Women's voices and anecdotes dominate this novel. Because they are often overlooked, Flagg insures that women and ordinary people are heard in her novel. Idgie Threadgoode is the first and last character readers encounter in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Aging from a girl to an elderly woman, Idgie represents the free spirit that middle-aged Evelyn Couch longs to become. Evelyn, however, is the book's focal character. Her emotional and physical transformation is initiated by her contact with Ninny Threadgoode whose stories reveal to Evelyn the possibilities that she can pursue based on the past achievements and bravado of various women. While Idgie is introduced in a newspaper item from The Weems Weekly, the bulletin covering Whistle Stop news, Evelyn is first mentioned by an omniscient narrator who describes Evelyn's initial impatience with Ninny Threadgoode's reminiscences at the Rose Terrace Nursing Home in Birmingham, Alabama. Avoiding her unpleasant mother-in-law, Big Momma, another nursing home resident, Evelyn waits for her husband Ed to drive her home. Indulging in unhealthy candy bars, Evelyn is discontented with her life and annoyed by Ninny's intrusion.
Ninny, formally named Virginia (the use of nicknames encourages reader familiarity and acceptance of characters), is an octogenarian who misses her home and community. She assumes the role of a wise older woman who transfers her common sense observations and life knowledge by narrating stories to the ambivalent younger woman and capturing her attention by mentioning that Idgie had been accused of murder. Ninny reveals intimate details about her life, including her regret that she never learned to drive, which symbolically would have given her more freedom and is perhaps why she urges Evelyn to earn a Mary Kay pink Cadillac. Although she is only 48 years old, Evelyn feels old, and Ninny astutely comments that she thinks Evelyn is undergoing an early menopause, which foreshadows changes in Evelyn's life. Evelyn remains mute during her first encounters with Ninny but gradually contributes to conversations, even though her participation consists of prompts to urge Ninny to finish a thought or provide more information.
Through the omniscient passages, readers learn how depressed Evelyn is as she internalizes her angry feelings and endures a mid-life crisis. Missing her grown son and daughter, she is overwhelmed by her patriarchal husband's incessant demands and realizes that he has had at least one affair with a younger and more attractive coworker. Evelyn is convinced that Ed would love her again if she lost weight and prepared more exciting meals. She succumbs to her depression, reflecting on her mother's death and feeling paralyzed. During this period of stagnation, Evelyn contemplates suicide, imagining that a cold bullet from a frozen gun might relieve the heated frenzy within her brain. Gradually, Evelyn considers the roles she has played in life as popular cheerleader and supportive wife and assesses how women are defined and grouped in a sexist society that dismisses them. She decides to reject being categorized and labeled. Ninny serves as her surrogate therapist, soothing and advising her. Evelyn even confides in Ninny while visiting Ninny's grave, updating her about her life. By bringing Ninny requested foods such as fried green tomatoes and lemon icebox pie, Evelyn increases the intimacy of their friendship, holding Ninny's hand as she speaks and eats. She reevaluates her reliance on food to comfort rather than provide sustenance.
As Ninny's mind lapses into confused thoughts and she becomes more childlike, ecstatically opening a Cracker Jack's prize, the repressed Evelyn transforms internally into Towanda, fantasizing about punishing everyone who oppresses and inflicts pain and grief on others. Evelyn first experiences...
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anger when she is verbally assaulted at the grocery store; she realizes the illogic in both her pattern of perceiving her attackers as victims, as well as in her belief that she had provoked the incident. Evelyn erupts at Ed and goes on a mental rampage against perceived enemies, slamming into a rude driver's car in the grocery store parking lot. Ultimately, she experiences an epiphany about the universal power-relationship between men and women, briefly wishing she were a man, and exorcises her alter ego at an African-American church service, eventually finding peace within herself. During this process, Evelyn adopts healthy eating habits and, because Ninny believes in her, self-confidently decides to follow Ninny's advice to develop her talents (her flawless skin helps her sell Mary Kay makeup) and become independent and not reliant on Ed for financial and mental support.
Evelyn admires Idgie Threadgoode, short for Imogene which suggests how fidgety Idgie is. She is the daring tomboy, liar, and practical joker who everyone likes because she alleviates tension and keeps life interesting through her acts of bravery and deceit (for example, she tells everyone that Frank Bennett died in an accident to protect Ruth's integrity). Almost a mythical figure, she withstands the deaths of her dearest loves, Buddy and Ruth, and can charm wild honeybees, catch large fish, and win poker games to assure that she gets her way, such as convincing the circus elephant trainer to walk the elephant, Miss Fancy, from Birmingham to Troutville to cheer up Naughty Bird. Idgie matures from an emotional, out-of- control teenager who breaks everything in her room because she is angry when Ruth decides to return to Georgia to marry Frank Bennett (Idgie sits outside the church blowing the car horn to protest the union then makes furtive monthly trips to check on Ruth), to a cool-headed, logical woman who knows how to manipulate the truth to protect her extended family.
