The Great Depression
Flagg's novel refers to several historical eras, but primarily to the period after the café's opening, the summer of 1929. "By the way," reports Dot Weems on October 15, 1929, "is it just my imagination or are times getting harder these days? Five new hobos showed up at the café last week." The hard times she refers to are the result of what John Galbraith describes as a "fundamentally unsound" economy. A mere five percent of the American population receives thirty percent of all personal income. The booming economy is the result of an over-productive industrial sector. Two weeks after Dot Weems's report, the stock market crashes on "black Tuesday," October 29. Millions are thrown out of work, and soups made of dandelions and catsup pass for a good meal.
In the 1930s, people clog the highways looking for work, while overhead new airplanes are tested. The railroad business booms from all the travel. The Great Migration is in full swing as blacks move from the rural South to the factories of the North. Many who take to the road stay transient for a long time. Socialism becomes an acceptable ideology among the majority of people who are profoundly affected by poverty. Franklin Roosevelt is voted into office on the basis of his innovative social programs. The economy starts to hum again, but it is World War II and the boom years of Truman and Eisenhower, that brings prosperity to America and the world again.
In the 1980s, the American Civil Rights era is considered over as a backlash comes from the conservative right. Civil rights leaders are caught off-guard. White middle-class voters express their anxiety that the previous decades of change were too abrupt and elect conservative candidate, Ronald Reagan. Disagreeing with the view that Reagan saved the nation, U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall said that in terms of equal rights for blacks, "Honestly, I think he's down there with Hoover and that group, when we really didn't have a chance."
A dark sign of the times is the rise of hate crimes throughout the decade. Neo-Nazi groups and the Ku Klux Klan gain new members after a long decline. There is a race riot in Miami and Vernon Jordan, head of the national Urban League, is shot and wounded in 1980. Between 1985 and 1987, the year in which Fried Green Tomatoes is published, the Southern Poverty Law Center reports forty-five cases of arson and cross burnings. From 1986 to 1988, there is a rise in racially motivated incidents on campus to 163 a year. The Reverend Jesse Jackson, considered a successor to Martin Luther King, Jr. by some, is a Democratic presidential candidate while David Duke, former grand wizard of the Klan, wins a seat as a Republican representative in the Louisiana legislature.
In the 1980s, the Christian fundamentalist movement challenges many of the social changes of the 1950s and 1960s. Mainline Protestantism is superseded and high school science classes are forced, in some states, to present the biblical story of creation as an alternative to evolution. The fundamentalist movement hits a snag, however, in the mid-1980s. Televangelist Jim Baker, head of PTL Ministries, misuses church funds to pay off his mistress, Fawn Hall. He is replaced by Jimmy Swaggart, who later confesses to adultery and resigns. As a result of the scandals, fundamentalist churches lose nearly five billion dollars. With the fall of the Iron Curtain at the end of the 1980s, Christian broadcasting massively expands its global reach.
Episodes An episode is usually a brief segment of action within a larger work, that can be...
(This entire section contains 799 words.)
separated from that larger work. It is similar to a parenthetical remark. The term comes from the Greek word epeisodion, meaning "following upon the entrance." In Greek drama, an episode occurs between choric songs. While the chorus began as an ensemble of fifty or more men, by the time of Christopher Marlowe (Doctor Faustus, 1604), the chorus had shrunk to a single man reciting a prologue and epilogue.
In Flagg's novel, there are several choruses and a multitude of episodes narrated by a third-person omniscient narrator. The most objective chorus is composed of news clippings. The other chorus is the exchange between Evelyn and Mrs. Threadgoode, who, in proper choric fashion, comment on the characters' heroic actions. In between the choruses, the stories of the people of Whistle Stop are filled in. Only by taking all three components together can the reader understand the full drama of Whistle Stop.
Comedy Flagg, a successful comedian, utilizes humor in her writing. She does so in Fried Green Tomatoes to lighten the dark and depressing passages. Obvious examples include Idgie's stories or Sipsey's superstitions. However, comedy enables Flagg to cover very dangerous ground and successfully shows both sides of a conflict. The best example of this is the confrontation between Grady and Idgie. He tells her to stop selling to "niggers" and she confesses that she "ought to" just like Grady ought to stop cheating on his wife. This exposure of hypocrisy is possible only because it is done with a smile between two friends.
