Although the first chapter is told from Melody’s point of view, Iris is the protagonist of Red at the Bone, and from her complexities emerge the novel’s central themes. Iris is Melody’s mother and Sabe’s daughter, and she spent her entire childhood in Brooklyn. She is described as beautiful and intelligent, with vibrant amber eyes. As a child, she was often at odds with her mother, due to Sabe’s firm Christian faith, dominant personality, and her constant focus on her family’s traumatic history. When Iris was fifteen, she began dating Aubrey and became pregnant shortly thereafter. In contrast to Aubrey, Iris grew up privileged. Whereas Aubrey loses his virginity to Iris, Iris reveals later on that she lost her virginity when she was thirteen to a boy she thought she was in love with. She is initially optimistic about the pregnancy, but experiences regret as soon as Melody is born.
Because of her desire to escape the pressures of familial life, Iris applies to college. She chooses to attend Oberlin, because, of all the schools she applied to, it is the farthest away from Brooklyn. During college, she begins to feel like she has outgrown Aubrey and Melody, and she has a six-month relationship with a girl named Jamison. Iris continues to distance herself from Aubrey and Melody after graduating, moving into a separate apartment in Manhattan.
Furthermore, as a self-described lapsed Catholic, Iris has a considerably defiant, careless nature and feels perpetually unfulfilled with her life circumstances. As a result, she comes across as aloof, or even selfish, but these traits perhaps reflect symptoms of depression, which stem from her mother’s abuse, her disillusionment with reality, and perhaps inherited trauma from her ancestors. Her grief over Aubrey’s death and her regret over her absence as a mother to Melody illustrates that, although she makes hurtful decisions that impact them, Iris cares deeply about her family.
Aubrey Daniels, Melody’s father, grew up in a small apartment in Brooklyn and was raised by a single mother, CathyMarie. He never met his father and later learns from his mother that he died of a drug overdose. Whereas his mother has lighter skin, Aubrey takes after his father’s comparatively darker appearance. He explains that his mother grew up in the system; as a result of her reliance on the government for financial support, she became motivated to give Aubrey a better life.
In contrast to Iris, Aubrey is more of a romantic, and he describes being deeply in love with Iris. Perhaps due to his sensitive nature, he displays more maternal instincts than Iris does, and he places significant value on family. Consequently, he does not mind giving up his ambitions to take care of Melody, which confuses Iris, who does not want to settle down. Having a child at sixteen makes Aubrey seem older than his years, especially considering that he also began his working life at the same age.
Aubrey clearly enjoys being a father to Melody, and their close bond mirrors his strong relationship with his mother. He struggles with Iris’s increasing physical and emotional distance, and he becomes more lost in the wake of his mother’s death. In many ways, Aubrey’s unwavering loyalty, compassionate personality, and steadfast commitment to raising Melody make him an amalgamating force in the family. For this reason, his death on 9/11 has a profound impact on the other characters.
As the daughter of Iris and Aubrey, Melody stands at the heart of Red to the Bone . Her entry into the world is the catalyst of the story and binds together the various narratives. As the novel unfolds, Woodson uses Melody’s development—from her birth to her departure for college—to draw forth insights from the life experiences and perspectives of other characters. Born to Iris when she was sixteen, Melody is named after Sabe’s...
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