Unashamed of her passion for Ruth, Idgie is open about their relationship and proudly proclaims Buddy, Jr., as her son, serving as a scout leader, coaching his sports teams, ritualistically burying his arm, showing him the ball-catching three-legged dog, and teaching him to shoot turkeys one-handed. Privately, she savors the pet name "bee charmer," bestowed by Ruth and suggestive of Idgie's magical nature. Clad in men's attire throughout the novel and avidly hunting and fishing, Idgie acts masculine, even in her appreciation of Eva who is the heterosexual doeppelganger of Idgie. Although their relationship is asexual—Idgie would never cheat on Ruth—Eva and Idgie share an intimacy based on their indulgences of liquor and tobacco and respect for each other's free spirits that other women in the Whistle Stop community would find impossible to attain. Eva even joins Reverend Scroggins' fake congregation, feigning to be a devout church member who provides Idgie's alibi at her trial. She also secretly writes a note to Ruth from Idgie to ask for forgiveness when Idgie lied. Flagg distinguishes Eva's noble actions from the whorish behavior of Helen Claypoole to show that Eva is a worthwhile companion.
Unlike Idgie and Eva, Ruth is a virtuous woman like her Biblical namesake and is innately self-sacrificing and paradoxically strong and fragile. She is Evelyn's counterpart in the first half of the book. Both women are passive and obedient, suffering abuses from their spouses. As Ninny Threadgoode's health declines in the second half of the book, Evelyn becomes more like the bold Idgie. In contrast to Idgie, Ruth, who is five years older, wears feminine clothing and seems meek, but demonstrates assertiveness by moving out when Idgie lies to her, slapping Idgie when she throws a tantrum, and taking back her maiden name. She also sends Idgie a biblical passage from the Book of Ruth to let Idgie know she needs help, as well as bears the pains of childbirth and her husband's abuse. She is also jealous of Idgie's fondness for Eva. The daughter of a preacher from Valdosta, Georgia, Ruth is a Sunday School teacher who gently seeks to convert people by example and kindness rather than roughhouse them which is Idgie's style. When Idgie rescues Ruth from
Frank Bennett, Ruth becomes both Idgie's romantic and business partner. Idgie assumes financial responsibility for Ruth and her son. Ruth, however, is the mature partner in the relationship, steadfastly remaining home and taking care of business while Idgie immaturely cavorts at the Wagon Wheel River and Fishing Club with members of the Dill Pickle Club which appropriately stage annual follies to entertain their families and friends with their frivolous antics. Frank Bennett is a mean, vain, unscrupulous, misogynistic man with one glass eye that symbolizes his cold nature and blindness to justice and enemies. He is well respected because of his family's property holdings in Valdosta. Bennett lacks character though (his moral decline being initiated at seeing his beloved mother and uncle having sex), working as he chooses for his family instead of an employer and seizing whatever and whoever he desires, then callously tossing them aside. He courts Ruth only because he wants a son produced by a mother from a good family to carry the Bennett name. Bennett realizes that Ruth is naive and vulnerable and plays on her weaknesses. He convinces her that he is a sincere suitor who has her best interest at heart. Although she does not love him, Ruth believes Bennett's professions of love and becomes engaged, mainly to appease her widowed mother who Ruth mistakenly thinks is interested in the Bennetts' money and social position.
Bennett continues to rape local girls (who give birth to his children but do not provide him a legitimate heir), and he ignores Idgie's warnings when she visits Valdosta and confronts him at the barber shop. Bennett does not, nor does he know how to respect women. He literally rapes the innocent Ruth on their wedding night, causing her to bleed for days which symbolizes her ebbing spirit, then refuses her the intimacy of sleeping together, only returning to their bed for sexual gratification while denying her any pleasure. Bennett beats Ruth who finally has the courage to leave him when her mother dies, after her mother has admitted that Bennett is the "devil" and has begged Ruth to seek shelter. The brooding Bennett saves face by telling everyone in Valdosta that he has committed Ruth to an insane asylum. He then pursues his wife in Alabama where she finds joy with the Threadgoodes that was absent in the vacuum of the Bennett mansion. Ironically, Bennett's attempt to kidnap his legitimate male heir, his claim to future glory, results in his death and the removal of any identifiable Bennett name or label associated with Buddy, Jr.
The African-American characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe enlighten readers about the social injustices both blacks and whites encounter, and offer balance to the story by presenting differing points of view. Sipsey Peavey, who asked the Threadgoodes for a job when she was a child, is the matriarch of the black community. Thin, superstitious, and the daughter of a slave, she cooks tasty meals and teaches Idgie and Ruth how to prepare delicacies, thus providing them with a skill to support themselves and nourish the community. Ninny recalls how Sipsey would care for everyone's babies, black and white, foreshadowing her encounter with Frank Bennett. Childless, Sipsey cares for an infant that a woman gives birth to while passing through Whistle Stop on a train. This baby grows up to become Big George, named for his immense size and in honor of George Pullman, inventor of the passenger rail car, revealing Sipsey's awareness of the world outside Whistle Stop.
