Study Guide

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

by Fannie Flagg

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Analysis

Historical Context

The Great Depression
Flagg's novel refers to several historical eras, but primarily to the period after the café's opening, the summer of 1929. "By the way," reports Dot Weems on October 15, 1929, "is it just my imagination or are times getting harder these days? Five new hobos showed up at the café last week." The hard times she refers to are the result of what John Galbraith describes as a "fundamentally unsound" economy. A mere five percent of the American population receives thirty percent of all personal income. The booming economy is the result of an over-productive industrial sector. Two weeks after Dot Weems's report, the stock market crashes on "black Tuesday," October 29. Millions are thrown out of work, and soups made of dandelions and catsup pass for a good meal.

In the 1930s, people clog the highways looking for work, while overhead new airplanes are tested. The railroad business booms from all the travel. The Great Migration is in full swing as blacks move from the rural South to the factories of the North. Many who take to the road stay transient for a long time. Socialism becomes an acceptable ideology among the majority of people who are profoundly affected by poverty. Franklin Roosevelt is voted into office on the basis of his innovative social programs. The economy starts to hum again, but it is World War II and the boom years of Truman and Eisenhower, that brings prosperity to America and the world again.

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Literary Style

Episodes
An episode is usually a brief segment of action within a larger work, that can be separated from that larger work. It is similar to a parenthetical remark. The term comes from the Greek word epeisodion, meaning "following upon the entrance." In Greek drama, an episode occurs between choric songs. While the chorus began as an ensemble of fifty or more men, by the time of Christopher Marlowe (Doctor Faustus, 1604), the chorus had shrunk to a single man reciting a prologue and epilogue.

In Flagg's novel, there are several choruses and a multitude of episodes narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator. The most objective chorus is composed of news clippings. The other chorus is the exchange between Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode, who, in proper choric fashion, comment on the characters' heroic actions. In between the choruses, the stories of the people of Whistle Stop are filled in. Only by taking all three components together can the reader understand the full drama of Whistle Stop.

Comedy
Flagg, a successful comedian, utilizes humor in her writing. She does so in Fried Green Tomatoes to lighten the dark and depressing passages. Obvious examples include Idgie's stories or Sipsey's superstitions. However, comedy enables Flagg to cover very dangerous ground and successfully shows both sides of a conflict. The best example of this is the confrontation between Grady and Idgie. He tells her to stop selling to "niggers" and she confesses that she "ought to" just like Grady ought to stop cheating on his wife. This exposure of hypocrisy is possible only because it is done with a smile between two friends.

As Flagg told an interviewer: "Oh yes. I suffer from what most humorists do, a deep need to be taken seriously. And I have to grab her by the neck and shake her and say 'Oh, shut up,' just tell the story and stop preaching....

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Literary Techniques

Using transitions between past and present, Flagg presents her story in brief chapters comprising glimpses of action as remembered by Ninny Threadgoode in the 1980s or conveyed by an omniscient narrator. The first half of the book introduces readers to the setting and characters, providing clues about why a murder was committed; the second half focuses on resolving the mysterious murder. Supplemental information is provided in the form of contemporary newspaper columns from 1929 to 1969 penned by Dot Weems who comments about people and events in the Whistle Stop community. The reader is aware by the book's conclusion, though, that Weems omits crucial information to protect her husband Wilbur and his friends because of their questionable activities to cover up crimes. In separate sections the Slagtown News Flotsam & Jetsam provides clues about African-American members of the Whistle Town community, reinforcing the segregation of the era depicted. Each chapter is identified with a header indicating the source of information, location of action, such as the Rose Terrace Nursing Home and private homes, or geographical settings significant to the plot development and characterization, including Valdosta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; and Davenport, Iowa. References to real roads and services, such as the Old Montgomery Highway and radio station WAPI, make the story more plausible and identifiable.

This literary style welcomes readers into Flagg's fictional...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Ideas for Group Discussions

Set in the South, both during and after segregation, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe explores the role of friendships that transcend age, gender, racial, cultural, and socioeconomic limitations. Community and humanity are emphasized in a town where people are valued more than money and kindness prevents hatred from destroying individuals who are weak and defenseless.

1. Discuss how the inclusion of fictional newspaper articles to separate chapters complements the narrative by providing information and clues about the resolution of subplots and the primary plot. How do the articles interfere with the storytelling? Are the shifting scene dates between different decades confusing?