As Flagg told an interviewer: "Oh yes. I suffer from what most humorists do, a deep need to be taken seriously. And I have to grab her by the neck and shake her and say 'Oh, shut up,' just tell the story and stop preaching. But writing humor is very serious and hard. Still, I find a novel without humor is not interesting to me. Life is, after all, very funny. If I did not really believe that I would jump off a building tomorrow."
Characterization According to E. M. Forster there are flat and round characters. The difference between them is that flat characters remain uncomplicated, while round characters develop depth through the course of a novel. Flagg tells a story full of characters who are round. She is able to describe the development of an impressive array of characters in a very short span of time. For example, only two pages are required to tell the whole tale of the Adcocks and leave readers knowing their entire life. With a comedian's sense, Flagg describes Mrs. Adcock as the president of the "I'm Better Than Anyone Else Club." Unfortunately, the reader doesn't need too much more information to understand this character completely, because everyone knows someone like Mrs. Adcock.
Assisting Flagg in her narration is the running commentary provided by Mrs. Threadgoode. Mrs. Threadgoode is not an alternative narrator. Instead, she is an example of character zone, as formulated by Mikhail Bakhtin. Character zones are created by the encroachment of a character on the author's voice to the extent that she and Flagg filter each other's words. Flagg's story concerns a café, while Mrs. Threadgoode, as her husband points out, is only concerned with Idgie.
Trickster The trickster is a universal character who behaves in the same manner whether in the context of the Pacific Northwest or in Australia. The trickster has been symbolized as a Loki in Norway, a hare in Sudan, a spider, turtle, or human in Africa, and a coyote or raven in America. Sometimes a supernatural being who can become other shapes, the trickster is a cyclical hero—now creator god, now duplicitous fool, now destroyer. The trickster tale normally involves the trickster, in whatever form, on a picaresque adventure. That is, the trickster is "going along," often in the company of a companion who is either a lackey or a foil, when a circumstance is encountered to which the trickster can respond with wit or stupidity. If the former, victory is achieved, but the latter brings violent death. The most famous example in the American South is Joel Chandler Harris's tales about Brer Rabbit from the mouth of a fictitious Uncle Remus.
In Flagg's novel, the journey is life and the trickster is Idgie. She tells tales, pulls pranks, and laughs. She sets Smokey Lonesome at ease with a ridiculous story and teaches Ruth's son what he needs to know through stories and example. She shape-shifts into Railroad Bill in order to redistribute some wealth. Through cunning and high alcohol tolerance, she brings an elephant to Naughty Bird. She also has the amazing talent of charming bees, or tricking them into giving her honey.
Using transitions between past and present, Flagg presents her story in brief chapters comprising glimpses of action as remembered by Ninny Threadgoode in the 1980s or conveyed by an omniscient narrator. The first half of the book introduces readers to the setting and characters, providing clues about why a murder was committed; the second half focuses on resolving the mysterious murder. Supplemental information is provided in the form of contemporary newspaper columns from 1929 to 1969 penned by Dot Weems who comments about people and events in the Whistle Stop community. The reader is aware by the book's conclusion, though, that Weems omits crucial information to protect her husband Wilbur and his friends because of their questionable activities to cover up crimes. In separate sections the Slagtown News Flotsam & Jetsam provides clues about African-American members of the Whistle Town community, reinforcing the segregation of the era depicted. Each chapter is identified with a header indicating the source of information, location of action, such as the Rose Terrace Nursing Home and private homes, or geographical settings significant to the plot development and characterization, including Valdosta, Georgia; Chicago, Illinois; and Davenport, Iowa. References to real roads and services, such as the Old Montgomery Highway and radio station WAPI, make the story more plausible and identifiable.
