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Talk about ambivalence. It can be hard to tell what to make of Anney. Everything we know about her, we know from Bone; we don't get a chance to see what's going on in Anney's head. Bone gives us a lot of clues, but we have to figure out what to make of them.
The facts: Anney is the mother of Bone and Reese and the wife of Glen. Let's talk some numbers: she gets pregnant at age fourteen; she has Bone when she is fifteen; her first husband dies when she is nineteen (and she has two kids); she gets remarried and has a miscarriage when she is twenty-one; then she has to contend with her husband's perpetual joblessness and, eventually, his abuse of her daughter. Bone isn't joking when she says: "At seventeen, [Anney] was a lot older than she had been at sixteen" (1.25).
Life hits Anney hard and ages her quickly. You'd have to be a robot incapable of love not to feel at least some degree of sympathy for her.
It's not immediately clear what role Anney occupies in the story. She's not the protagonist, but she's also not really a side character, or an antagonist, or a mentor, or a foil. If anything, she is most like a parallel or shadow to Bone's life, and Dorothy Allison seems to be asking us to compare how their lives and their suffering intersect.
Anney is a pretty mysterious character. We definitely get a sense of Anney as a mother who does everything she can for her girls—but at the same time, we don't understand why she stays with Glen. She seems to be in love with him, yes, but that can also be hard for us to understand. What does she see in this guy? Maybe she fell in love with an image she had of Glen before he revealed his true colors, and she can't let that image go. Maybe she's too tired and broken to lose a third husband.
In a lot of ways, we're in the same boat as Bone, who spends the novel looking back and trying to figure out her mother's actions. We never really get into Anney's head, because Bone herself is never really sure what her mother is thinking or feeling, so we can only speculate based on her (sometimes contradictory) actions.
The meatiest character development for Anney happens in the first three chapters, when we learn about Anney through the events of her life (which Bone is hearing about second-hand, since she's only a baby at the time). But once Bone is older and starts trying to engage with Anney herself, she hits a roadblock: "What was the thing she wouldn't tell me, the first thing, the place where she had made herself different from all her brothers and sisters and shut her mouth on her life?" (2.76).
Not talking is one of Anney's defining characteristics, and there are lots of instances of it in the book: when she's smoking on the porch and contemplating marrying Glen, when her sisters try and talk to her about Glen's abuse, after she moves out on Glen to the apartment above the fish market, and more.
Anney's last act before she leaves Bone for good—giving her the unstamped birth certificate—is also done with a lack of explanation. It's almost as though she is setting Bone free from a "trashy" life, but the only way we can figure that out is to look back on the entire novel and see how being called trash defines Bone's and Anney's lives.
Talk about not getting a break.
Whenever we see Anney, she is usually coming home from work and looking exhausted, "with her hair darkened from sweat and her uniform stained" (14.7). We never question that Anney does whatever she needs to do to provide for her girls—even if it means selling herself. (We don't know for sure if she does that, but it's strongly implied.)
Anney never gets to sleep in on weekends, and she never gets to stay in her pajamas all day. "How long had it been since I had seen Mama not tired, not sad, not scared? Forever. It seemed like forever" (14.14), Bone thinks to herself, and we the readers agree: we don't really ever see Anney in a state of relaxation. She's working for the man every night and day.
This makes us feel for Anney as a character, and it certainly builds up our perception of her as a devoted mom. It also helps us understand why Anney would want someone around who makes her happy and who might make her life a little bit easier by helping her raise a respectable family. Hey, we want that for her, too—it's just that the man she picks ends up being a total sleaze.
When Anney does make her decision at the end of the novel to leave Bone for Glen, how are we supposed to reconcile that Anney with the Anney we have seen constantly working her butt off for her daughters?
You know, for someone who is supposed to fill Anney's life with love and laughter, it seems like Glen is a big, big part of Anney's problems. Aside from the, you know, not so insignificant fact that he beats her daughter, Glen also sucks at keeping a job, he keeps moving the family to houses they can't afford, he makes Anney and the girls hang out with his family (who hate the Boatwrights to their faces), and he's just generally nasty to people. So remind us again—why does she keep him around?
According to Alma, Anney "needs [Glen] like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth" (4.6). "Needs" is the key word here—not "wants," but needs, like how a person needs food to survive. Sounds kind of desperate, huh? There's no mention of the word "love" here. We're talking about a need. So where does this need come from?
Anney hasn't had to best luck when it comes to men. Bone's father is simply gone, and Lyle Parsons died young. There's totally some crazy sexual tension between Anney and Glen, but even Anney seems reserved at first and has her girls in mind, asking them if they like Glen and whatnot. When Nevil remarks that "Anney's had enough trouble in her life" (4.23), we get the sense that she really, really needs things to work out—even if it means finding justifications for Glen's behavior.
Anney's need for Glen—and her insistence on staying with him even as the abuse comes to light—is a big part of what drives the plot forward. That big question of "why"—why doesn't she defend Bone? why doesn't she leave Glen for good?—is not only what Bone is trying to figure out; it's what we as readers want to know, too. Allison doesn't give us an outright answer, but the signs point to the fact that Anney, after finally letting herself trust and fall in love with someone, can't stand to let that person go—and can't stand to acknowledge another tragedy in her life.
Anney works like it's nobody's business, keeps her chin up against other peoples' snobby judgments, and puts on a hard and cautious exterior for whatever life throws at her, but she can't seem to get a break. It's a hard-knock life, for sure. We get a rare look into how this all affects Anney internally in the first chapter:
No one knew that she cried in the night for Lyle and her lost happiness, that under that biscuit-crust exterior she was all butter grief and hunger, that more than anything else in the world she wanted someone strong to love her like she loved her girls. (1.46)
Yup, all Anney wants is some lovin' just like everybody else. Unfortunately, life just doesn't want to let Anney have her cake and eat it, too: when it becomes obvious that Glen can't be around Bone without hurting her, Anney has to choose between them. At one point in the story, Raylene tells Bone that "no woman can stand to choose between her baby and her lover" (22.9), and this decision becomes one of the central conflicts of the novel.
Like we said earlier, it's sometimes hard for us to tell whether we should be sympathizing with Anney or feeling angry with her. Bone is definitely forgiving when it comes to Anney, to the point of shouldering a lot of the blame on herself, but that may just make us dislike Anney more. But that's part of the novel's strategy: the situation Allison describes really is painful and complicated, so we're not meant to make any clear-cut judgments about Anney. If you can't make up your mind about her, don't worry: you're not supposed to know quite what to feel about her.