2. Is Ninny Threadgoode's narrative believable? Why should Evelyn Couch and readers accept Mrs. Threadgoode's account as the truth? What motivations might Ninny have to alter facts? Evelyn notices Ninny's inside-out dress, purple-dyed hair, and other hints of Alzheimer's disease. Does this influence readers' opinion of Ninny's veracity?

3. What does this book reveal about how racism has changed from the early twentieth century to the 1980s? In what ways have racial relations stagnated according to textual passages? What details, such as an African-American newspaper and soldiers, Clarissa's passing for white and ignoring her Uncle Artis, the whites-only laundry truck, and use of the freight elevator, enhance Flagg's literary style or...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Social Concerns

Fannie Flagg interweaves history and storytelling to create a fictional portrait of an imaginary rural community near her hometown of Birmingham, Alabama. A comedian, Flagg's sense of humor accentuates the absurdities and atrocities that her characters encounter as they achieve self-discovery. Creating a mystery in a nostalgic atmosphere, she introduces readers to social issues prevalent in the South during the twentieth century, as well as universal societal concerns. Having grown up near Irondale, the real geographical site that inspired her fictional setting, Flagg is acutely aware of racism and other regional problems plaguing Alabama. Her semi-autobiographical tale not only addresses historical events of which she was an eyewitness or were familiar to her family, but also demonstrates how some matters such as homelessness and ageism are timeless worries.

By provoking emotional reactions to her characters and plots, Flagg calls attention to persistent problems that permeate society throughout the United States. Racism is probably the most pressing concern of her characters. Although the Threadgoodes and their friends seem to be color blind, they are cognizant that others within their community and surrounding locales believe that blacks are their inferiors and should suffer unequal treatment. Most of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe is set prior to the Civil Rights Movement, with a substantial portion occurring during the 1930s Depression. The Threadgoodes would rather feed hungry people than accumulate a profit at their store. Idgie even risks imprisonment and possible death when she disguises herself as Railroad Bill to steal federal food supplies from moving trains to throw—even during a freak snowstorm, which emphasizes the desperation of that time—to starving people who live by the tracks. At Idgie's cafe, she and Ruth feed everyone who asks for food regardless of their color or ability to pay. Idgie also permits herself to be tried for Frank Bennett's murder to protect Sipsey whom she realized would not receive a fair trial from a white-controlled jury because of her skin color.

Flagg meticulously describes Slagtown, the African-American community in Birmingham, and Troutville, where blacks live adjacent to Whistle Stop but across the tracks so that members of both races can freely travel to the other side (unlike the black community of Gee's Bend, Alabama, which was isolated for decades from the town across the Alabama River until whites agreed to permit blacks to use their ferry). Subtle descriptions of laundry trucks with services-for-whites-only signs posted on their sides and comments about blacks riding in the freight elevators at department stores alert readers to everyday social injustices. More shocking is when blood-soaked Big George is refused permission to stay with Buddy, Jr., after he helped carry him to the whites-only hospital and is ridiculed by two ignorant rednecks who mistakenly accuse Big George of being injured in a knife fight.

More blatantly offensive passages feature threatening Ku Klux Klan groups uttering racist epithets to emphasize the violent southern culture from which Whistle Stop seems mostly to be sheltered. While Flagg demonstrates empathy and tolerance for African Americans through the thoughtful actions of her characters, especially Idgie's and Ruth's interactions with Onzell, Big George, and Sipsey, she also reveals the revolting prejudices that linger decades later when residents of the nursing home, including Evelyn's mother-in-law Big Momma, treat African-American nurses like Geneene as servants, not professionals, and question whether they can be trusted not to steal from their patients.

Evelyn Couch realizes that she has never known any black people other than maids. She wonders how she could have lived in Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement and not have been angered by the attacks on black churches, homes, and protestors. Emboldened by Ninny Threadgoode's stories and encouragement to pray, the suicidal Evelyn attends a...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Compare and Contrast

1930s: Blacks are treated as second-class citizens. In the South, a legal regime of "separate but equal" enforces this status.

1980s: Civil Rights legislation and affirmative action have opened up opportunities to blacks and enabled legal recourse for those who suffer the effects of racism.

