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The Custom of the Country
Edith Wharton, Linda Wagner-Martin
Anna Karenina
Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories

The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories - A really rich collection of short stories by Caribbean writers. Though not containing the magic realism evident in some of the stories, Olive Senior's short story, "Do Angels Wear Brassieres?" plays on the theme of rebellion, prevalent in much of the collection.

The story's protagonist, Beccka, studies the Bible, not because she is devout, but in order to fight back against the righteous, stifling form of religion Aunt Mary and the other women represent. For Beccka, language is power. In the beginning of the story, Beccka’s rebellious ways are already evident. When she prays—and includes a criticism about her Aunt Mary—her mother, who is too weak to take a stand on behalf of Beccka or against Aunt Mary, immediately begs her daughter not to cause trouble. Aunt Mary and the other women speculate that Beccka is possessed by the devil. They hope Beccka will pass the scholarship exam and be sent to a boarding school to “make them teachers deal with her” (306).

Beccka retaliates by doing the three “wickedest” things a woman can do: dressing up in Aunt Mary’s clothes and then admiring herself in a mirror, taking a drink, and dancing all night. In contrast, Aunt Mary runs around in frenzied preparation for the Archdeacon, who may stop at her house. The fact that we’re told that the Archdeacon is an Englishman is significant. Clearly, Aunt Mary wants to impress this representative from dominant culture. Aunt Mary’s biggest worry is that Beccka will embarrass them. Ironically, the Archdeacon comes into the house because he finds Beccka so charming.

Once inside, Beccka gives the Archdeacon a series of Bible riddles. Beccka’s knowledge and her clever riddles make him laugh but also make him uncomfortable. The riddles put them in a position of equality; the Archdeacon realizes he must be the person in power and, after restoring his dignity, tries to turn the conversation to more serious matters. When the Archdeacon asks Beccka, who will soon be confirmed, if she needs any religious clarification, her question is not what he anticipates. Beccka asks, “Sir, what I want to know is this for I can’t find it in the Bible. Please sir, do angels wear brassieres?” (310). We never learn what the Archdeacon’s reaction would have been because in the ensuing commotion (Aunt Mary’s outrage, the dropped tray, spilled water, etc.), the Archdeacon slips out of the house.

Although the story is often humorous—even hilarious—Beccka’s desire to escape points to larger issues. Rather than feeling honored by winning the scholarship, Beccka has no desire to go to “no boarding school with no heap of girl” (311). Beccka assumes the girls at the boarding school will be more of the same, i.e., stifling, subservient, righteous, judgmental, traditional, and so forth. All of the women in Beccka’s life have either been weak (like her mother, Cherry) or judgmental and hypocritical (like her Aunt Mary). The women blame Beccka’s character on her father, the only positive role model Beccka seems to have had. Her father “pack her up” (306) in books, in recognition, perhaps, that knowledge would be Beccka’s key to freedom.

When Beccka’s runs away, she encounters a “father figure” in the form of Mr. O’Connor, her best friend, because “he is the only person Beccka can hold a real conversation with” (312). Above all, Beccka seems to prize honesty. Mr. O’Connor takes the news that Beccka is running away in stride and points out that by running away without money, her escape is going to be difficult, if not impossible. He offers a way for Beccka to return and still “save face.” Rather than return home in defeat, Beccka can return home and “wait” until she’s saved up enough money to “finance” her “journey” (313). Mr. O’Connor senses that Beccka will feel more empowered if she sees her return simply delaying her escape, rather than canceling it altogether. As she agrees to return home with Mr. Connor, Beccka also comforts herself by thinking of all the ways she’ll be able to stump the girls (and the teachers) at the boarding school.

Still seeking the truth, however, Beccka poses the same provocative question to Mr. O’Connor that she gave the Archdeacon: “Mr. Connor, do angels wear brassieres?” Beccka, no fool, realizes the question’s shock value lies in its tying sexuality to religious figures. Mr. Connor’s answer is practical and funny and completely dissolves Beccka’s intent. Quite simply, he answers, “Well Beccka, as far as I know only the lady angels need to” (313). Rather than chastising Beccka for blasphemy, as the women surely would have done, O’Connor simply answers the question. Beccka's delight stems from a number of factors: the question has been answered honestly, there is no religious hypocrisy, and she has been treated like an equal.