Bastard Out of Carolina

by Dorothy Allison

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Themes and Meanings

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On the most obvious level, Bastard Out of Carolina is a story of child abuse, movingly told from the point of view of the victim. More profoundly, it is an examination of gender roles among lower-class Southern whites of the 1950’s and 1960’s.

The Boatwrights define masculinity in terms of certain activities and attitudes. When a real man is not fixing a car, driving his truck, or going hunting, he will be getting drunk, whoring, and fighting. Admittedly, because of his mechanical skills, he is a valued worker, and because he has a sense of honor, he is loyal to a fault, especially to the members of his own family.

Trouble arises only when a man like Glen, who is already considered a loser by the standards of his own prosperous family, also fails as a good old boy in the Boatwright tradition, or when a woman in this culture rebels against her role as an attractive, baby-bearing work animal. Glen’s insecurity turns into anger; his outlet is an action that any Boatwright would reject, the abuse of a child. With women, it is a matter of rejecting a role. Refusing to accept the excuse for infidelity, that “a man has his needs,” Earle’s wife leaves him, taking his children, and Alma Boatwright Yarnell eventually goes crazy and destroys everything in her house. While she is growing up, Bone feels ambivalent about gender roles; on one hand, she admires and imitates her boy cousins, even dressing like them; on the other hand, she also enjoys being with the women of the family, especially when they describe triumphs over their men. At the end of the novel, she identifies with the strong Boatwright women, specifically Raylene and Anney; however, after Bone’s experience with Glen, it is difficult to imagine her ever again permitting any man to wield power over her.


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The overarching theme of Bastard out of Carolina is the part child abuse and poverty play in forming the character of Bone. Within that theme, the helplessness of the women and children in the family and the losses of family members to death and incarceration erode the process of growing up for Bone and her sister and cousins. Writing for the New York Times Book Review, Allison says, "We are the ones they make fiction of—we gay and disenfranchised and female—and we have the right to demand our full, nasty, complicated lives." She has done that in Bastard out of Carolina.

Mental and physical abuses by Bone's stepfather destroy her self-esteem. She feels she is worthless, at fault, and bad to the core, and she is unable to tell anyone as she then will become worthless in that person's eyes. After the first beating, she hears Glen lie to her mother; Bone knows her mother will not believe her so she does not try to tell her what really happened. From then on, Glen looks for excuses to "discipline" Bone, knowing Anney is incapable of stopping him. As Anney comforts Bone after a beating, she asks what Bone did to cause the beating, further destroying Bone's self-esteem. Anney is in the middle of a contest as Glen competes with Bone for her attention and affection.

Some psychologists equate the beginnings of the curiosity about the differences in the sexes as a desire to know a secret. Deborah Horvitz, writing in Contemporary Literature , says that in the case of Bone, "she attempts to transform her nightmare into narrative as a means of coping with what she considers to be her 'damaged' and 'ruined' body, but that...

(This entire section contains 1016 words.)

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proves impossible since her stories themselves, along with her desires, wishes, and passions, are entrenched in sadomasochism." Bone says that her "fantasies got more violent and more complicated as Daddy Glen continued to beat me.... I was ashamed of myself for the things I thought about when I put my hands between my legs."

Horvitz feels that Bastard out of Carolina "represents oppressed female sexuality formed on and from violence. A powerful indictment of men, marriage, and heterosexuality, this text yokes male-female intimacy with the potential denial/destruction of women." Bone fantasizes various tortures while masturbating, confusing sex with the violence of which she is victim. Gospel music becomes an escape. Although she cannot sing, Bone dreams of becoming a gospel singer—a way to escape her tormentor and find a release. A link to God might be the salvation she needs and craves.

