Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe

by Fannie Flagg

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Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 798

Race and Racism
Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Café explores the width and depth of race and racism. While the evidence of racism is obvious, discussion of the situation is hushed and never crosses the color line. In fact, the only person who successfully crosses that line is Idgie, who simply doesn't understand the world in those terms.

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Mrs. Threadgoode and Evelyn discuss race in terms of fear. "You know, a lot of these people resent having colored nurses out here. One of them said that deep down, all colored people hate white people and if those nurses got a chance, they'd kill us off in our sleep." Evelyn later realizes that her mother raised her to fear blacks. The novel, except to hint that time is the best teacher, provides no solution to racism. If people like Evelyn can realize that, despite their liberal opinions, they are squeamish, then perhaps they can make an effort to at least cease propagating fear to their children.

Gender Roles
A major step in Evelyn's progression toward being a self-possessed adult is being aware of society's prescribed gender coding. She realizes for herself what the feminist movement of the 1970s had been trying to tell her—it's a man's world. She had been terrified of "displeasing men" her whole life. Consequently, she walks on tiptoes, as if in "a cow pasture" in order to avoid the words a man might say to her. One day, by accident, it happens. A boy at the supermarket hurls abuse at her. Bruised but not dead, she realizes she has survived her worst nightmare and sets about examining it. Her first reaction, and an important step in terms of her growth, is to realize that "Evelyn Couch was angry." The second is to be carried away by her superhero fantasy of Towanda.

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In the midst of a Towanda episode, she talks back to Ed when he habitually asks her to bring him a beer. The inadvertent outburst leads to more reflections. She surmises that having "balls" "opens the door to everything." When she realizes how silly these gender roles are, and in this she believes she has Idgie's backing, she finds herself a little more confident about herself.

There are other ways the novel explores gender roles. The physical abuse Evelyn fears has happened to Ruth. However, the reverse happens to Mr. Adcock. He eventually leaves his wife after he has fulfilled his duty to his children. The positive examples come from the old-timers, like the Weems, or from the rebels, like Idgie and Ruth. The message is that love and happiness allow people to make up their own roles.

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Wealth
According to the novel, wealth, in the form of money, is not an end in itself. In fact, a happy life, a healthy family, good food, and good friends are more important than savings. Thus, when Cleo complains to Idgie that their father ruined himself by his generosity and that Idgie is bound to do the same, he receives a wise response. "Listen," says Idgie, "money will kill you," and then she tells a parable about a man who is squashed in the mint by hundreds of pounds of coin.

Sex
The discussion of sex, like race, is done in hushed tones. Men don't discuss sex at all except in joking and embarrassed tones (and usually in reference to Eva Bates). Evelyn wonders if her virginal discomfort with sex is unique. To her delight, Mrs. Threadgoode admits to the same position. "But Cleo was so sweet with me, and by and by, I got the hang of it." As with gender roles, sex is a happy thing when the act is not repressed or forced and there is respect for the other person. Helen Claypoole, who is a drunken buffoon used by men, represents the alternative approach. She doesn't respect herself, and no one respects her.

Sex education is a tough topic, but Idgie broaches the subject of sex with her son in a straightforward, pragmatic, and enlightened manner. Stump, who dreads being incapacitated by his missing arm during sex, has insulted Peggy rather than face her interest in it. Stump's fears, like Evelyn's, are not unique to him: "I'll fall on her or lose my balance because of my arm and maybe I just won't know how to do it right...I might hurt her or something." Idgie takes her son to an easy woman, Eva, for his first time.

Evelyn, on the other hand, is incapable of dealing with her daughter's budding sexuality. On the day she purchases her daughter's diaphragm, she locks herself in her sewing room with a second pint of Baskin-Robbins chocolate ice cream, remembering that she had waited until her wedding night. "She still didn't enjoy sex."

Themes

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1097

Family and home are the primary themes of Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe. Friendship, and not genetics, determines familial relationships in Flagg's novel. The Threadgoode surname embodies these themes. Not only do the Threadgoodes exhibit goodness toward everybody, but they also are the thread that connects the disparate parts of the Whistle Stop community. Mrs. Threadgoode's maiden name, Cloud, suggests cliched meanings symbolizing optimism and happiness such as "every cloud has a silver lining" and "on cloud 9." Characters in Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe are searching for a home and a sense of place. The Threadgoodes offer security and acceptance to orphans such as Ninny and their children's love interests such as Ruth. The Rose Terrace Nursing Home provides a community that parallels the childhood enjoyed by the youthful residents of Whistle Stop.