This literary style welcomes readers into Flagg's fictional world. By scanning newspaper accounts and eavesdropping on Ninny's storytelling sessions with Evelyn, readers feel that they are experiencing events as they occur. Flagg's skillful use of southern language, particularly idioms and accents which are authentic to that part of Alabama, enhances the novel. Although word choices and passages might seem old-fashioned to readers, Flagg's choice of dialogue convincingly portrays the early twentieth century Deep South and encourages nostalgic acceptance of her characters' world. The characters seem wholly authentic and realistic, and although they may be somewhat reminiscent of southern figures in popular culture, Flagg's main characters do not succumb to stereotypical behavior and responses to crises, offering readers a more genuine window into the paradoxes of individuality and conformity in the modern South. Flagg shows how simple incidents such as cooking a meal actually have complex layers which are universally recognized regardless of readers' locations.
Familiar with the Birmingham area, Flagg incorporates details about the sophisticated urban landscape, such as the enormous statue of Vulcan and how the steel mills lit up the sky, that provide contrasting scenery to the wisteria and sweetheart roses of whimsical rural Whistle Stop. She effectively uses the juxtaposition of the Ku Klux Klan interrupting the preparation of nurturing meals at the cafe to show how good and evil co-exist. Her imagery and use of figurative language is so intense that readers feel as if they can taste the buttermilk biscuits and smell the barbecue cooking at Idgie's cafe and hear the frictional whine of train wheels against rails as the train decelerates to deliver Wonderful Counselor's body home. Readers imagine themselves sitting next to Ninny, listening to her spin tales, or laughing at Idgie's tall tales in the cafe. They also are eager to piece together the clues about the mysterious secrets concerning characters' histories. Flagg's imaginative writing inspires emotional readers' responses, ranging from tears to laughter.
Set in the South, both during and after segregation, Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe explores the role of friendships that transcend age, gender, racial, cultural, and socioeconomic limitations. Community and humanity are emphasized in a town where people are valued more than money and kindness prevents hatred from destroying individuals who are weak and defenseless.
1. Discuss how the inclusion of fictional newspaper articles to separate chapters complements the narrative by providing information and clues about the resolution of subplots and the primary plot. How do the articles interfere with the storytelling? Are the shifting scene dates between different decades confusing?
2. Is Ninny Threadgoode's narrative believable? Why should Evelyn Couch and readers accept Mrs. Threadgoode's account as the truth? What motivations might Ninny have to alter facts? Evelyn notices Ninny's inside-out dress, purple-dyed hair, and other hints of Alzheimer's disease. Does this influence readers' opinion of Ninny's veracity?
3. What does this book reveal about how racism has changed from the early twentieth century to the 1980s? In what ways have racial relations stagnated according to textual passages? What details, such as an African-American newspaper and soldiers, Clarissa's passing for white and ignoring her Uncle Artis, the whites-only laundry truck, and use of the freight elevator, enhance Flagg's literary style or distract from her storytelling? How does the South change or remain the same?
4. Describe how characterization of females in this book reveals societal attitudes towards women and feminism throughout the twentieth century. How are Eva and Ruth similar and different? Idgie and Evelyn? What does this book contribute to the understanding of friendship and love between women?
5. Compare the lifestyles of the twins, Jasper and Artis, and how this information contributes to plot development. Does their disparity seem unrealistic and stereotypical? Is Artis more like the abusive Frank Bennett than his own family?
6. Why do characters, including law enforcement officers, often ignore legal procedures? Are various forms of vigilantism acceptable? Is Idgie's Robin Hood-role as Railroad Bill permissible because it aided starving people? Should Sipsey be forgiven her crime because it was committed in self-defense? Why would her contemporaries have treated her with contempt and punishment instead of mercy and understanding?
7. Discuss the role of lies, tall tales, and pranks in this book. Which characters seem to be the most deceptive? Which ones appear to be the most honest? Why does Reverend Scroggins lie at Idgie's trial?
8. Explain why train imagery is significant in this book. How do trains change individuals' lives? In what ways is the railroad a part of the community? How does the railroad foreshadow death and murder, such as the transportation of the executed murderer Seymore Pinto or the murdered body of Wonderful Counselor?
