Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina Society and Class

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Society and Class

Mama hated to be called trash, hated the memory of every day she'd ever spent bent over other peoples' peanuts and strawberry plants while they stood tall and looked at her like she was a rock on the ground. The stamp on that birth certificate burned her like the stamp she knew they'd tried to put on her. No-good, lazy, shiftless. (1.10)

For Anney, Bone's on-paper illegitimacy is society's way of reminding her of her place in a way that seems "official." No wonder she's so eager to change it.

"We're not bad people," Mama told us. "We're not even really poor. Anybody says something to you, you keep that in mind. We're not bad people. And we pay our way. We just can't always pay when people want."

Reese and I nodded earnestly, agreeing wordlessly, but we didn't believe her. We knew what the neighbors called us, what Mama wanted to protect us from. We knew who we were. (6.52)

Look at how "what the neighbors called us" and "who we were" become the same thing in this quote, as though one determines the other. Anney tries to give her kids an alternative by telling them that they are not what other people say they are, but she doesn't seem to win out.

How could Reese and I be worthy of all that, the roses in their gardens, the sunlight on those polished windows and flowered drapes, the china plates gleaming behind glass cabinets? I stared in at the spines of those books, wanting it all, wanting the furniture, the garden, the big open kitchen with its dishes for everyday and others for special, the freezer in the utility room and the plushy seats on all the dining-room chairs. (6.63)

Does Bone actually want these things, or does she want to be the kind of person who has all those things? What is the difference? Why do possessions define a person's identity here?

"Look at that car. Just like any n***** trash, getting something like that."

"What'd you expect? Look what he married."

"Her and her kids sure go with that car…" (6.64-66)

Well, Glen's brothers certainly don't have any trouble looking down on different kinds of people. They also really enjoy talking about it. Anney has married "up," and the Waddells are totally not going to let her—or her daughters—forget it. The novel shows up the Waddells, though: Glen is ten times worse than all of the Boatwrights combined.

It looked like there were three of them down there, taking turns looking out, fully fascinated with us as we were with them. (6.66)

Parallelism, folks. Bone is the one to realize that the black kids downstairs are probably similar in a lot of ways to her and her cousins; later, this realization will allow her to relate racism to the classism she herself perpetually experiences. Her cousins, on the other hand, go on spouting the same racist stuff we hear from Wade.

No hunger would make me take anything else of theirs. I could feel a kind of heat behind my eyes that lit up everything I glanced at. It was dangerous, that heat. It wanted to pour out and burn everything up, everything they had that we didn't have, everything that made them think they were better than us. (7.69)

Being made to feel inferior definitely fires up some serious pride (among other things) in Bone. At various moments in the novel, Bone uses different metaphors to describe how being called and treated like trash makes her feel; see if you can spot them.

The way Shannon said "n*****" tore at me, the tone pitched exactly like the echoing sound of Aunt Madeline sneering "trash" when she thought I wasn't close enough to hear. (11.117)

Yup, Bone is empathetic when it comes to people discriminating against and putting down other groups of people. Not to ask a huge general question or anything, but why do you think racism is addressed at all in the novel? What is the novel trying to tell us about prejudice (aside from the fact that it's bad)?

"Trash rises," Aunt Raylene joked the first afternoon I spent with her. "Out here were no one can mess with it, trash rises all the time." (12.35)

A wild double-entendre appears: yes, Raylene is talking about the literal trash that floats down the river by her house, but she's also talking about the Boatwrights themselves, who are repeatedly labeled "trash." The thing with a label like that is that it only exists if there are other people to call you it and make you feel it. Raylene chooses to live way out in the outskirts, where she doesn't feel bogged down by anyone else's judgments and labels... and we'll see later in the book that Raylene knows a thing or two about labels.

I was part of the trash down in the mud-stained cabins, fighting with the darkies and stealing ungratefully from our betters, stupid, coarse, born to shame and death. (14.7)

Believe you us, we know that books aren't always sympathetic when it comes to marginalized groups. And hey, seeing yourself excluded from literature and other forms of culture can sometimes have the same effect as what the people immediately around you say. What kind of exclusions are going on here, and what does it mean that Bone draws a parallel between the Boatwrights and the African Americans living her in her town?

"They look at you the way you look at them," she told me bluntly. "You don't know who those children are. Maybe they're nasty and silly and hateful. Maybe not. You don't know what happens to them when they go home. You don't know their daddies or mamas, who their people are. why they do things, or what they're scared of. You think because they wear different clothes than you and go by so fast, they're rich and cruel and thinking terrible things about you. Could be they're looking at you sitting up here eating blackberries and looking at them like they're spit on a stove—could be they're jealous of you, hungry for what you got, afraid of what you would do if they ever stepped in the yard." (18.81)

Remember how Bone feels when Shannon uses the N-word? Well, maybe she could use some of that empathy right about now. Does what Raylene says expand how we're supposed to think about that empathy?

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