Love is a recurrent theme in the book. Characters experience love and respect for their biological kin, such as demonstrated by Idgie's devotion to Buddy and Ninny's acceptance of Albert. Love is also present in romances, which are described as deep, emotional bonds between couples and not overtly depicted as erotic. Flagg honors couples' and friends' intimacies by not exploiting private interactions unless they are crucial to plot resolution, such as the disposal of Frank Bennett's body. Although Eva is portrayed as an intensely sexual woman who has had many partners, including most of Whistle Stop's male citizens, Flagg emphasizes that Eva loves only Buddy. Her sexual initiation of Buddy, Jr., better known as Stump, when he worries about how his absent arm might affect his performance with his girlfriend Peggy, is an act of love in memory of Idgie's brother.

Friendship is closely related to love and truth in this book. While Idgie loves Ruth, she has a deep friendship with Eva based on their mutual love of her brother Buddy and their interest in gambling and drinking, addictions foreign to Ruth's pious, ordered world. Idgie can act wildly unrestrained around Eva, but, with Ruth, she has to control her urges and be civilized. Symbolically, Ruth moves out when she catches Idgie in a lie concerning her whereabouts because Idgie yearns for momentary freedom, yet Idgie is devastated at the idea of losing Ruth and promises to respect their relationship by being honest. Freedom is another theme in this novel. Slagtown offers some freedom and social mobility to Jasper, Artis, and other blacks. Characters wish they had more control over their lives: Ninny wants to move home and claims that she is only at the nursing home to take care of Mrs. Otis, and Evelyn desires to be thinner and more powerful in order to command respect from others.

Evelyn learns to control her appetite, transferring her reliance on sugary and fattening foods to Ninny who childishly craves the sweets and will not suffer weight gain from excess calories. The theme of food is woven throughout the novel to represent comfort, fun, and resolution of such problems as concealing Frank Bennett's body. Ruth falls in love with Idgie when they share a picnic, and Idgie risks being stung to bring her honey from a hive. Sentimentality is another theme that is demonstrated through such actions as Idgie leaving roses on Ruth's grave and Ninny bequeathing her most precious belongings to Evelyn. Silence and unspoken words also underscore the narration and highlight characterization, particularly of the taciturn Smokey Lonesome and the depressed Evelyn. As the omniscient narrator comments, "The ones that hurt the most always say the least."

Change symbolized by Evelyn's undergoing menopause, commonly referred to as the change of life, is an important theme. All of the characters are dealing with changes, whether aging, losing beloved family members or friends, coping with economic despair, or confronting antagonistic individuals. Technological changes, such as interstate highways, transform the landscape so that Whistle Stop is not easily distinguishable from the sprawling Birmingham metropolis. Some things, however, remain constant, such as the sweetheart roses that grow in the Threadgoode yard even after the house is abandoned. Survival and perseverance are stressed as themes. Ruth outlasts her brutal husband, and Idgie perseveres several years to win Ruth's heart. She takes risks, such as charming wild bees, to impress Ruth. Miracles and signs that reassure or inspire characters are a part of Flagg's book, whether they appear in the dubious form of a $10 bill allegedly laid in a chicken egg, in the landing of a meteorite, or in such spectacular events as Sipsey serendipitiously acquiring Big George as an infant, or Ninny conceiving despite her tipped uterus and being highlighted by a sunbeam in church on Easter.

Death and goodbyes are also themes that are woven throughout the text. Evelyn's mother's death from cancer foreshadows the loss of Ruth. Both women are consumed by invasive cells that their loved ones cannot control, symbolizing those characters' ultimate weaknesses and Achilles' heels. Buddy's sudden, catastrophic death caused by a train precedes the similarly abrupt severing of Ruth's son Buddy, Jr.'s arm in a railroad accident. His arm is buried near his father's head, perhaps a ghastly form of retribution for that crime. The loss of his limb, however, does not end Buddy, Jr.'s activities but actually results in a richer lifestyle as he strives to prevent his loss from becoming a disability. The arrival of the executed criminal, Seymore Pinto, and Wonderful Counsellor's corpse suggest to readers that a more sinister murder may soon be revealed. Several characters comment that murderers are better than thieves because most people kill just once to protect someone they love rather than committing the crime because of hate, while thieves steal throughout their lives. These hypothetical killings are justified because of the good that results, foreshadowing the attack on Frank Bennett to prevent him from seizing Buddy.

Sipsey's superstitious belief of burying animals' heads instead of eating them results in the Threadgoodes having a macabre garden that simultaneously symbolizes death and life because the skulls replenished the earth. Mrs. Otis and Ninny died within weeks of each other, and Evelyn becomes their living substitute, gaining the self-confidence to explore the remnants of Whistle Stop to commemorate their existence and to understand her new image and future purpose. Idgie, however, seems immune to death, selling sweet corn and giving away honeycomb on a Florida roadside stand. Commerce and trade thematically represent vigor and recycling of energy and life, whether in the form of Idgie selling a plate of nourishing barbecue or Evelyn earning the pink Cadillac that Ninny desired in recognition of her Mary Kay cosmetics sales.

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