Bastard Out of Carolina

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Although Dorothy Allison’s first novel, Bastard Out of Carolina, is a story of cruelty, violence, and child abuse, it is also a story of survival and of triumph. At the end of the novel, Ruth Anne Boatwright, or Bone, as she has been nicknamed, is not quite thirteen years old. She already has endured more than many adults, however, and, amazingly, she has emerged from her trials with confidence in herself and in her future. Bastard Out of Carolina is also the story of the Boatwright clan, a rough lot whose gift to Bone is not only a place of refuge from her abusive stepfather but also their capacity for loyalty and their zest for life.

As Bone comes to understand, her own misery is the result of a number of factors. One is the character of her mother, Anney. It is true that, like the other Boatwright women, Anney has great strength. In the first pages of the novel, she is shown defying a courthouse clerk who refuses to change Bone’s birth certificate and insulting the preacher who urges her to submit to the fact of her own sin in producing an illegitimate child. After the death of her first husband, Lyle Parsons, Anney again demonstrates her strength of character by going to work at miserable, underpaid jobs, first in a mill and then in a diner, in order to support Bone and a younger child, Reese Parsons. There seems to be nothing soft about Anney but her smile. Indeed, her reputation for toughness is such that when the courthouse holding Bone’s records burns down, only Anney’s airtight alibi prevents her from being considered seriously as the arsonist.

Along with her strength, Anney has a great weakness, her desperate need for a man. When she was married to Lyle, this dependence represented no problem, for Lyle was a kind and loving person, as devoted to Bone as he was to his own daughter. Glen Waddell is a different matter, for he needs not only love but also an outlet for his own frustrations. When Anney brings him into her home as Bone’s stepfather, all of the elements of tragedy are in place.

As Granny Boatwright observes, there is something wrong with Glen Waddell: He won’t look anybody in the eye. This sharp-eyed old lady is able to see beyond Glen’s superficial politeness, even beyond his obvious adoration of Anney, to his deep-seated and dangerous insecurity. As Bone comes to realize, Glen’s uncertainty about his own worth is the result of his being the only unsuccessful son of a successful father, who clearly despises him. To his father, Glen’s marriage to a member of the Boatwright family is just another proof of his utter worthlessness. When they are dragged to visit the Waddells, Bone and Reese both see how badly they are treated; both Anney and her children routinely are fed outdoors, as if their presence in the house would contaminate it. Unfortunately, Glen is not sure enough of himself to object, to reject his father’s values, perhaps to make something of himself just to prove his worth. Instead, he continues to visit his father with great regularity, each time hoping for a miracle of acceptance that never occurs. Unable to defy his father, Glen strikes out at everyone else: his employers, his wife, and his stepdaughters. As a result, he loses one job after another, and with every failure at work, he becomes more violent at home.

In addition to his insecurity about himself, Glen is afflicted with an irrational jealousy. It is not clear why he resents Anney’s love for Bone more than he does her love for Reese. Perhaps it is because Bone is older and, because of her illegitimacy as well as her complete lack of contact with a father for whom the Boatwrights have nothing but contempt, more totally her mother’s child. At any rate, Glen soon reveals his hatred for Bone, first in words, then in physical abuse, and finally, inevitably, in sexual abuse as well. Because Anney is so besotted with Glen that she will not hear anything to his detriment, Bone cannot confide in her. Furthermore, Bone loves her mother, and she knows that if the secret comes out, the Boatwright men will have no compunctions about killing Glen. All she can do is avoid Glen and try to survive.

When Bone is approaching her thirteenth birthday, her uncles discover the truth. Their reaction is predictable. They beat Glen so badly that he requires hospitalization, and they support Bone in her decision to live with her relatives, rather than with Glen and her mother. This does not, however, end Bone’s ordeal. By now, she has become a habit for Glen; he now needs to torture Bone as much as he needs to make love to Anney. In a horrifying climactic scene, Glen finds Bone alone, beats her savagely, and then rapes her. At the end of the story, Glen has disappeared, and after a farewell to Bone, Anney has joined him in exile. Bone’s uncles continue to hunt Glen, planning to exterminate him as they would any other noxious creature. One rather hopes that they will succeed.

It would have been easy to dramatize or to sentimentalize such an account, particularly since the novel is written in the first person, not by a mere observer, but by the victim herself. Dorothy Allison skillfully avoids such excesses, primarily because in Bone she has created a highly intelligent protagonist who can distance herself from the events she is describing; who, in other words, has learned to be an observer. Bone often refers to her love of books. Perhaps they have helped her to see herself as a character in a story. It is evident that only the capacity to detach herself from her own body has enabled her to survive. At the same time, from a purely technical standpoint, Bone is thus an ideal narrator whose matter-of-fact tone serves to intensify the horror of the events she relates.

Because her narrator is so observant, the author can quite plausibly have her re-create remembered events in complete detail. As a result, the novel is filled with memorable scenes, some of which are hilarious, in the tradition of the southwestern humorists. One thinks of the description of Granny Boatwright supervising her grandchildren, laughing at the half-naked girls tumbling around the yard, carrying on several conversations at once, or of the scenes backstage on the gospel music circuit, when the male performers are swigging alcohol and pinching any available females, just before they head out to bring salvation to their audiences.

