Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina Suffering

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An't it time the Lord did something, rained fire and retribution on Greenville County? An't there sin enough, grief enough, inch by inch of pain enough? An't the measure made yet? (1.72)

Wow, it sounds like some bad things have happened in Greenville County—at least, bad enough to merit otherworldly fire rain... so, pretty high on the bad scale, we're thinking. Why do you think we learn this at the beginning of the novel? And why do you think Bone is asking this rhetorical question?

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)

Well, if we knew the answer to that, then there wouldn't be much in the way of conflict in this novel. We know that Anney goes through some serious suffering at the beginning of the novel, but that's just about all we know; Anney never really talks to Bone about what she's thinking. So since we can't read Anney's mind, what do we make of her suffering, based on outward evidence alone?

Sometimes when I looked up into his red features and blazing eyes, I knew that it was nothing I had done that made him beat me. It was just me, the fact of my life, who I was in his eyes and mine. I was evil. Of course I was. I admitted it to myself, locked my fingers into fists, and shut my eyes to everything I did not understand. (8.33)

Well, Bone's got part of this right. It's definitely true that Glen isn't angry at anything specific Bone has done; he's just angry at the fact that she exists. But we're going to call bunk on the part where she says she's evil. Remember, Bone is just a kid trying to make sense of all this, so she is trying to rationalize Glen's irrationality by coming to some irrational (and self-deprecating) conclusions.

It was the bones in my head I thought about, the hard, porous edge of my skull cradling my brain, reassuring me that no matter what happened I could heal up from it eventually. It was the heat in my heart, my hard, gritty center. I linked my fingers behind my head, clenched my teeth, and rocked back and forth. The sturdy stock we were boasted to be came down in me to stubbornness and bone. (8.37)

Is that a clue into the symbolism behind Bone's name? We think it is. Bone—you know, actual, legit bone—becomes something of an extended metaphor for Bone. So aside from being tough, what else is true about bones? Well, you might think about the fact that bones can break, but when they do, they usually recover—even if it might take a long time, and even if there might be some damage that makes the bone never quite the same afterwards.

I spooned loose dirt into the little pot, sprinkled water on the dusty leaves. The cutting drooped already, getting ready to lose half its growth. But the stem was moist and flexible under my fingers. Strong. It would come back strong. (9.115)

No, Bone is not just referring to her gardening skills. She's thinking about her ability to be resilient—to bounce back. In three sentences, the plant has become a metaphor for Bone. Pretty impressive.

The hunger, the lust, and the yearning were palpable. I understood that hunger as I understood nothing else, though I could not tell if what I truly hungered for was God or love or absolution. Salvation was complicated. (10.64)

When Bone was at James Waddell's house and he called her family trash, she referred to feeling she experienced as a hunger. She also says that whenever she passes Woolworth's, she feels a raging hunger. Well, while her feelings toward religion are probably different from feelings of resentment, it's interesting that she chooses to use the same word. Bone knows that she wants something, that she seems to be missing something—but she doesn't know what it is.

She knows, I thought, she knows what it is to want what you are never going to have. (11.94)

Bone is referring to Shannon Pearl here. What Bone wants in this case is to be a gospel singer. But what does Shannon want?

How long had it been since I had seen Mama not tired, not sad, not scared? Forever. It seemed like forever. (14.14)

A better question might be, do we ever see Anney not tired, sad, or scared? Do we ever see her carefree and happy? If so, when? And then what changes it? Is this considered suffering in the novel? Why or why not? Should it be?

Everything felt hopeless. He looked at me and I was ashamed of myself. It was like sliding down an endless hole, seeing myself at the bottom, dirty, ragged, poor, stupid. But at the bottom, at the darkest point, my anger would come and I would know that he had no idea who I was, that he never saw me as the girl who worked hard for Aunt Raylene, who got good grades no matter how often I changed schools, who ran errands for Mama and took good care of Reese. I was not dirty, not stupid, and if I was poor, whose fault was that? (14.20)

Which Bone is this passage referring to—Bone the girl going through all of this in the story, or Bone the narrator looking back on her life and reflecting? Maybe the first option: she uses the world "would," which suggests that something hasn't happened yet and might not happen for sure.

I pressed my face into her neck, and let it all go. The grief. The anger. The guilt and the shame. It would come back later. It would come back forever. We had all wanted the simplest thing, to love and be loved and be safe together, but we had lost it and I didn't know how to get it back. (22.48)

It's just as Earle says earlier in the novel: "I just don't understand sometimes, Bone, how things got so messed up, the simplest things" (9.54). Maybe the idea of wanting love is simple in and of itself, but achieving it is somehow difficult. But it seems to be the one thing that all the characters in the novel suffer from in one form or another.

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