Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 483
Central to all the events in each of the stories of The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose [also published as Who Do You Think You Are ?], Rose is the book's protagonist and principal character. Beginning her life in the poor western section of the small town of...
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Central to all the events in each of the stories of The Beggar Maid: Stories of Flo and Rose [also published as Who Do You Think You Are?], Rose is the book's protagonist and principal character. Beginning her life in the poor western section of the small town of Hanratty, Rose, like Del in Lives of Girls and Women (1971), considers herself an outsider. But whereas Del's reaction to this feeling of isolation is to search for connections with other people, Rose endeavors to cut herself off from the culture and geographic place where she is so deeply rooted. A key strategy by which she attempts to relieve the pain of her "indigestible lump" of memories of "sad poverty" is to reshape the past through narrative. Rose reconfigures the "various scandals and bits of squalor from her childhood" into hyperbolic stories, which, in turn, can be "performed" with great effect at cocktail parties. These entertaining yet grotesque parodies of the habits and people of West Hanratty are engaged by Rose as a means of gaining attention and, she hopes, acceptance within each new community she comes in contact with. More important, they also give her a sense of power, the ability, in her mind at least, "to queen over" academics and artists who carry a romanticized notion of what it is to have been born poor.
What Rose gradually realizes is that, like most parodies, her stories of West Hanratty are more than attempts to subvert the potency of past connections, they are also celebrations of these connections. When she returns to her childhood home to care for her aging stepmother Flo, Rose begins to understand that despite her lifelong attempts to escape the ethos of West Hanratty, she has carried it with her in her attitudes toward life, love, and the power (negative and positive) of performance.
Although Rose is central to each story, the book is, as the subtitle of both the American and British editions suggests, about two characters: Flo and Rose. Unlike her stepdaughter, who moves beyond the limitations that have traditionally defined the lives of people from West Hanratty, Flo rarely ventures beyond the geographic or social boundaries of the small community. Instead, her life becomes one of not-so-quiet desperation. At times, she attempts to establish herself in a position of cultural and moral superiority over those around her, as someone who has experience, albeit briefly and without great success, of life in an urban center, where "she worked as a waitress in the coffee shop in Union Station . . . and was followed by men on dark streets and knew how payphones and elevators worked." More often, Flo rails against what she considers the flaws and pretensions of others, using her skills of mimicry and storytelling to pass harsh judgment on individuals and lifestyles, taking center stage with performances which turn people into "monsters ... of foolishness, and showiness, and self-approbation."