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.