Bone feels responsible for what is happening to her—that she must be completely bad simply because she is there: "I lived in a world of shame. I hid my bruises as if they were evidence of crimes I had committed. I knew I was a sick disgusting person." When Aunt Raylene discovers the welts on her legs, Bone tries to keep her from telling anyone. Bone feels a shock go through her: "Suddenly I was terrified, unreasonably, horribly terrified." Aunt Raylene goes directly to her brothers with the discovery. When Anney is asked if Glen would hurt her, she says, "He'd never raise a hand to me," and hangs her head. In spite of her self-loathing at her inability to protect Bone, Anney tries to excuse Glen and herself by saying that she loves him and that he loves all of them. Bone tries to exonerate her mother by saying "I made him mad. I did."

The place of the poor within the community and within the smaller community of the family is another theme. Allison, in an interview with Minnie Bruce Pratt for the Progressive, describes her place in the community: "The community I saw myself in— at the edge of the world—hated me. The white Southerner hates with a passion everybody different from them—there's no way around it." Anney understands this. This is her motivation for wanting a clear birth certificate—one without "illegitimate" stamped on it in red ink—for Bone. Within the family community, Allison knew as a teenager that she had more in common with the black community and the civil rights movement than with her stepfather, especially since he was abusing her. She realized that she was an outlaw because she felt she was evil among "that whole nation of the invisible, the dead, and the damned." Allison imbues Bone with these characteristics, showing her pain when she finds herself on the fringe of the community. Bone dreams of a different community, one made up of gospel music and gospel singers.

Bone's friendship with Shannon, an albino considered so physically unattractive that she is shunned by most people in the community, is another sign that Bone feels herself outside the community in which she lives. For a time she uses the friendship in an attempt to distance herself from her family. She tries to break off the friendship but is drawn to Shannon. When Shannon is accidentally killed, her death haunts Bone, magnifying other small events in the family. Reese, Bone's stepsister, decides to be best friends with Patsy Ruth, a cousin. Bone is sent home from school for wearing jeans. Girls in the 1950s do not wear jeans to school, only dresses or skirts and blouses. Money is scarce. The people who might help out are out of work or in jail. Bone becomes concerned with her physical appearance and what others see in her. Anney tries to protect her from Glen by sending her to Aunt Alma's after school for a few days. Bone begins to recognize her anger at Daddy Glen. The death of Aunt Ruth, who has been a refuge, provides another shock, followed by the death of Aunt Alma's baby girl. This death, though expected, is shocking enough to Aunt Alma to cause her to destroy her home and try to kill her husband. Bone witnesses the aftermath of Aunt Alma's breakdown when she goes with Anney to try to calm her. Bone knows that everything in her world is uncertain.


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Child Abuse
From almost the beginning of his relationship with Anney, Glen abuses Bone. His first sexual abuse of her takes place shortly after he marries her mother, but it occurs when he is looking forward to the future and the impending birth of their child. This action gains significance because it counters arguments raised by characters in the novel that Glen takes out his frustrations on Bone and shows that Glen has the proclivity, despite circumstances, to abuse the young girl, then only about eight or nine years old. The ensuing abuse all takes place while he is angry, but he still tells Bone "over and over again," often while he is beating her, how much he loves her.

At first, Anney knows that Glen is physically beating Bone. She hears, through the closed bathroom door, his first brutal attack on her. She cleans up Bone after this and subsequent beatings, all the while adamantly denying what her husband is doing: "I was always getting hurt, it seemed, in ways Mama could not understand and I could not explain. Mama worried about how careless I was, how prone to accident I had become." Yet, though Anney does leave him several times, she always goes back to Glen. In order to justify her actions, she must place the blame on Bone. She tells Bone that she knows better than to make Glen angry, that she must be more careful, that Daddy Glen really does love her.

Anney's words are fitful protests, but Bone, only a child, internalizes these messages and feels herself to be at fault for Daddy Glen's treatment of her. Toward the end of the novel, Bone comes to realize that it is not her fault. When her family finds out how Glen is beating her, her uncles turn on him. Though Bone is upset by the friction this causes between her and her mother, her family's actions validate her own feelings of hatred for Glen. She also realizes just how dangerous he is and that he will never change. For this reason, she tells Anney that she will never live with Glen again. Hearing this, Glen comes to see Bone, but when she continues to defy him—which she has never done to such an extent—Glen violently rapes her.