9. How is Ninny Threadgoode the catalyst for Evelyn's epiphany and spiritual, emotional, and physical transformation? In what ways does Evelyn instigate changes in Ninny?
10. Comment on how the community of Whistle Stop, Alabama, symbolizes the human life cycle. Elaborate on the depiction of aging and homelessness in the book and how these factors are related to the decay of small towns in rural America. What are various characters' attitudes toward death and when do they justify ending a life? How do they react to the demise of Whistle Stop?
1930s: Blacks are treated as second-class citizens. In the South, a legal regime of "separate but equal" enforces this status.
1980s: Civil Rights legislation and affirmative action have opened up opportunities to blacks and enabled legal recourse for those who suffer the effects of racism.
Today: Affirmative action has been successfully overturned in some parts of the country. Other legislation is under attack and Congress refuses to pass a federal hate-crimes statute.
1930s: Warren Harding keeps a mistress and illegally transfers naval oil reserves at Teapot Dome, WO, to the Department of the Interior. From there, they are leased to Harry G. Sinclair of Sinclair Oil. A Senate investigation finds that Sinclair and Edward L. Doheny had loaned large sums of money to Albert B. Fall, Secretary of the Interior. In 1927 the Supreme Court restores the oil fields to the U.S. government.
1980s: The Reagan administration illegally sells drugs and weapons to Iran, through Israel, to fund the Contras in their bid to oust the leftist government of Nicaragua.
Today: The sexual affair between President Clinton and intern Monica Lewinsky nearly results in the President's impeachment.
1930s: Iraq, no longer under Turkish rule, is a British mandate.
1980s: The West helps Iraq in its war against Iran.
Today: The West maintains sanctions on Iraq until it destroys its weapons of mass destruction.
1930s: Roosevelt creates the "welfare state" with the Social Security Act of 1935.
1980s: Republicans begin to advocate an end to the "welfare state" by disseminating a myth of welfare queens who drive Cadillacs.
Today: Welfare "as we know it" has been ended but, ironically, no funding was allocated for tracking former welfare recipients. Consequently, nobody is quite sure how successful the end of welfare is, but homeless shelter use is up.
1930s: Apartheid, a system of white rule, is implemented in South Africa.
1980s: The opposition group, the African National Congress, increases its military assault on the apartheid government.
Today: Apartheid has ended and Nelson Mandela is the current president.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe belongs to the southern gothic genre. Elements of romance, mystery, humor, and horror are intertwined to create a satisfying story with unusual and unconventional characters that tantalize and intrigue readers. This literary tradition can be traced to oral storytelling in the rural South where ghost stories and tall tales were shared as a means for neighbors and travelers to communicate and establish bonds in isolated locations. Such tales had familiar archetypes, including heroes and villains who enabled people to recognize similar patterns in each other's lives. These parallels enhanced empathy and friendship exhibited toward strangers that aided in the formation of thriving communities like Whistle Stop.
Flagg's characters would have discerned motifs in Edgar Allan Poe's thrillers that resonated in the macabre events they experienced. Poe also might have been fascinated by the sinister undercurrents in Whistle Stop and the slow decay of its citizens and structures, both institutional and physical. Flagg uses gothic techniques to shock her readers with unexpected twists (the cause of Frank Bennett's demise) and bizarre situations (the garden full of animal heads that was still intact decades later). She intersperses humor with tragedy, kindness with meanness, and forgiveness with vengeance in the tradition of other notable southern writers. For example, Truman Capote's The Grass Harp (1951) conveyed a sense of extended family and community in rural Alabama. Less well-known Alabama authors also examined themes of kinship, belonging, and ostracism in stories predating Flagg's novel. Leila Warren's Foundation Stone (1950) and Whetstone Walls (1952) chronicled the travails of one Alabama family, and Caroline Ivey's The Family (1952) revealed the betrayals that accompany love as experienced by protagonist Shelby Olmstead Crawford in southeastern Alabama.
