Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina The Birth Certificate

By Dorothy Allison

The Birth Certificate

Let's see, here: Bastard Out of Carolina begins and ends with a birth certificate, So yeah, it's probably safe to say that it's worth a second look. What's going on with the stamp of illegitimacy on Bone's birth certificate, you ask? Well, one thing's for sure: it's not a badge of honor.

That birth certificate is basically a way for Greenville society to judge people. (They didn't have reality TV back then, so they had to make do.) See, the state makes it its business to know if a person is married when they have a child. And when they don't? That stamp is a weirdly legal and official way of saying: "Hey society! These are some low-class people!" The birth certificate is the tangible object that shows how condescending Anney and Bone's community can be.

But that doesn't mean that Anney isn't overreacting about a silly stamp. At least in the beginning of the book, it seems like the good people of Greenville County don't judge Anney so much as tease her about how much she cares about something that won't change what everyone already knows, anyway. Granny certainly thinks so, and she tells Anney that she should just drop the whole subject:

"You intended to frame that thing? You wanted something on your wall to prove you done it right? […] The child is proof enough. An't no stamp on her nobody can see. (1.9)

She's got a point, so why does it bother Anney so much? Throughout the book, no one ever mentions the fact that Bone is a bastard—and yet this silly birth certificate issue keeps cropping up. Why?

Okay, so we know that Anney hates being called "No-good, lazy, shiftless" (1.10). We mean, who doesn't hate that? Anney sees the stamp on the birth certificate as a confirmation of her status as Grade-A Trash (or would that be Grade D?), even though it's a stamp that no one can see and that legally doesn't change anything. So, really, it's a personal thing for Anney: it's sort of like an embarrassing tattoo you can hide but still know is there. And, even though it's a stamp on Bone's birth certificate, it really reflects on Anney, because she is the one who got pregnant out of wedlock.

So really, Anney is the one who is trying to escape a label by changing the birth certificate. Weirdly, though, despite the fact that she is obsessed with it for the first few years of Bone's life, Anney seems to forget about the birth certificate after the first chapter.

What happened?

Well, what actually happens after the first chapter? Anney meets Glen. If her motivation to change the birth certificate is that she wants to be seen as respectable, then it makes sense that she would at least temporarily let the birth certificate issue go when she got married and found a father for her girls. That's plenty respectable. Knowing that she's found a new husband, Anney doesn't need to worry so much about the community sees her.

Simple, right?

Well, not quite. Just when you thought the whole birth certificate issue was dead and buried, lo and behold: it crops up again a few paragraphs from the end of the book, when Anney gives Bone a new certificate without the word "ILLEGITIMATE" plastered all over it.

Now, if the birth certificate issue is really all about Anney, then it stands to reason that giving Bone the birth certificate as a parting gift is kind of like when you buy your sibling a gift that you secretly want to use. (Like a bowling ball, maybe?) Maybe Anney gets some closure from it, but Bone just seems kind of confused. What's the real point of all this?

But the birth certificate definitely closes a chapter in Bone's life: the "bastard" chapter, you might call it. During this period, Bone's not only been a literal bastard, she's also had a messed-up, totally confused relationship with her stepfather. She doesn't know who she is, she doesn't know whom she belongs to, and she doesn't know who she wants to be. She's been struggling all this time to figure out a way to fight back and to find her own voice.

When she gets the new, "legitimate" birth certificate, it's sort of like Bone is reborn. She's fought back, she's found her voice, and though nothing is going to be easy, the new certificate opens up new possibilities for her. Her life will definitely be different now that Glen is out of the picture, for one thing.

With this new and improved birth certificate, the novel's ending is surprisingly hopeful. In a way, Anney is setting Bone free and giving her a clean slate to make a new life without an ugly label. It's a symbolic act for sure, and it might not change anything in reality, but it indicates that Bone is like a newborn, with a fresh start.

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