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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 550

Melungeons are a mixed race of dark-skinned people living in the mountains of Appalachia whose ethnic origins are mysterious. One recent theory is that they are descended from Moors who came to the New World in the sixteenth century with Portuguese explorers and then moved into the interior and intermarried...

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Melungeons are a mixed race of dark-skinned people living in the mountains of Appalachia whose ethnic origins are mysterious. One recent theory is that they are descended from Moors who came to the New World in the sixteenth century with Portuguese explorers and then moved into the interior and intermarried with indigenous people. Some research has suggested that the word “Melungeon” comes from a Turkish word that means “abandoned by God.” The dark-skinned, mixed-race people were often scorned by white settlers and driven out of the valleys and into the mountains where they lived relatively secluded lives.

Deputy Goins has suffered racial prejudice because of his mixed-race background. When an army dentist noticed that his gums were tinged with blue, he was assigned to an all-black company. Both black and white soldiers treated him with open scorn; thus he was doubly exiled and marginalized. This subject matter—a mixed-race person who suffers from prejudice—fits in with the 1990’s literary focus on multiculturalism and racial conflict. However, this is less Chris Offutt’s central thematic interest than it is a general thematic background for the sense of isolation and alienation that pervades the story.

“Melungeons” also is a variation of the oldest subtype of the Kentucky mountain story—the family feud, à la the Hatfields and McCoys in the late nineteenth century. Whereas the feud between the Gipsons and the Mullins started over disputed bear meat, the famous Hatfield-McCoy feud started over a dispute about a pig. The original cause of such feuds does not matter after a time, for other, more powerful elements take over: the tendency to never forget ancient grudges, the total devotion to one’s family, and the stubborn insistence that there must be revenge for a past wrong.

When Beulah Mullins, one of the last old members of her clan, hears that Gipson, one of the last of his clan, has returned, it seems inevitable, given the characteristics of the mountain feud, that she will strike a blow for her family. Beulah—whose birth was never recorded and who has never voted or paid taxes and has not been off the mountain in fifty years—makes the trip into town in answer to a bone-deep demand; over thirty people from the Mullins and the Gipson clans have died in the feud that started sixty years earlier. She goes to the jail with a sawed-off shotgun hidden in her skirt, implacable in her duty, kills the last of the old Gipsons, and takes his place in the jail cell.

A related theme of the story is the contrast between the old ways of the mountains and the increasing modernization that Beulah observes when she makes her first trip to town in many years. On her last trip, there were wagons and mules, but now there are automobiles and neon signs. Beulah, now eighty-four years old, is a living icon of the old mountain life, and just as it is inevitable that she will kill Haze Gipson, it is also inevitable that she and all that she represents is destined to pass away. At the end of the story, Deputy Goins walks out of the jail and heads toward the nearest slope, having been called by this primitive revenge ritual back to the hills from whence he came.

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