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) discussed the interaction of whites and blacks in Depression-era Alabama much like Flagg's novel, and an alleged crime and trial were also pivotal to plot development. In many ways, Scout Finch resembles the tomboyish Idgie Threadgoode. Both female characters defy traditional expectations of their gender and boldly pursue their interests with minimal regard of other people's opinions. In addition, Smokey Lonesome and Boo Radley are both reclusive, misunderstood loners. Other significant works that may have influenced Flagg include the southern fiction of William Faulkner, Flannery O'Connor, Carson McCullers, and Eudora Welty that depicts southern families as being flawed yet mostly unified and often includes some degree of mystery or horror. Shirley Ann Grau, an Alabama writer, crafted dark stories about the realities of family life. Birmingham native Gail Godwin has written several southern gothic sagas which share themes and tones with Flagg's novel. Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind (1936) also discusses the role of family and place sustaining individuals despite uncontrollable obstacles and interferences.
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe has been adapted as two audio cassette editions. In 1992, Fannie Flagg was the reader of an audio version which included the novel's complete text. An abridged audiotape, also read by Flagg, was released in 2000. Flagg was nominated for a Grammy Award in the category for Best Spoken Word. She also compiled Fannie Flagg's Original Whistlestop Cafe Cookbook: Featuring: Fried Green Tomatoes, Southern Barbecue, Banana Split Cake, and Many Other Great Recipes (1985), and the Irondale Cafe Original Whistlestop Cookbook (1995) was published by Mary Jo Smith McMichael. Located in Irondale, Alabama, McMichael's business, named the Whistle Stop Cafe (http:// www.whistlestopcafe.com), offers book related merchandise in addition to foodstuffs and ingredients. Elizabeth Gareis compiled the Fried Green Tomatoes: Teacher's Manual (1998).
Flagg co-authored a script with Carol Sobieski for a movie version of her novel. Entitled Fried Green Tomatoes, the film was produced by Universal Pictures and released in 1991. The screenplay won the Scripters Award and was nominated for the Writers Guild of America best screenplay award and an Academy Award for Best Adapted Screenplay. Although Flagg's novel received critical notice among literary circles, the movie attracted popular attention of mainstream readers. Because of Flagg's involvement, the film retained much of the novel's characterization and plot development. Significant changes, however, were effected for dramatic appeal. The newspaper articles were replaced by action through the form of flashbacks which showed events occurring instead of being reported as snippets of human interest.
The movie visually displayed scenery and settings that Flagg elaborately and figuratively described in her novel. The omission of some characters enabled viewers to follow closely the relationship between Idgie and Ruth and Evelyn and Ninny and to comprehend the incidents that occurred concerning the disappearance of Frank Bennett. The elaborate texture of Flagg's text, including vivid tours of Birmingham, puns, and clever names, was not translatable to film.
Director Jon Avnet dramatically developed Flagg's framework of alternating between present and past by concentrating on Ninny's conversations with Evelyn intermixed with scenes from Evelyn's daily activities and vignettes of Idgie's and Ruth's friendship and the community of Whistle Stop. Unlike the book's focus on Evelyn's transformation which was initiated by her awareness of different women's lives as narrated through Ninny's point of view, the film revolves around Ninny, the storyteller, and her ties to the Threadgoodes. The movie does not follow the book's chronology exactly. For example, the movie focuses more on the trial and shows Idgie as a young woman soon after the crime occurred instead of twenty year later when charges were actually filed. Frank Bennett's truck is recovered near the beginning of the movie as Ninny's way to introduce Evelyn to Whistle Stop's citizenry. Relationships are changed, such as Evelyn visiting her husband's aunt instead of her mother-in-law at the nursing home. Situational alterations enable the film to present less confusing scenarios and explanations of the book's intricate plot. In the film, for example, Idgie is present in the room when Ruth dies, unlike in the novel, in which Idgie's absence permits Onzell's mercy killing. Also, Ninny moves in with the Couches, and Evelyn and Ninny visit Whistle Stop instead of Evelyn's solo sojourn in the book. The movie varies from the book in three other crucial ways. Idgie's and Ruth's lesbianism is toned down; Evelyn is cast as an unattractive housewife trying to win her husband's attention rather than achieve self-development and acceptance; and Ninny is revealed to be Idgie.
