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Written by Dorothy Alison, The Bastard out of Carolina is a chef-d’oeuvre, unwrapping blatantly the ugly side of family life and society. Family, just like any other institution is a complex establishment that if not managed well, can tear its subjects forever. Drawing mostly from her life experiences, Alison explores issues of race, gender, sexuality and class in what appears to be a semi-autobiography.
The story revolves around Bone, a “by-blow” of a young, uneducated, poor waitress called Anney. At fifteen years of age, Anney, a child herself, is burdened with the responsibility of legitimizing Bone, and giving her the best in life. In pursuit of love, something she rarely experienced in her own family, Anney falls into the ‘loving’ arms of Glen, who takes her in and promises love and provision.
Within no time, Bone finds herself in the midst of sexual harassment; emotional turmoil and physical abuse that Glen is so versed in executing towards this ‘illegitimate’ child, something that Anney cannot object for she feels ‘loved’ in this marriage. By the time she is thirteen, Bone has tasted a life full of self-hatred, rejection, disappointment and abuse. As aforementioned, Alison uses Bone and the people around her to exploit the issues of gender, race, sexuality and class in a clamorous manner.
Gender, Race, Sexuality and Class
As the book opens, Alison divulges how class categories rest upon the conspicuous differences between the privileged and unprivileged people in society. To many people, the privileged are industrious, cultured, respectable and legitimate as opposed to the lazy, uncivilized, illegitimate poor in the society.
However, Alison proves these are only reversible constructs depending on one’s perspective. Right from the beginning Anney fights to secure a birth certificate for Bone without the word ‘illegitimate’ appearing on it. Anney belonged to the so-called ‘white trash’ class, which the rich exploited to garner their wealth.
Bone recounts, “Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she’d ever spent bent over other people’s peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground” (Alison, 1992, p. 4). In this scenario, Alison deconstructs what societies call ‘attributes’ of the privileged class.
It is evident that, while Anney worked so hard for his employers, they were lazy and the best they could do is to stand tall and watch as she worked. This revelation helps the reader to understand and empathize with the majority poor who belonged to the ‘white trash’ category. In Alison’s analysis, the attributes given to the privileged class apparently they rightfully belong to the unprivileged.
Drawing from her other work, A Question of Class, Alison states how class categories develop in society through prejudice that the rich employ to ensure their security. Apparently, the privileged believe that their security “depends on the oppression of others, that for some to have good lives there must be others whose lives are truncated and brutal” (Alison, 1994, p. 35). This perspective comes out clearly in Anney’s case where she is a victim of this distorted mindset.
By having a birth certificate bearing the words ‘illegitimate’, Bone is automatically relegated to the underprivileged class, well-known as ‘white trash’ in this context.
It is unfortunate for the state to be involved in trivial intimate matters like whether one is legitimate or not, or whether a mother is promiscuous or not. Nevertheless, this is the state of matters and Anney has no other option but to comply. The issue of race and racism relate closely with class, and the more Bone narrates her story, the more the reader substantiates how the two mutually relate.
The idea of ‘white trash’ not only describes societal class but also race. Of race, Fanon (1967) coins the word “manicheism delirium” (p. 183), which characterizes the mind of a racist. The colonizer (privileged) here paints a picture of the colonized (underprivileged) as a person “who is dangerously sexual, morally slack, and bestial, not fully human” (Fanon, 1967, p. 170). Alison’s ‘white trash’ evokes a group belonging to another race; that is, the “Other.”
This “Other’ race where Anney and Bone belong is morally slack per se; if not so, what else could explain the birth of the ‘illegitimate’ Bone. No wonder after Anney receives Bone’s birth certificate with the word “illegitimate”, one of the clerks sarcastically says, “Some people!” (Alison, 1992, p. 5).
The ‘some people’ here refers to the ‘Other’ race; the morally loose; the Anneys and the Bones of the day. Reynolds (1993) offers invaluable insight into this form of prejudice by insisting, “As with racial prejudice in a colonial situation, the manicheism delirium that attends class prejudice in Allison’s fictional world is a psychological sickness that pervades a whole society and infects the state apparatuses and their functionaries” (p. 360).
This form of racism exists in the mind the colonizer, who in this context is the privileged class. Reflecting on these scenarios, empathy welled up in my throat as the reality of how racial prejudice could subject some people into untold apathy. Gender follows closely in this category, an issue that Alison tackles in depth.
