Themes and Meanings
In “Rose-Johnny,” Barbara Kingsolver attacks racial prejudice and a town’s ignorance about and fear of the unknown and the unusual. At the start of the story, the reader believes that the reason for the open hostility the town expresses toward Rose-Johnny is because she is, or appears to be, a lesbian. In fact, Rose-Johnny is “no more lesbian than Lebanese”; the real reason for the hatred is the past love affair between her mother and a “brown” man and the subsequent birth of a baby to the couple. Rather than being the cause of her trouble, Rose-Johnny’s sexual ambiguity protects her from the men of the town. Her mother understood that people who feared the unknown and unusual would shun a woman whose sexual orientation was in doubt.
Another theme of the story is the power of motherhood and the power of the bond between mother and child. After the baby Johnny is drowned, Rose-Johnny’s mother remakes her daughter, to protect her, into two people, Rose and Johnny both. Then the mother follows her son into the river. Kingsolver has explored how a mother can make two people one, or vice versa, in other stories.
Georgeann looks up to Rose-Johnny in the same way that a daughter looks to her mother for guidance. She describes Rose-Johnny as looking like anybody’s mother except for the masculine haircut and the work boots. She thinks Rose-Johnny is the most capable person she has ever met, male or female. When Rose-Johnny disappears, Georgeann repeats what Rose-Johnny did: She remakes herself into two people, herself and her sister Etta, who is a victim of hate in the same way and for the same reasons that the infant Johnny was a victim.
Barbara Kingsolver uses two of her favorite themes, the strong, capable, indepen-dent woman and the character who stands out in a crowd, to make a social statement. In a society where nearly all the citizens condone the hatred and fear of the different and unknown, one person can pass on the more positive value of tolerance in a diverse world.