The importance of family is clearly demonstrated in Bastard Out of Carolina. The majority of the extended Boatwright family lives in or around Greenville. The Boatwright sisters help each other out, look after each others' children, and serve more as surrogate mothers than aunts. Bone spends extended periods of time with her aunts Raylene and Ruth. Glen successfully places a wedge between Anney and her girls and the rest of the family by moving them to more distant areas in the town. The first time he does this, after the death of their child, Alma was "outraged he'd take us far away," but Glen is pleased because they will be on their own. He wants them to form a real family and rely on him, not on the aunts and uncles. He gets angry because the aunts are always telling the girls stories about the Boatwrights, which he attempts to counter with stories about his own family. In subsequent houses, they are sometimes so far away from the aunts that Bone and Reese cannot visit as often as they'd like.

Despite the genuine affection shared by the Boatwrights, Bone knows that they are not the "typical" American family. However, a healthy family is not seen anywhere in the novel. Travis and Ruth have raised children who demonstrate little care for their mother despite her fatal illness. Wade cheats on his wife, Alma, and even tells her how disgusting she is. Carr, married and living in Baltimore, Maryland, still harbors feelings for Wade, whom she loved as a girl. Uncle Earle's wife leaves him, taking their three children with her, after she discovers his affairs. Thereafter, he forms relationships with much younger women, marries them, and soon thereafter deserts them.

Dysfunctional families, however, are not limited to the poor. Glen's parents and his brothers are middle-class. His parents and brothers live in nice homes, but they show no love for him or genuine affection for each other. At family outings and parties, they constantly degrade Glen and his stepfamily, and the narrative clearly makes a link between this lack of familial love and Glen's violent rages against Bone. The Pearls, who also are much more financially stable than Bone's family, are similarly embedded in a web of family lies. Mrs. Pearl is unable to see the spiteful nature of her daughter Shannon, which contributes to her daughter's self-immolation.

Even the families that are tangential to the novel are not intact. Reese's father's family, the Parsons, has been destroyed. Grandmother Parsons has lost her three boys and is not close with her daughter. Her brothers are simply waiting for her to die so they can sell her land. Though Reese loves her grandmother, Daddy Glen ruins the relationship when he demands payoff money. The African-American family who share the apartment house with Alma lacks a father. He has gone up North to make money to support his family remaining in South Carolina.

Anney attempts to forge a nuclear family through her marriage to Glen, seeing in him a potential father for her girls, but this never happens. Instead of acting as a parental figure, Glen brings out feelings of rage, anger, and hatred in Bone. Yet, Bone continues to cling to the myth of the loving family, wanting "us to be like the families in the books in the library."

Poverty and Illegitimacy
Bone's family, as well as her extended kin, live in poverty. They exhibit all the stereotypical characteristics of those who inhabit a low socio-economic class: too many children, worn-out homes and clothing, drinking, violence. Such an environment engenders instability. As Daddy Glen loses job after job, Bone's family moves so frequently that Anney stops even bothering to fully unpack. Bone and her sister are often hungry. Anney even prostitutes herself one evening in order to obtain money to buy her children food.

The poverty of the Boatwright clan causes Bone to feel shame. She knows that more well-off South Carolinians look down upon her, such as Daddy Glen's family and even Shannon Pearl. She understands that people are judged by how much money they have and that society deems poor people less legitimate than wealthier ones. This is graphically depicted when Aunt Alma and her children move into an apartment in a house shared with an African-American family, which draws the disgust of her husband and Glen. Alma, in deeper poverty since she left her philandering husband, has fallen as low as African Americans—the poor are as disenfranchised as African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights South.

Part of Bone's illegitimacy stems from this poverty, but her birth is truly an illegitimate one. Anney's mother is a fifteen-year-old, unmarried mother. Bone's father's name does not even appear on her birth certificate; in fact, she never even learns it. Stamped across the document is the word illegitimate, hence the title of the novel. Anney recognizes the stigma that comes with this marking. For years, she tries to obtain a new, unblemished birth certificate for her daughter. She does not want her daughter to carry the mark of their class.