Nevertheless, while the author intends for her readers to depend heavily on her narrator’s observations and perceptions of events, she also makes it clear that Bone is limited by age and by experience. At first reading, for example, one is tempted to accept Bone’s judgment of the Boatwrights. From the beginning of the novel, she emphasizes their virtues. Bone admits that in their little South Carolina community, the Boatwrights are despised as much as they are feared. The men, for example, are noted for their drunkenness, their...

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Form and Content

(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Bastard Out of Carolina is a young girl’s story of growing up poor and white in the rural South. It presents a stark contrast between her hopes and dreams, the strength of the women in her extended family, and the hopes and fears that keep them together amid hunger and poverty and the horrors of abuse by her stepfather, the violence that is always part of daily life, and a growing realization that sometimes love is not enough.

Bone’s story begins with her illegitimate birth, how she came to be a bastard in the state of South Carolina. Her mother, Anney Boatwright, tries year after year to get the courthouse clerk to issue a birth certificate without an “illegitimate” stamp on it. She fails, but, fortunately, the courthouse, complete with all of its records, burns down. Soon after, Anney marries her third husband, Glen Waddell, the black sheep of a well-off family. When Anney becomes pregnant, Glen is ecstatic, patting her stomach and bragging about his “boy.” The night she goes into labor, Glen, Bone, and Bone’s younger sister, Reese, wait in the car in the hospital parking lot. Shortly before dawn, Glen takes Bone in his lap, shoves one hand up against her underwear, between her legs, and with his other, masturbates. Afterward, he returns to the hospital to discover that Anney has lost the baby boy and is no longer able to bear children.

Following Anney’s recovery, Glen moves the family away from the Boatwright clan and into the first of many small, rented houses. He has difficulty keeping a job, and the jobs that he does get pay too poorly to cover rent, food, and clothes for the family. With each move, Glen promises that things will be different, that this time he will make it. Yet, by the time Bone is ten, hunger has become part of everyday life. Her mother is working harder and harder, and Glen spends more and more time at home, grabbing, shaking, and rubbing his hands up and down Bone. He begins to beat her regularly, taking her into the bathroom and thrashing her with his belts. After Bone’s...

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(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina incorporates a number of themes central to women’s writing and feminist literature. First, in keeping with feminist insights into the pervasiveness and harm of incest and sexual abuse, it shows the reality of violence in the family, drawing the reader’s attention to the internalization of guilt and shame felt by many victims of incest. It gives voice to the sense of abused daughters and stepdaughters that they must have been bad, somehow, that they must have done something to deserve the punishment inflicted upon them. Second, as a story of poverty, Bastard Out of Carolina captures the daily struggle of the millions of women who live below the poverty line. It describes the...

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Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

A Prosperous Nation?
For many Americans, the 1950s was a decade of economic prosperity. Unemployment and inflation...

(The entire section is 690 words.)

Literary Style

(Novels for Students)

Bone's birth certificate is the primary symbol of the novel. Stamped with the word illegitimate, it...

(The entire section is 967 words.)

Literary Techniques

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Allison uses language and dialect to depict the world of the poor people of the South of this period. In the interview with Pratt, Allison...

(The entire section is 356 words.)

Ideas for Group Discussions

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

The fact that Allison is able to overcome the abuse and poverty of her childhood shows that the effects need not be permanent. However,...

(The entire section is 246 words.)

Social Concerns

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Abuse and poverty play roles in the development of many children in America, having consequences that affect adulthood. In the...

(The entire section is 563 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

  • 1950s: A 1957 study determines that around forty million Americans live near or below the poverty line of $3,000 for...

(The entire section is 289 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

  • Imagine that you are Bone and you have just finished writing this book. You want to get in touch with Anney and tell her how you feel...

(The entire section is 229 words.)

Literary Precedents

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Hailed by George Garrett in the New York Times Book Review as "a major new talent," Allison's Bastard out of Carolina can be...

(The entire section is 144 words.)

Related Titles

(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Allison's collections of poems and short stories, The Women Who Hate Me and Trash, gained recognition for her writing ability...

(The entire section is 259 words.)


(Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction)

Aired on Showtime on December 15, 1996, Anjelica Huston's adaptation of Bastard out of Carolina is a "blunt, at times shockingly...

(The entire section is 164 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

  • An audiotape of Bastard Out of Carolina, read by Allison, was published by Penguin Highbridge Audio in 1993.
  • ...

(The entire section is 48 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Allen, Kimberly G. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina, by Dorothy Allison. Library Journal 117 (March 1, 1992): 116. Sees the focus of the story as the Boatwrights, “a proud and closeknit clan.” Praises Allison for her “rich sense of family.” Allen also mentions the author’s accuracy and sensitivity in revealing the feelings of a sexually abused child.

Boyd, Blanche McCrary. “Dorothy Allison, Crossover Blues.” The Nation 257 (July 5, 1993): 20-21. Allison discusses her work, particularly Bastard Out of Carolina, a novel that has been categorized as a “crossover” book, or one that was written by a...

(The entire section is 945 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Aletti, Vince. Review of Bastard Out of Carolina. In Voice Literary Supplement, June 1992, p....

(The entire section is 219 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

  • The Beans of Egypt Maine (1986) by Carolyn Chute tells the story of a poor, uneducated family from the backwoods of Maine....

(The entire section is 190 words.)