Cengage Learning, 2009
Leah Tieger, Critical Essay on ‘‘Good Night, Willie Lee, I’ll See You in the Morning,’’ in Poetry for Students, Gale, Cengage Learning, 2009.