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Anney together with her sisters have interiorized male-dominated ideologies concerning women to an extent of relinquishing their rights as women. They believe that a woman without a man is wretched and this explains why Anney cannot leave Glen although she knows he abuses Bone. Jacobs (1990) would lament, the far they get to exercise their rights as women is holding herculean woman-talk, which never gets to any man’s ears (p. 128).
In their talk, they concur that the patriarchal system is distorted; nevertheless, they graciously accept their role as childbearing ‘machines’ in addition to taking care of these children, fathered by irresponsible, improvident, and pathetic men if Glen’s character is anything to go by.
The feminist talk does nothing more than making women feel better albeit for a short time before their husbands return. Alma leaves her husband Wade, after he cheats on her during her pregnancy. Nevertheless, after a short time she walks back to this pugnacious man after financial hardships set in.
I could not fail to empathize with Alma and all the women in this story for failing to realize their ‘woman-talk’ cannot sustain them long in this patriarchal system rooted deep in distorted ideologies that a woman is trash without a man (Regen, 1996, p. 87). Sexuality sets in at this point as Alison tackles the issues of rape, masturbation and lesbianism in her story.
Raylene; Bone’s lesbian aunt coupled with Glen’s masturbation, although confusing to Bone, give the complete picture of sexuality in this story. Glen rapes Bone and masturbates over her delicate body making her a ‘trash’ in her eyes. This confusion leads Bone to masturbation to silence the ghosts of rape experiences in her.
Raylene teases, “out here where no one can mess with it trash rises all the time” (Alison, 1992, p. 180). Trash here refers to the urge to masturbate and Bone cannot tell whether sexual practices are mutual or solitary ventures. As aforementioned, Bone resorts to this kind of behavior as a way of running away from trauma of rape. If anything, Raylene seems “completely satisfied with her own company” (Alison, 1992, p. 179).
This is what Butler (1987) would call, “radical invention, albeit one that employs and deploys culturally existent and culturally imaginable conventions” (p. 129). Consequently, Bone dismisses cultural norms of mutual sexual satisfaction and employs radical intervention; that is, masturbation to achieve her conventions.
On the other side, Alison exploits another form of sexuality in the name of romantic thralldom, which Anney tirelessly sought from Glen. DuPlessis (1985) calls this “socially learned patterns or scripts that are central and recurrent in our culture” (p. 67). True to this, Anney only learnt these scripts and Raylene failed to learn and that is why they have different perspectives concerning sexuality.
Alison uses Bone and the people around her to exploit the issue of gender, sexuality, race and class in her story, Bustard Out of Carolina. Through the way, the state treats Anney in her pursuit to get a ‘legitimate’ birth certificate, the issue of class sticks out. There exist two social classes in this society viz. the privileged and the underprivileged. Racism here exists in the mind of those in power and as Anney traverses state offices to secure the birth certificate; those in power ridicule her and see her as a morally loose woman.
On the other hand, Bone is caught up in issues pertaining sexuality and she resorts to masturbation prompted by her lesbian aunt and Glen, the rapist. Finally, majority of women here are intimidated by the patriarchal system that demands they bear children for their rather irresponsible husbands. All these expositions enabled me to understand and empathize with issues of race, gender, sexuality and class in this captivating and blatant chronicle.
Allison, D. (1992). Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Dutton.
Alison, D. (1994). A Question of Class. Skin: Talking About Sex, Class and Literature. Ithaca: Firebrand.
Butler, J. (1978). “Variations on Sex and Gender: Beauvoir, Wittig and Foucault.” Feminism As Critique. Ed. Seyla, B., & Drucilla, C. Minneapolis: U Of Minnesota P.
DuPlessis, R. (1985). Writing beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth – Century Women Writers. Bloomington: Indiana UP.
Fanon, F. (1967). Black Skin, White Masks. Trans. Charles, M. New York: Grove.
Jacobs, L. (1993). Victimized Daughters: Sexual Violence and the Empathic Female Self. Signs, 19(1), 126-145.
Regen, M. (1996). Undoing the Damage: Dorothy Allison’s Vision of Motherhood and Family. M.A. Radford U.
Reynolds, D. (1993). White Trash in Your Face: The Literary Descent of Dorothy Allison. Appalachian Journal, 20(4), 356-372.