Big George is devoted to Idgie, who he once saved from attacking hogs, Ruth, and all of the Threadgoode clan. A butcher, he is respected by both whites and blacks and has a dignity that eludes his detractors, such as the Klan members. He accompanies Idgie to rescue Ruth from Frank Bennett, helps hide Bennett's corpse, and stands trial with Idgie decades after the murder. George's skin is coal black which is sometimes disdained by some African Americans. George ignores such racism, marrying the lighter-skinned Onzell and fathering four children. The twins Jasper and Artis represent contrasting stereotypes in black society. Jasper's skin is coffee-colored like his mother's, and he tolerates insults and slurs while working as a railroad porter to earn enough money to send his children to college. Respected by his peers, Jasper is elected president of the local porter union.
Artis, however, was born with blue gums and skin as black as his father's. He resents his brother's fairness, which he equates with opportunity and prosperity, and stabs him with a penknife. He later stabs Frank Bennett's corpse, hinting of his future criminal activities and providing him a self defined sense of power over white people and a secret he retains until his dying moment. An angry man and a womanizer (like Frank Bennett), he seeks frivolous entertainments, refusing to work and invest in his future. When his younger brother, Wonderful Counselor, named for a Biblical passage, patriotically joins the army during World War II and is murdered defending his father's service to Idgie to a racist black soldier, Artis avenges his death by slaying the murderer. Artis spends time in prison for various misdeeds. Like she removed Ruth from the jail-like Bennett, Idgie helps George, Onzell, and Sipsey by using her influence as a white woman (aided by local sheriff and railroad detective Grady Kilgore) to convince prison officials to release Artis. Artis does not consider this twist of fate life altering and continues his wastrel lifestyle, dying homeless and impoverished.
His sister Naughty Bird (because she looks like a bird and steals biscuits—the repulsive Vesta Adcock is also described as bird-like, and Ninny was afraid of blackbirds because she believed they eavesdropped on telephone conversations) also lives in despair because of her dark skin and nappy hair. She refuses to leave her home when she is spurned by her lover in favor of a lighter-skinned woman. Jasper's children, such as Clarissa, are uninterested in their Whistle Stop kin and strive to attain social and professional status unobtainable to previous generations. Their separation from their rural roots symbolizes the deterioration of Whistle Stop.
The Threadgoode family represents the diversity of the community. Some children are athletic, while others are chubby. Some are musical, while others prefer science. Together, they form a cohesive unit that withstands assaults on individuals. The family warmly accepts outsiders, making them insiders who are aware of family traditions and secrets and who might find some practices humorous and grotesque, such as Sipsey's skull garden, but do not criticize or question the Threadgoodes' ways. Readers may experience difficulty keeping track of all of the Threadgoode children and their spouses, children's names, and professions. Idgie and Buddy Threadgoode overshadow their siblings, who good-naturedly tolerate their minor, peripheral roles. For example, Cleo Threadgoode, Ninny's husband, studies chiropractic medicine almost one thousand miles away in Davenport, Iowa, before returning to Whistle Stop where the family has continued to thrive despite his absence.
Buddy's death creates a hole in the family's structure that is later filled by Ruth's son. The Threadgoodes informally add children, such as the orphaned Ninny, without regard to legal adoption procedures. Adults join the family through association with family members, such as the hobo Smokey Lonesome who lives in the shed behind the cafe and loves Ruth, perhaps even more than Idgie, so much that he carries her photograph with him until he freezes to death walking to Whistle Stop, the one place he considers home no matter how far he roams. The town of Whistle Stop is the book's major character, sheltering a variety of likeable and detestable characters, and the railroad is the lifeline that connects everybody (hoboes etch the Whistle Stop Cafe's name on boxcar walls to advertise its fare). Running through the Threadgoodes' backyard, the railroad bisects Whistle Stop en route to New Orleans and Atlanta. The nearby switching yard provides employment opportunities for whites and blacks and assures an interesting assortment of people passing through the cafe, the nucleus of the community.
The locals, however, are the heart of Flagg's novel. In a raw lifestyle she keeps private to protect Ruth, Idgie enjoys the company of Grady Kilgore and Wilbur Weems, compatriots who compete in drunken poker games, neglect their duties to overlook Idgie's illegal activities, and ally against interlopers like the Federal Bureau of Investigation officers and Klansmen who try to interfere with her ways of coping with problems such as Frank Bennett or feeding the poor. Annoying characters like the wealthy Vesta Adcock further illuminate the qualities of more empathetic people like Opal Threadgoode, who runs the beauty shop, or Dot Weems, the postal clerk who reports the town's news, including marriages, deaths, and her accident-prone husband Wilbur's misadventures. Although Idgie and her friends immaturely torment Reverend Scroggins by telling strangers that they can buy whiskey at his home, for the most part, the Baptist preacher and his wife are respected, especially after he saves Idgie during her trial. However, this safe, redemptive, neighborly atmosphere begins to change, as represented by Dot Weems shockingly reporting that her purse was stolen at the cemetery. As residents move or die, Whistle Stop becomes a ghost town populated by loyal descendants, such as the affable Jonnie Hartman who guides Evelyn through town and memories of its heyday.