The movie's cast—specifically the female leads of Jessica Tandy, Kathy Bates, Mary Stuart Masterson, and Mary-Louise Parker—convincingly portray Flagg's characters. Non-verbal actions such as facial expressions offer viewers insights into the dramatic performances, revealing characters' motivations and opinions of others that words, whether printed in the novel or spoken as dialogue, cannot embellish. The movie became a box-office hit, appealing to viewers' sense of nostalgia and yearnings for friendship and community. Critics acclaimed the film adaptation, which benefited from Flagg's experiences as an actress. Tandy received an Academy Award nomination as Best Supporting Actress for her role as Ninny. The movie Fried Green Tomatoes was later released on videotape and on DVD, including supplementary footage detailing making of the movie, interviews, and recipes.
Released by Universal Studios in 1991, Fried Green Tomatoes stars Jessica Tandy and Kathy Bates. The scriptwriters were Fannie Flagg and director/producer Joe Avnet. The script received an Academy Award nomination for best screenplay based on material previously produced or published. The film was shot in Juliet, Georgia. It received rave reviews for its actors as well as its ability to portray multiple historic eras with authenticity. Fannie Flagg makes a cameo appearance as a teacher.
Fannie Flagg narrated the work for an audio edition in 1992. She received a Grammy Award for her recording of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café.
Sources Carolyn Banks, "Down-Home News & Blues," in The Washington Post, October 5, 1987, p. B10.
Erica Bauermeister, Jesse Larson, and Holly Smith, in 500 Great Books by Women: A Reader's Guide, Penguin USA, 1995.
Jack Butler, "Love with Reticence and Recipes," in The New York Times, October 18, 1987, p. 14.
Gayle Kidder, "Flagg Writes about Real South," in The San Diego Union-Tribune, November 12, 1987, p. C-1.
Orlando Ramirez, "Flagg Displays Depth, Intellect in Café," in The San Diego Union-Tribune, January 15, 1988, p. C-3.
Carolyn See, "Book Review; Fannie Flagg Offers Tale Full of Nostalgia," in The Los Angeles Times, September 28, 1987, p. 4.
Samuel S. Vaughan, in A Conversation with Fannie Flagg, Ballantine Reader's Circle, 1998, http://www.random-house.com/BB/readerscircle/flagg/excerptguide.html.
For Further Study Bruce Bibby, in Premiere, February 1992, pp. 33—4. In this interview Flagg discusses the female characters in her book.
Rosellen Brown, "Why Audiences Hunger for 'Fried Green Tomatoes,'" New York Times Current Events Edition, April 19, 1992, p. 2. This article explores the theme of friendship in the novel, praising its depiction of "real women who band together in an unspoken conspiracy of affection."
Jack Butler, in The New York Times Book Review, August 20, 1992, p. 14. Butler praises Flagg's sensitive portrayal of the love affair between Idgie and Ruth and her accurate depiction of small-town life during the Depression.
Fannie Flagg, Fannie Flagg's Original Whistle Stop Café Cookbook, Fawcett, 1993. Flagg has issued a complete cookbook of southern café recipes.
Renee Hartman, a review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, in Belles Lettres, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall, 1988, p. 6. Hartman focuses on the novel's realism, praising this "chronicle of life in a small town."
R. Kent Rasmussen and Kent Rasmussen, Farewell to Jim Crow: The Rise and Fall of Segregation in America (Library of African-American History), Facts on File, Inc., 1997. This work examines segregation from its beginnings in colonial Virginia through passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964. Emphasis is placed on the struggle of African-Americans for equality before the law.
Sybil Steinberg, a review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, in Publishers Weekly, August 28, 1987, pp. 64-5. Steinberg finds "the book's best character [to be] the town of Whistle Stop itself."
Diane Young, a review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café, in Southern Living, January, 1995, p. 78. Young's positive review finds this "folksy tale" to be written with "heart, humor and insight."
Steinberg, Sybil. Review of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe, by Fannie Flagg. Publishers Weekly 232 (August 28, 1987): 64.