Themes

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The Symbolism of the Body

In Sharp Objects, Camille’s body acts as both symbol and theater of the novel’s subjects of childhood emotional damage, toxic mothering, sexual abuse, and female rage. As the symbolic locus for so many central concerns, Camille’s body takes on the role of a meta-narrator in Sharp Objects. Her body tells Camille’s biography, speaks of the forces that have shaped her, and attests to the power of storytelling itself. Through the layered information of Camille’s body, Flynn makes a meta-comment on how women’s bodies serve as arenas for social and political forces in the world. Early on in the novel, Camille reveals to the reader that she is a “cutter… a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber.” Camille self-harms, but with “purpose.” From the neck down, Camille has carved words into almost every inch of her body she can reach. All the words—“baby,” “milk,” “vanish,” “falling”—have personal significance for Camille, yet are also universally powerful. Camille writes her story on her body, thereby reclaiming agency and power from her damaged past.

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For instance, Camille wears her lexicon as an armor to keep her body’s surface private. Dressed in full-sleeved shirts and jeans even in the peak of summer, Camille remains fully covered and rebuffs the advances of potential boyfriends. By altering her body, Camille rebels against its sexualization—which she was subjected to as a young teenager. Further, as the child of an extremely abusive mother who wants to own and consume her children’s bodies, Camille’s cutting is a way to wrest back control of her individuality. Camille’s cutting can also be viewed as wish to annihilate herself, because she has internalized her mother’s hatred of her and, more broadly, society’s hatred of women. The practice can also be viewed as an expression of Camille’s guilt for surviving, given that her sister Marian died. However, at the subtextual level, Camille’s writing on her body is better read as a survivor’s trick. Camille, who is a journalist, uses words to tell a story and thus order the world around her. She is also the only woman in her family who leaves Wind Gap and forges an independent life. Thus, what Camille carves into her body is a codex of personal meaning, and what her body represents, above all, is an act of resistance.

Female Rage and Violence

One of the most important themes in Sharp Objects can be found in its focus on female rage. While women are traditionally presented as victims of violence, in Sharp Objects they are also the aggressors. Violence is embodied in the figures of the murdered little girls, in Amma’s perverse happiness at watching sows being forcibly nursed at Adora’s pig farm, and in the way Adora plucks her lashes. Thus, the text acknowledges the force of female anger, a trope popular narratives ignore.

But the novel goes further than just voicing this rage. Sharp Objects also explores the complex way in which female rage plays out. For instance, women’s violence often coexists with overt signs of femininity and sweetness: thirteen-year-old Amma can’t eat her ham unless it is dunked with honey, whereas golden-haired, slim Adora is the image of upper-class femininity. Furthermore, the lines between sex and violence are often blurred: Camille recalls her own abusive sexual experiences as a child, and notes how Amma wields her sexual power as “a form of aggression. Long skinny legs… and high, babied voice all aimed like a gun.” Camille directs her rage against herself, cutting her own skin.

Expressed extremely in the case of the Preaker women, female rage in the novel is all-pervasive, disguised in the form of everyday meanness, as Camille encounters at a reunion with her former Wind Gap schoolmates, who belittle Camille for her choice to be child-free.

“I don’t mean this to sound cruel,” Tish began, “but it seems like part of your heart can never work if you don’t have kids.”

As these lines show, the most striking aspect about female rage is that it is directed not towards men, but other women and girls. The only instance of a man being the recipient of female rage is Amma’s baiting of John Keene, murder victim Natalie’s older brother. John is emotionally sensitive and expressive, thus embodying certain traits typically associated with femininity; for this Amma punishes him.

Indeed, throughout the novel female rage punishes not just women, but qualities that represent female weakness. Because patriarchy mutes women’s anger and indoctrinates women to turn against each other, female rage manifests in a manner distinct from male anger. The only Preaker woman who is self-aware about the way female rage originates and operates is Camille. Because Camille resists society’s appropriation of her individuality and uses words to channel her anger, her anger is neither as extreme nor as destructive to others as that of Adora and Amma.

The Cycle of Abuse in Families

Though social pressures have a significant role to play in inciting violence in Sharp Objects (a dynamic epitomized by Amma), the text also locates the violence in familial dysfunction. Flynn’s novel can be read as a keen study of how abuse spreads and deepens within families, ultimately infecting people outside the sphere of the family. Thus, it is an incisive commentary about the way violence multiplies in contemporary society.

Seen through Camille’s eyes, coy, cold, and smothering Adora is a repugnant character. Yet her behavior is put in perspective when family friend Jackie revels to Camille that Adora was herself abused by her mother, Joya. Jackie tells Camille, “Never saw your grandmother Joya smile at her or touch her in a loving way, but she couldn’t keep her hands off her.” Not only did Joya touch Adora inappropriately, licking her wounds and fiddling with her sunburnt skin, she also punished her by emotionally and sometimes physically abandoning her. The abuse fractures Adora’s psyche, leading her to eventually develop Munchausen syndrome by proxy (MSP). Thus, the text draws causal connections between dysfunctional families, abuse, and mental illness.

The novel highlights various devastating effects a mother’s abuse can have. Typically, domestic violence narratives focus on violent fathers, but Sharp Objects explores how mothers can perpetuate violence in complex ways. Adora both reacts to Joya’s abuse and in her own way replicates it, as if to exorcise her own childhood. Almost as if such abuse were an heirloom, Adora passes the legacy of abuse to her children, all three of whom react to it in strikingly different ways. Gentle, brave Marian succumbs to her mother’s control, whereas clever Amma develops into an even more extreme version of Adora, as exemplified by her dollhouse—an exact replica of Adora’s Wind Gap house, but with a macabre twist. While Adora’s violence primarily consumes her own children, Amma’s oozes out of the familial sphere to consume Anne, Natalie, and finally, Lily. All three girls are killed because of Amma’s jealousy towards Adora, and then her quasi-mother, Camille. Amma is thus both a lost, jealous little girl and a sadistic killer who seeks to harm others in order to attain security. As Camille succinctly observes of the cycle of abuse towards the end of the novel:

A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.

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