The desire for love among the members of the Boatwright clan is strong and pervasive. The characters demonstrate a belief in the transformative powers of love. Anney, an unwed mother at fifteen and a widow at nineteen, accepts Glen's marriage proposal only after she comes to believe that he will make a good, loving father to her children, but she still wants him to fulfill her own needs. As Alma points out, "She needs him like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth." Anney and Glen are both desperate to be loved, Glen because of his family's scorn for him and Anney because of her desertion by the fathers of her children. Their codependency ties them together, causing Anney to allow the continued abuse of her child and her eventual desertion of Bone in favor of Glen. Anney is tortured by her conflicting needs. As she tells Raylene on the day the uncles beat Glen for beating Bone, "Sometimes I hate myself, but I love him."

The fine line between love and hate is seen in Anney's feelings. It is also seen in her sister Alma, who wants to kill her husband after he insults her and rejects her sexually. As she tells Anney, "That's why I got to cut his throat.… If I didn't love the son of a bitch, I'd let him live forever."

Ruth's need for love is seen both in the birth of her children and her death. Anney tells Bone that Ruth saw each pregnancy as proof that a man loved her. When she knows that she is going to die, she makes her husband promise to delay her funeral until all of the boys have returned home.

Bone manifests a need to love her family and be loved. She rarely enunciates her feelings to her family, however. When she tells her favorite Uncle Earle that she loves him, it is during a rare moment that she feels "fiercely proud, of him, and of myself”—in essence, she is proud of her family despite what others may think of them. She also yearns for a normal family love—though she knows this is impossible—"when I just wanted Daddy Glen to love me like the father in Robinson Crusoe." Despite the rampant abuse and denial that exists in her family, she still believes in the power of love. "[L]ove would make me beautiful," she thinks, "a father's love would purify my heart, turn my bitter soul sweet, and light my Cherokee eyes."

Through her family morals and through Daddy Glen, Bone is introduced to human sexuality at a young age. She is only about eight or nine years old the first time Glen sexually abuses her, masturbating against her body. Though Bone "knew what it was under his hand … this was a mystery, scary and hard." Daddy Glen and Anney have sex often, which Anney's young daughters are aware of. Bone agrees with Reese's assessment that it is "mushy," but she also recognizes the power in sex. "Was that what Daddy Glen had been doing to me in the parking lot?" she wonders. Before she is ten years old, Bone has started masturbating. Her first sexual fantasies revolve around violence. She imagines that she is tied up while a fire rages around. Her fantasies evolve, and she masturbates while imagining that people are watching Daddy Glen beat her. As Glen continues to beat her with more force and more regularity, Bone's sexual fantasies become even more violent and complex. By the time she is ten years old, Bone already equates sex with violence and shame. Her shame and confusion is such that when Aunt Ruth asks her if Daddy Glen has ever sexually abused her, she says no.

Reese, growing up in the same environment, also starts masturbating at a young age. Like Bone, Reese makes up violent fantasies to go along with her masturbation. Bone sees her one afternoon enacting a scene in which she is attacked and raped. Watching her younger sister, Bone experiences her own sexual fantasy in which someone has beaten her, tied her to a tree, gagged her, and left her to starve. Bone orgasms while "pushing my thighs into the rough bark," while in the bed below her, "Reese pushed her hips into the leaves."

In the culture, children learn about and have sex at a young age. Anney is only fourteen years old when she becomes pregnant with Bone. As Bone points out, there is even a joke about it: "What's a South Carolina virgin? 'At's a ten-year-old can run fast." However, Bone's sexual curiosity is never turned outward. Even by the time she is twelve, she has demonstrated no interest in boys her age. At Aunt Ruth's funeral, her cousin Butch kisses her and uses his tongue. Bone is completely surprised at this behavior and pulls away "in surprise." This scene, though brief and underscored by Butch's order to not make "'more out of this than there is,'" reminds the reader that for the Boatwrights and particularly for Bone, all sex is deviant.


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