Today: Affirmative action has been successfully overturned in some parts of the country. Other legislation is under attack and Congress refuses to pass a federal hate-crimes statute.

1930s: Warren Harding keeps a mistress and illegally transfers naval oil...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Topics for Further Study

Flagg was a spokesperson for the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA). What is the status of the ERA today? What happened?

Does Flagg criticize capital punishment in the novel? Is it an effective or just criticism? What is your view of the death penalty? Conversely, does the novel argue in favor of justified homicide?

Who is the Tommy Thompson to whom Fannie Flagg dedicates her book? How do you think he influenced Fannie Flagg? Who are some of her other southern influences?

Compare the experiences of the Peavey children. How do they handle the challenges of living in a racist society?

Try a recipe or two of Sipsey's included with the book. While cooking, consider the allegorical role of food...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Literary Precedents

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe belongs to the southern gothic genre. Elements of romance, mystery, humor, and horror are intertwined to create a satisfying story with unusual and unconventional characters that tantalize and intrigue readers. This literary tradition can be traced to oral storytelling in the rural South where ghost stories and tall tales were shared as a means for neighbors and travelers to communicate and establish bonds in isolated locations. Such tales had familiar archetypes, including heroes and villains who enabled people to recognize similar patterns in each other's lives. These parallels enhanced empathy and friendship exhibited toward strangers that aided in the formation of thriving...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Related Titles

Prior to the publication of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, Flagg wrote Coming Attractions (1981) which was later retitled Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man (1992) when the film version of Fried Green Tomatoes and the Whistle Stop Cafe became popular. Reviewers compared her childish protagonist Daisy Fay Harper and her comic encounters with bizarre people and occurrences in her 1950s Gulf Coast Mississippi hometown to Idgie whom they described as the mature version of Daisy Fay. One decade after Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published, Flagg completed her third book Welcome to the World, Baby Girl! (1998) which chronicles the maturation of another small-town...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Adaptations

Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has been adapted as two audio cassette editions. In 1992, Fannie Flagg was the reader of an audio version which included the novel's complete text. An abridged audiotape, also read by Flagg, was released in 2000. Flagg was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category for Best Spoken Word. She also compiled Fannie Flagg's Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook: Featuring: Fried Green Tomatoes, Southern Barbecue, Banana Split Cake, and Many Other Great Recipes (1985), and the Irondale Cafe Original Whistlestop Cookbook (1995) was published by Mary Jo Smith McMichael. Located in Irondale, Alabama, McMichael's business, named the Whistle Stop Cafe (http://...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Media Adaptations

Released by Universal Studios in 1991, Fried Green Tomatoes stars Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates. The scriptwriters were Fannie Flagg and director/producer Joe Avnet. The script received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay based on material previously produced or published. The film was shot in Juliet, Georgia. It received rave reviews for its actors as well as its ability to portray multiple historic eras with authenticity. Fannie Flagg makes a cameo appearance as a teacher.

Fannie Flagg narrated the work for an audio edition in 1992. She received a Grammy Award for her recording of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe What Do I Read Next?

Flagg's latest novel, Welcome to the World Baby Girl! (1998), is a long way from Whistle Stop. The novel tells the story of Dena Norstrom who makes it big in New York. On the way, Dena achieves an ulcer, a psychologist, and ethics.

Flagg's first novel was reissued as Daisy Fay and the Miracle Man in 1992. The novel tells about the misadventures of twelve-year-old Daisy Fay in the Mississippi Gulf Coast region of the 1950s.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning novel Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison, tells the tale of another Southern family with experiences very different from the Threadgoodes. The story centers on the coming of age of...

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Bibliography (Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg. Publishers Weekly 232 (August 28, 1987): 64.

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Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Carolyn Banks, "Down-Home News & Blues," in The Washington Post, October 5, 1987, p. B10.

Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larson, and Holly Smith, in 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide, Penguin USA, 1995.

Jack Butler, "Love with Reticence and Recipes," in The New York Times, October 18, 1987, p. 14.

Gayle Kidder, "Flagg Writes about Real South," in The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 12, 1987, p. C-1.

Orlando Ramirez, "Flagg Displays Depth, Intellect in Café," in The San Diego Union-Tribune, January 15, 1988, p. C-3.

Carolyn See, "Book Review; Fannie Flagg Offers Tale Full of Nostalgia,"...

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