(Novels for Students)

Central to Rosacoke Mustian’s dilemma in this book is the question of whether Wesley Beavers truly loves her. On one hand, his focus when he is home is on her. He escorts her to picnics and drives her places that she needs to go, such as Mildred’s funeral. People kid him about when they are going to be married, and late in the book Sammy Ransom says that he just assumed that they already had plans. Despite their social situation, though, Wesley is distant to Rosacoke in private. He hints at relations with other girls, teasing her with talk of skinny-dipping and dancing with them. (Rosacoke eventually finds out that his hints are probably real when he blurts out another girl’s name during sex.) He does not tell her when he is coming to town or when he is going. He has never asked for a picture of her, and the only one he has is one that she insisted he take. He writes seldom, and only about inconsequential things. When she asks in a letter, “are we in love?” he responds, “You are getting out of my depth now.”

At the same time, Rosacoke is not sure whether what she feels for Wesley is love or not. She has been compelled by him since their first meeting six years earlier, but she does not know why. At one point she thinks of the things that she has kept from their relationship, letters and mementos, as being no more to her than the reminders of her dead father. The book can be read in terms of Rosacoke’s exploration of other relationships—Milo and Sissie, Macey and Marise, Mildred and Sammy, her parents, and even Willie Duke and Heywood Betts— in terms of what they can tell her about love. In the end, she decides to marry Wesley because “After all Wesley knows me,” even though she says that it is the baby, not Wesley, who knows about love.

One of the reasons that Wesley is able to make Rosacoke accept his casual attitude toward their relationship is that she does not know who she is and what she can rightfully expect from life. He, on the other hand, is full of self-confidence. When she asks why he acts as he does, he responds, “Because I am Wesley.” When she is upset with him, Rosacoke has one request of him: “Do me a favor. . . . Say Rosacoke.” She needs Wesley to acknowledge her individuality.

She looks back to her childhood fondly as a time when life was full of adventure, when finding a new area of forest or seeing a deer unexpectedly could open up new possibilities. She is growing up, though, a fact that is highlighted in the novel by the contrast between Rosacoke, who is the...

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