The characters in Jesmyn Ward's Salvage the Bones are part of the bildungsroman tradition. How does the process of "coming of age" in this novel extend or complicate earlier versions of this narrative? Choose one character from Salvage the Bones to focus on, and compare that character's coming of age to two other characters of the following novels: Othello, Great Expectations or Drown. Are there aspects of coming of age that seem universal, or are there important differences according to context and individual? Along these lines, how do the unique circumstances of the Batiste family present additional challenges or supports to the protagonist? What role do gender, race and economic status play?
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Esch's coming- of- age narrative is complicated because she is pregnant. Ward renders a different take on the bildungsroman. Esch not only has to come of age for her own identity, but she must do so for the child she is carrying. The result is a complex narrative where the emergence of one's identity impacts both herself and the child within her. The reality of this condition impacts Esch's coming of age. No better is this seen than with Manny. Her experiences with the father of her unborn child go beyond the typical "coming of age" infatuation. The reality of pregnancy brings a gravity to their relationship and Esch's perception of it: "I wonder if Medea felt this way before she walked out to meet Jason for the first time, like a hard wind come through her and set her to shaking." The invocation of Greek mythology reflects a complex reality, and an ambiguity to Esch's being in the world. This reality makes her narrative more complicated and extends it beyond the traditional coming of age vision. The condition of pregnancy causes Esch to see herself and her world through her own eyes and the eyes of "the other." It is for this reason that she is multi- layered, and far from reductive.
Another reason why Esch's narrative is so complex and different from traditional "coming of age" understandings is because of the reality in which she lives. The world of the Batiste family presents additional challenges to the protagonist. Esch is a girl of color in an economically challenged world of Bois Sauvage. Living in a world called "the pit," Esch comes to associate a sense of toughness and gritty brutality that underscores her existence:
The murderous mother who cut us to the bone but left us alive, left us naked and bewildered as wrinkled newborn babies, as blind puppies, as sun-starved newly hatched baby snakes. She left us a dark Gulf and salt-burned land. She left us to learn to crawl.
In contrast to traditional coming of age constructions where childbirth is purely redemptive and simplistic, life is difficult. Toughness and resolve is needed to endure such a condition. This can be seen in the vision of motherhood and childhood, where toughness and a sense of resolute is needed and, sometimes, might not be enough: "I can see her, chin to chest, straining to push Junior out, and Junior snagging on her insides, grabbing hold of what he caught on to try to stay inside her, but instead he pulled it out with him when he was born.” When China gives birth, she is described as “Ain’t nothing about her relaxed.” These reflect the pain of living, and the challenges that the Batiste family faces, one enhanced by marginalization. The financial condition of Esch's family enhances this struggle and difficulty. Entering into the world is one filled with struggle and challenge. This reality is what makes Esch's coming of age a challenging one. There is nothing easy in this life, little in way of a protective domain where comfort can be experienced. Being in the world is akin to the hurricane that is bearing down on the people who can least afford to endure its wrath. Material reality makes an already difficult and challenging situation even more arduous. This is where Esch's coming of age narrative is different and expands upon the traditional buildungsroman.
Adding to this complexity would be the role of gender. Esch is not a traditional coming- of- age teen. For all practical purposes, she is a woman. This is evident in her being pregnant, and wrestling with the complexities that this brings. Esch is not a traditional teenager in how she seeks to understand her own emotions, her own condition, and her place in the world. When she speaks of Manny, the father of her child who won't acknowledge her, it reflects the complexity of longing and of something larger. Esch reflects this with statements like “He makes my heart beat like that, I want to say, and point at the squirrel dying in red spurts” and “In every one of the Greeks' mythology tales, there is this: a man chasing a woman, or a woman chasing a man. There is never a meeting in the middle.” This gender- based reality where women experience a challenging dynamic with the world around them enhances Esch's coming of age narrative. Her questions are not the typical teenager asking questions about identity. They reflect a woman whose experience has caused her to possess little other than questions about who she is and where she is in the world.
There are some similarities between Esch's bildungsroman narrative and other characters in literature. For example, in Diaz's Drown, the same silencing of voice that Esch seeks to fight is a reality that women experience. Modern consciousness has withered the voice of the mother in "Drown," something that Manny's shunning of Esch seeks and a condition that she fights in different forms:
She's so quiet that most of the time I'm startled to find her in the apartment. I'll enter a room and she'll stir, detaching herself from the cracking plaster walls, from the stained cabinets... . She has discovered the secret to silence: pouring cafe without a splash, walking between rooms as if gliding on a cushion of felt, crying without a sound.
Esch seeks to preserve her voice, even in the moments where she is silent as boys have sex with her. She seeks to become something more than what the mother in "Drown" has become. The toughness and resolve that Esch notices in her own life is reflected in "Aguantando." When Rafa cheats Yunior and then justifies it with "See.... You already lost it," it is a reflection of the pain and hurt that will be evident throughout life, a condition of being of which Esch is aware with her own experiences. Manny's treatment of Esch, where feeling and emotion once were, only to be replaced by distant detachment is reflective of Brabantio's dispossession of Desdemona from Othello.
Finally, Estella from Great Expectations and Esch hold some connection to one another. Both endure hardship and difficulty, elements that could have permanently replicated themselves on their characters. Yet, the ending of both narratives display characters who recognize the challenges of their worlds and seek to overcome them. They both hope to make their futures better than their past and find specific reasons to transcend their world, envisioning what can be as opposed to what is around them. The reality of coming of age is shown to be specific to Esch's context. However, one of the universal aspects of coming of age is the ability to transform what is into what can be, something that Esch learns as a result of her bildungsroman.
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