Dorothy Allison

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What are the themes in "River of Names" by Dorothy Allison?

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Homosexuality. This story, which is part memoir, is the story of a young lesbian who grew up with a troubled childhood. Throughout the story she is talking to her present day girlfriend, Jessie. While homosexuality is not explicitly talked about much in the book, the narrator’s love for Jessie is made clear. They have been together for nearly a year and represent a committed lesbian couple in literature.

Trauma. The narrator struggles to tell the truth to her girlfriend, Jessie, out of fear of judgement and having to relive her trauma. The narrator was raped by several men in her life at a very young age. There were many deaths in her family and she lost several cousins in one year. The narrator, though an obvious survivor, still is struggling to combat a gruesome past.

Survival. Despite all that the narrator endured as a child, she uses humor and lies as a way of surviving. The narrator makes up stories to share with her girlfriend as a way of rewriting her past and moving on. In addition, she minimizes the events that happened to her so that she is able to make it day to day.

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Perhaps the most important theme in Allison's River of Names is the theme of survival through great hardship. The narrator in the novel experiences a difficult childhood, to say the least. Yet through it all, she must find a way to survive. The narrator's deep desire for survival is evident in everything that she does, in every choice that she makes. For example, she doesn't fight back when she is abused. She lies to her girlfriend Jesse to keep their relationship light-hearted and to avoid having to dredge up the pain that relating her abuse to Jesse would cause. She even steals, of which she says that “Stealing was a way to pass the time. Things we needed, things we didn't, for the nerve of it, the anger, the need" (Soho Press, 231). This quote speaks to how poverty forces someone to make decisions that they wouldn't normally make, to act out of desperation and, eventually, out of boredom and despair for their situation. In the end, however, the narrator decides to become a caring person to counteract the anger and depression that she grew up surrounded by, while many of her cousins turned to suicide, drink, and babies to try to take the pain away.

The theme of survival ties in with the theme of domestic and sexual abuse in poverty-stricken Southern families. Starting when she is five years old and ending when she is eleven, she is raped repeatedly by her step-father; her other family members are raped as well, by various cousins and uncles. This seems to be a direct result of the crippling poverty that they experience in the backwoods of South Carolina. In the book, the narrator confesses that, "almost always we were raped, my cousins and I. That was some kind of joke, too" (Soho Press, 227). This demonstrates how the lifestyle and struggles of families living in poverty breeds an attitude of acceptance and flippancy which is conducive to the continuation of incest and abuse. Everyone knows that it is happening, but nobody does anything to stop it; in fact, because it is so common, it becomes like a joke over time.

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