Form and Content (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Yearling is an initiatory tale in which an innocent and happy twelve-year-old boy passes into young adulthood. Some of his youthful illusions are shattered by the end of the year in his life that the book chronicles, but Jody emerges with a substantial hold on the adulthood that stretches ahead of him.
Jody Baxter lives in the scrubby inland country of central Florida not far south of the Georgia line, the area out of Gainesville in which Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings herself lived intermittently. He is the only child of Penny and Ora Baxter, two people who barely scrape by on what they can grow or catch when Penny goes hunting or fishing. Jody accompanies his father on his food-seeking adventures and also helps with the family’s minimal farming. Despite the Baxter’s poverty, Jody’s childhood seems ideal by most standards. The boy has a particularly strong bond with his father. He is less sure of his feelings toward his mother, a large, dominating woman who rules a roost that clearly someone has to rule. Penny is easygoing and not always practical. Ora’s temperament complements his. She views life realistically, forcing practicality upon her two men, even though they do not always appreciate her efforts to control them in this way.
By drawing Ora as she does, Rawlings defines important lines of conflict in her novel, which was awarded the 1938 Pulitzer Prize in fiction. Although The Yearling is sentimental, it had...
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Context (Masterplots II: Women's Literature Series)
The Yearling was perfect for its time: In 1938, Europe was arming for a war into which the United States would inevitably be drawn. The reading public badly needed a book that glorified innocence and reflected a less complicated era than the one facing a populace still suffering from the Great Depression, shocked by the Spanish Civil War and its atrocities, and apprehensive about the rise of fascism in Germany, much of Eastern Europe, and Italy.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings did not live in an age notable for the kind of feminism that emerged in the United States during the 1970’s and 1980’s, although in her early years, suffragettes were active in seeking the voting rights that women were finally accorded in 1920. In The Yearling, Rawlings certainly did not set out consciously to make a statement about the status of women. Nevertheless, she makes two important points about matters that are important in terms of feminist issues.
First, in her depiction of Ora Baxter, Rawlings creates a strong, almost overpowering female character who, if her actions are at times distressing, can at least be justified. The Baxters live at the edge economically. Not only does their farm produce little, but Penny’s bouts of illness leave him unable to hunt for the food that the family needs and render him powerless, at times, to prevent the onslaughts that bears and wolves make on his livestock. Viewing the Baxters’ situation realistically,...
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Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
Baxter’s Island. Farm of the Baxter family covering one hundred acres of Florida scrubland in the middle of a dry forest. Penny Baxter bought the land from the Forrester family, whose neighboring farm is called Forrester’s Island. The Baxter farm is covered with hardwood trees and rich foliage, representing a place of refuge, an oasis in a harsh natural environment.
Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, who lived in Cross Creek between the towns of Gainesville and Ocala, not far from the places her novel describes, admired the independence of the people who lived in Florida’s backwoods. Her fictional Baxter evidently chose to farm on this land because of its isolation. Shunning city life, which makes “intrusions on the individual spirit,” Penny settles on the Florida scrub because the “wild animals seemed less predatory to him than the people he had known.” He learns to live in harmony with nature and to subsist on what his land has to offer. The challenge is great, however, because Baxter’s Island is “ringed with hunger,” and the family’s survival is constantly threatened by natural hazards, including harsh weather, predatory animals, and even the docile deer that Jody Baxter adopts as a pet—the “yearling” of the novel’s title.
*Ocklawaha River. Florida river that originates in several lakes near the center of the state and flows northward along the...
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The Yearling is an excellent example of frontier regional literature. The resilience and earthiness of the characters is vividly captured in a unique pattern of speech that the Florida natives refer to as "cracker" dialect. Because the Florida scrub and its inhabitants are depicted with almost journalistic precision, the reader is absorbed into the reality of the period and the authenticity of Jody's conflict. The straightforward style of the narrative and the well-constructed plot keep this action story moving, but Rawlings has also taken great care to develop the thoughts and personalities of her characters and to show the complex causes of their feelings and behavior. She evokes a spectrum of moods, ranging from the security and peace of the innocent boy at the pool, to the utter despair of the young man who feels abandoned. Rawlings skillfully unifies thoughts, themes, and impressions to present a rich and intricate picture of Jody's world.
