Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

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Critical Context

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Although Bastard Out of Carolina is Dorothy Allison’s first novel, it was preceded by a book of short stories, Trash (1988). Both that collection and this novel contain somewhat fictionalized versions of the author’s own life story. Yet as Allison has noted, real life is “meaner” than fiction. She herself was not as strong as Bone, Allison has commented, nor did she have Bone’s chance to escape.

It is not Allison’s treatment of child abuse, however, that has most interested critics. While they find the account of Bone’s response to her ordeal both psychologically valid and deeply moving, Allison’s most impressive achievement, they agree, is her accurate and sympathetic description of a social class that has generally been described in unflattering terms, as “crackers,” “rednecks,” or “white trash.”

With The Hamlet (1940), William Faulkner began his trilogy about a family of poor whites named Snopes, whose dominant characteristics are dishonesty, disloyalty, bigotry, and the total lack of an ethical or moral code. Because they are so aggressive and so numerous, Faulkner shows them steadily rising to political and economic power in the South. In Harper Lee’s Pulitzer Prize-winning novel To Kill a Mockingbird (1960), the antagonist of the idealistic lawyer Atticus Finch is the unsavory Bob Ewell, who constructs a set of lies that get an innocent black man killed rather than admit that his love-starved daughter has made sexual advances to a black.

Both Lee, with her poor but upright Cunningham family, and Faulkner, in As I Lay Dying (1930), did point out that there is a difference between merely being poor and being “trashy.” Until recently, however, Southern fiction writers tended to concentrate their interest on the gentry, upwardly mobile business owners, and blacks, while they reserved the poor whites for their lynch mobs. It is, of course, purely coincidental that Bobbie Ann Mason’s acclaimed novel Spence and Lila (1988) and Dorothy Allison’s collection Trash were published in the same year; however, the date does indicate how short a time has passed since Southern writers began to substitute a realistic picture of the Southern working poor for the contemptuous stereotypes that had prevailed for so long. Because of its insights and its high literary quality, Bastard Out of Carolina is an extremely important novel.

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