Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

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By telling her story through the eyes of a thirteen-year-old narrator, Dorothy Allison brings to light both the loss of self-respect engendered by abuse and the struggle for a sense of identity that is always a part of adolescence. Bone’s voice is powerful and poignant, replete with the accented slang of the poor South and the direct and unsentimentalized observations of the adolescent. Her voice is also honest, for Allison does not shy away from her narrator’s sexuality, openly depicting her masturbatory fantasies and, indeed, using their increasing violence to reflect the impact of Glen’s abuse. Perhaps most significant, however, Bone’s voice is vulnerable; through it, Allison creates an effective means of showing the fragility of such ostensibly stable ties as those among family members, between husbands and wives, and between mothers and daughters.

Although Allison situates her story in the domestic sphere, she does not romanticize domesticity. Each family is depicted accurately, never stereotyped in its poverty or pain. The Boatwright family stays together by telling itself stories of past violence and through a sense of necessity and combativeness engendered by poverty and ostracism. The Waddell family, despite its material privilege, is no better. The antagonism between Glen and his father and brothers, together with the Waddells’ snobbish hypocrisy toward Anney and her daughters, suggests that violence is not confined to the poor, although for the rich it takes a different form. Finally, the Pearls, despite their name, do not provide an example of that rarity, a happy family. The prejudice of Shannon’s father, her mother’s denial, and their constant traveling reinforce Allison’s vision of the darkness of family life.

Similarly, male-female relationships fail to provide those within them with a sense of love and security. The Boatwright men are neither faithful nor reliable, leaving their wives and looking for teenage girls. Although Anney deeply loves Reese’s father, he dies shortly after her birth. Glen’s love for Anney is destructive, tearing her away from her family.

Accordingly, the love between mothers and daughters is not strong enough in the face of such obstacles. Dying Aunt Ruth is scorned and rejected by her daughter Deedee, who resents her mother’s illness. Anney may try to give Bone her self-respect with an unmarked birth certificate, but she cannot give her the love that she needs; Bone realizes that, ultimately, she is alone. Indeed, with this realization, Bone knows who she is and what it means. She is a Boatwright woman, like her mother—as strong, as hungry for love, as desperate, determined, and ashamed.

In a sense, then, Allison’s story is not entirely pessimistic. Despite her trauma and abuse, Bone acquires an understanding of who she is, a degree of self-knowledge and self-understanding upon which she can build. Additionally, Aunt Raylene is a positive, self-reliant character, a model for Bone. Because of her independence, an independence stemming in part from her refusal to accept traditional relationships, Raylene shows that one can be happy and alone. By ending the novel with Bone’s living with her aunt, away from her abusive stepfather and her weak mother, Allison suggests that Bone, like her aunt, will learn from and survive the loss of love.

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Critical Context