Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina Gender

By Dorothy Allison

Gender

My aunts treated my uncles like over-grown boys—rambunctious teenagers whose antics were more to be joked at than worried over—and they seemed to think of themselves that way too. They looked young, even Nevil, who'd had his teeth knocked out, while the aunts—Ruth, Raylene, Alma, and even Mama—seemed old, worn-down, and slow, born to mother, nurse, and clean up after men. (2.24)

Well, that pretty much says it, doesn't it? This quote sets the stage for some of the other themes of the novel, as well—like age and appearances. A worn appearance shows that a person has lived a life of hardship, and it seems like the women bear the brunt of it in Bone's household.

Men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding […] and my aunts would shrug and make sure the children were all right at home. What men did was just what men did. Some days I would grind my teeth, wishing I had been born a boy. (2.25)

As in the previous quote, we get the sense that men don't have to suffer the same consequences as women do. Bone, even at a young age, already feels the weight of this inequality. You might want think about this quote in light of how Bone's biological father is absent in her life, while Anney struggles financially to raise her on her own.

"A man has needs," they'd laugh each time they got together. "So what you suppose a woman has?"

"Men!" one of them would always answer in a giggling roar. (6.110)

"A man has needs" as an excuse for cheating is one of those TV tropes that demands an eye roll. Even in the 1950's, Bone's aunts have a witty retort for it. What they are really laughing at is the idea of some sort of inherent difference between the sexes when it comes to sexual desire. At the same time, though, they seem to put up with the idea that men just can't quite control themselves.

I liked being one of the women with my aunts, liked feeling a part of something nasty and strong and separate from my big rough boy-cousins and the whole world of spitting, growling, overbearing males. (6.110)

Earlier, Bone envied her uncles and boy cousins, but now she has found herself accepted into a kind of community of women. What has changed? And what is it about her aunts that she finds to be "nasty and strong and separate"?

"There's a way he's just a little boy himself, wanting more of your mama than you, wanting to be her baby more than her husband. And that an't so rare, I'll tell you." (9.38)

We've already seen how the women of Bone's family see the men as overgrown boys, but Glen takes it to an extreme by actually seeing Bone as some sort of competition for Anney's love, at least subconsciously. We could get way Freudian with this (and we will—stay tuned), but the question for now is: do you agree or disagree with Dr. Ruth's analysis?

"A man belongs to the woman that feeds him."

"Bulls***," Aunt Alma insisted. "It's the other way around and you know it. It's the woman belongs to the ones she feeds" (10.72-73).

So, it seems like the Boatwright men and the Boatwright women see the same things differently. Who'da thunk, right? Earle sees himself as devoted to the women who care for him, while Alma sees herself as a slave to the ones she cares for. We're getting both perspectives here, and it's interesting to see how they differ: Earle is more focused on how women make him feel, while Alma is more focused on the work she has to do to keep a man. We'd like to point out, by the way, that the sentence that comes right before this one is: "Mama said he's eaten so many of her biscuits by now he was like a child of her own" (10.71). It's yet another in which the men seem like children in this novel.

This body, like my aunts' bodies, was born to be worked to death, used up, and thrown away. (14.7)

Bone is talking about her aunts' bodies, even though her uncles do hard manual labor. Why does the women's work age them more quickly than the men's work? Maybe it's because the women never get a break: they have to work (and worry) 24/7. When it comes down to it, they're the ones keeping their families together.

"You don't think it's cruel the way he takes up with these children? He's never divorced a one of them, never stays with any of them more than a few months. God knows how many babies he's planted." (18.47)

We're getting two different perspectives again here: Bone is on Earle's side, and Raylene is against him. Why do you think this argument is in the novel? Are we meant to take sides on this issue?

"All this time, taking care of him, loving him, giving him children and meals and clean clothes and loving him. Loving him, and him to talk to me that way." (19.33)

Alma's breakdown foreshadows the novel's climax in some ways: in this moment, Alma is confronted with the fact that her husband has been downright cruel to her, despite the fact that she feels like she has spent a good amount of her life taking care of him. Anney, too, is going to face a similar dilemma when she sees Glen raping her daughter. Alma's breakdown shows how crushing a revelation like this can be.

"Anney!" he whined like a little boy. "I don't know what happened. I was just gonna talk to her, darling. I just wanted you to come home, for us all to be together again!" (20.85)

Remember how earlier in the novel, Ruth told Bone that Glen was like a little boy vying for Anney's maternal affection? Well, ladies and gentlemen of the jury, let us direct your attention to Exhibit A. Poor lonely Glen just wanted them all to be a family again, and he wanted it so badly that he raped Anney's twelve-year-old daughter to, um, make that happen. It's almost as if he is trying to get Anney to see him as a childlike victim. Guess what? It works. Sheesh.

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