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Ideas for Group Discussions
The story of The Yearling takes place in the 1870s in the untamed wilds of inland Florida. The Baxter family has settled in a clearing of pines near the "scrub" — a deeply forested stretch of land enclosed by rivers, surrounded by marshes, and inhabited by hundreds of wild animals and birds. Here, isolated from their moonshiner neighbors and the world at large, the family leads a hand-to-mouth existence, fighting against the constant threat of bears, panthers, wolves, rattlesnakes, and inclement weather. Water is scarce and must be carried from a large sinkhole. Survival depends on hunting, both to provide food and to protect the crops and livestock. A group discussion might best begin by focusing on the environment in which the events take place, examining how the locale shapes the events of the plot.
1. At the conclusion of chapter 1, Rawlings says: "A mark was on [Jody] from the day's delight so that all his life, when April was a thin green and the flavor of rain was on his tongue, an old wound would throb and a nostalgia would fill him for something he could not quite remember." What does she mean? How does this opening statement foreshadow the outcome of the book?
2. Ma and Penny Baxter have very different attitudes toward animals. How do their opinions differ, and why? How is this difference indicative of their contrasting attitudes about life in general?
3. Why are Penny and Jody so attracted to the sinkhole?...
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The relationship of people and animals to one another and to the land is one of the basic themes of The Yearling. Issues of loyalty and betrayal, survival, death, and loneliness are raised repeatedly as the characters interact with nature. The central question is whether humanity must necessarily be in conflict with nature, or whether the beauty of nature can be reconciled with the cruelty of life. The Yearling shows that life is hard, that suffering and sacrifice are to be expected and accepted, and that the loss of innocence is an inevitable part of growing up.
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When Maxwell Perkins suggested to Rawlings that she write a "boy's book," he mentioned Huckleberry Finn (1884), Treasure Island (1883), and Kim (1901). Although the genesis of the book is there, The Yearling certainly is a boy's book and a bildungsroman, the most powerful elements in the book come from Rawlings's personal experience and observation. Additionally, this novel shares with some of her other work a vision of the sterling woodsman/farmer harking back to Cooper. Perhaps the most immediate literary precedent was Rawlings's own novel, South Moon Under (1933), which also depicts a boy growing up in the Florida scrub, although the fact — and the anguish — of growing up is not the central issue there.
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Many of Rawlings's other works examine characters, settings, and themes similar to those in The Yearling. South Moon Under describes a family of Florida moonshiners trying to cope with the uncertainties of daily existence in the scrub. When the Whippoorwill (1940) is a collection of stories about Florida and its people. It includes two prize-winning stories: "Jacob's Ladder," which tells of a girl living in the marsh with her common-law trapper husband, and "Gal Young Un," the story of an unhappy man who marries an older widow for her money, and then asks a younger girlfriend to move in with them. Another book, Cross Creek (1942), is a collection of autobiographical sketches about central Florida; it contains interesting background material on how Rawlings's novels and stories were inspired.
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In 1946 MGM adapted The Yearling into a motion picture starring Jane Wyman and Gregory Peck. Twelve-year-old Claude Jarman, Jr., won a special Academy Award as the finest child actor of the year for his portrayal of Jody, both Wyman and Peck were Oscar nominees for their acting, and the film was nominated for Best Picture. The film is sentimental and ironic, but the rustic dialect which seems to flow authentically in the book sounds artificial on the screen. Ma Baxter's character is softened in the film, and the simple wonder and beauty of nature, an integral part of the novel, is overwhelmed by elaborately produced scenes.
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Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Bellman, Samuel. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. New York: Twayne, 1974. A basic beginner’s overview of Rawlings’ life and artistic output. The section on The Yearling provides good background information regarding its composition and the people who inspired Rawlings.
Bigelow, Gordon. Frontier Eden: The Literary Career of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1966. An important study of Rawlings’ complete works and a source of interviews and eyewitness accounts of Rawlings’ life in Cross Creek. The last chapter, “The Literary Artist,” focuses on Rawlings’ philosophy of composition.
Parker, Idella, and Mary Keating. Idella: Marjorie Rawlings’ “Perfect Maid.” Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1992. An entertaining, fascinating look behind the scenes of the Rawlings’ household in Cross Creek from the perspective of Rawlings’ maid, who worked for her from 1940 to 1950. The most disturbing revelation surrounds the visit of Zora Neale Hurston, whom Rawlings sent to sleep in the servants’ quarters.
Silverthorne, Elizabeth. Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings: Sojourner at Cross Creek. Woodstock, N.Y.: Overlook Press, 1988. A readable biography that is not too academic. Contains interviews with Norton Baskin, Rawlings’ second husband.
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