Things don’t always work out for a family of three young girls and their mother living in suburban Washington, D.C. Their father has walked out on them and their mother can’t read or write, but she challenges the status quo when she sends her eldest daughter to school to receive the education that she never got. In his short story, “The First Day,” Edward P. Jones uses literary techniques such as vivid imagery, symbols, and the theme that uneducated people value education more than educated people to show that the girls and their mother are trying their best.
Vivid imagery is prevalent throughout the story in many instances, all as a result of the narrator, who is the eldest girl in the story, having flashbacks to experiences that she had as a child and comprehending them as an adult. The detailed descriptions of her surroundings begin in the first paragraph when she divulges that her scalp “tingles” because her hair has been braided so many times, and that she can smell the faint scent of “Dixie Peach hair grease,” which holds some sentimentality to the narrator because she finds the fragrance soothing. Another scent which is soothing to the narrator is “the stingiest bit of her gardenia perfume,” which her mother anointed her to wear for her first day of school.
This is significant because it recalls memories to both the narrator and her mother because the perfume was a present from her father, who “disappeared into memory,” which can leave the reader to guess that he abandoned their family, which made their lives even harder, yet they still wear the perfume and remember him by it. The author also uses symbols to convey metaphors of how the narrator really felt about her experiences. In the first paragraph, the speaker tells about how her mother was “plaiting and replaiting,” which makes it seem as if she is only fixing the speaker’s hair, but also stands for something much deeper.
This is a symbol of the trials and tribulations that the speaker’s mother has been through that have not held her back. For her daughter, she tries and tries again until everything is as perfect as she can make it, despite having a broken family and lacking the education for a job. The speaker’s next bold metaphor, also in the first paragraph, relates her shoes to her revelation about her mother. She says that her “shoes are [her] greatest joy, black patent-leather miracles, and when one is nicked at the toe later that morning in class, [her] heart will break.” She means that her relationship with her mother is like her new shoes because they get along perfectly and she is totally dependent on her. When she finds out that she is going to school to learn to read and write, she also learns that her mother, who she looks up to most, cannot even read and write.
This breaks her trust in her mother because the girl wants to be like her mother, but her mother never went to school. She is somewhat disappointed that her mother never told her that she was illiterate. The central theme to this literary work is that people with educations take them for granted when people who didn’t get to go to school would have appreciated them much more, which is shown as the story unravels. The story begins with the daughter leaving for her first day of school, saying that this happened before she “learned to be ashamed” of her mother, implying that she was taught to think that her mother isn’t intelligent. Later on, it is revealed that she becomes ashamed of her mother because she learns that her mother cannot read or write.
Her mother is insistent that she should go to Seaton Elementary School, which is across the street from Mt. Carmel, the church that the speaker has attended for “as many Sundays as [she] can remember, perhaps even Sundays when [she] was in [her mother’s] womb,” because the church harbors feelings of safety for their family, and even sustains the mother in her dark times. Through her mother’s actions, it is revealed just how much she really cares about her daughter getting the education that she never did.
The speaker’s mother tells her “you gonna go there and learn about the whole world,” showing that she is excited for her to have a better life because she’ll go to school. According to the speaker, she learns that her mother doesn’t let people push her around very often, but the more respectable the person, the more likely her mother is to let them talk down to her. Then, she goes on to say that “teachers are rather high up in her eyes,” which points directly to her desire for education. Her mother respects teachers very much because they give the gift of learning, which is a gift that she has never received.