Study Guide

Bastard Out of Carolina Themes

  • Family

    Sometimes it feels like Bastard Out of Carolina could be made into a sitcom called Meet the Boatwrights—though it would probably have to be aired late at night. Bone has a very close relationship with her extended family. It's often a lot smoother than her relationship with her immediate family, that's for sure.

    At the same time, life in Boatwright Land is Facebook-status complicated. Seriously, the Boatwrights have a—wait for it!—boatload of issues. Sometimes Bone gets frustrated by the Boatwrights' antics, and other times she wants to be more like them. One thing is for sure in this novel, though: like it or not, family matters.

    Questions About Family

    1. What aspects of the Boatwrights does Bone admire, and what aspects does she dislike? Does this ever change?
    2. How does Bone's relationship with her family contrast with some of the other characters' relationships with theirs, like Shannon Pearl's, Reese's, or Glen's?
    3. "Family" can refer to both immediate family and extended family. What does "family" mean for Bone?
    4. What does it mean to be a Boatwright?

    Chew on This

    Bone is not really illegitimate because she has a huge, loving extended family to take care of her.

    The Boatwrights have a warped sense of pride about what it means to be a Boatwright.

  • Gender

    The Boatwright men and the Boatwright women lead very different lives in Bastard Out of Carolina. Again and again, Bone tells us that the men are like overgrown children who get taken care of by the women, who pay for it by aging quickly. Surprise, surprise: there are some serious matriarchs in Bone's family. Granny, Anney, Alma, Ruth, and Raylene are all tough as nails; they have like thirty children apiece; they hold down jobs while raising the kids largely on their own; and they still find time to feed everyone and then sit on the porch and drink iced tea. This book really shines a spotlight on the tough lot—and hard work—of women.

    Questions About Gender

    1. How does Bone feel about her male cousins and her uncles? Does she want to be like them, or does she relate more to her aunts? What evidence can you find to back this up?
    2. How do the roles of women among the Boatwrights differ from the roles of women among the Waddells? What judgments does Bone make about how the Boatwright and Waddell women live?
    3. Why do some of the female characters refer to the male characters as little boys?
    4. Why do you think that the gender differences between her aunts and uncles are so stark for Bone? Why do you think that gender is important in the novel?

    Chew on This

    The differences between how men and women are expected to live intensifies as Bone gets older.

    The novel chooses to focus on the more female perspective of things because it is one that often goes unacknowledged.

  • Appearances

    Wondering why people in Bastard Out of Carolina keep talking about Bone's black hair? Or why Bone is obsessed with how old her mother and aunts look? Well, appearances tell us a lot about a character, like how hard of a life they've had, who they are related to, and more (see our section on "Physical Appearances" on our "Character Clues" page). Bone is constantly wondering what her own appearance says about her, and what she looks like in the eyes of other people—with good reason, too. Bone is in the process of figuring out her identity, and appearances are a big party of identity, particularly when your appearance links you—or doesn't link you—to your family. As an "illegitimate" child, Bone's appearance separates her from her family as much as it connects her to it.

    Questions About Appearances

    1. Are appearances in the novel deceiving or revealing? What are they for Bone, Glen, Anney, or Shannon Pearl?
    2. Why is everyone in the novel always talking about how everyone in the novel looks like everyone else in the novel?
    3. When Bone talks about Anney's or her aunts' or uncles' appearances, why does she always talk about it in terms of age (how old they look)?
    4. Does Bone look like a Boatwright? In what ways? In what ways is she different?

    Chew on This

    In this novel, people wear their hardship on them in a way that cannot be covered up; that is why Bone is afraid that she has a mean, hard look.

    Bone looks to her appearance to give her some sort of understanding of herself.

  • Coming of Age

    As our favorite anti-capitalization poet e. e. cummings says, "It takes courage to grow up and become who you really are." That couldn't be truer for Bone in Bastard Out of Carolina, who has a whole slew of things she's dealing with during this period of her life, in addition to suffering the usual growing pains. If you head over to our "Genre" section, you'll see us explain why "coming of age" in this case doesn't necessarily mean literal adulthood but instead maturity—or, in this case, childhood left behind. Bone is only thirteen at the end of this novel, but she's way "older" than a lot of us were at that age.

    Questions About Coming of Age

    1. In what way(s) is Bone "of age" at the end of the novel?
    2. What are some of the key events that shape Bone's life, and what effects do they have?
    3. What are some of the reasons why Bone feels uncertain or insecure about herself and her future?
    4. What does Bone think about adulthood?

    Chew on This

    Who Bone thinks she "is" throughout the novel and who Bone thinks she is "going to be" are actually not so different.

    Bastard Out of Carolina is not a coming-of-age novel.

  • Love

    If there is one thing that Bastard Out of Carolina shows, it's that love is a complicated, complicated thing. In fact, it seems that the older you get, the more complicated love gets. Let's start by saying that there are lots of kinds of love, and they don't always overlap: familial love, platonic love, sexual love, emotional love, empathetic love, sympathetic love… See, it's already getting muddled. While some might argue all you need is love, this novel seems to say that it isn't always that simple; the love people feel for others isn't always the same. Sometimes love can cause some serious conflict, and sometimes that conflict can happen within a single person.

    Questions About Love

    1. With perhaps the exception of Glen, do we ever question the love that the characters claim to have for one another? Do we ever question Anney's love for Bone, for instance, or her love for Glen?
    2. In the novel, are some forms of love portrayed as stronger than others?
    3. What are some of the challenges that love comes up against in the novel?

    Chew on This

    There is a contrast in the novel between romantic love and familial love.

    In the novel, there are no examples of happy romantic relationships.

  • Society and Class

    Drinking and fighting, getting thrown in jail, getting the furniture repossessed… the Boatwrights certainly seem like they're trying to live up to the trash stereotype. At the same time, it looks like the good people of Greenville County like to lay it on thick with the name-calling. The Boatwrights aren't innocent in all of this either: they have their own superiority complex when it comes to race. It seems like everybody needs someone to look down on in Bastard Out of Carolina. It's like everyone has to make sure they're not at the very bottom of the totem pole. You'd think that the Boatwrights would have some empathy, right? Thankfully, we have our sharp protagonist Bone to call a spade a spade and make the connection between types of bigotry.

    Questions About Society and Class

    1. Why do you think people are so eager to put down the Boatwrights?
    2. Why do you think Bone cares so much about what people call her and her family? Do you think she cares about it more than her other family members do? Why?
    3. How does being called trash affect Bone in the novel?
    4. If the Boatwrights know what it's like to be looked down on, why doesn't that stop them from being racist?

    Chew on This

    Being thought of as trash defines Bone's life.

    Bastard Out of Carolina is as much about class as it is about child abuse.

  • Guilt and Blame

    Bastard Out of Carolina has got its share of guilt and blame, and Bone herself is a swirling vortex of both. As readers on the outside, we know that a lot of Bone's feelings of guilt are misplaced: she blames herself for what Glen does to her; she blames herself for making Anney mad because of what Glen does to her; she blames herself for being herself after what Glen does to her. See what we're getting at here? Anney, on her part, gets a heaping portion of guilt as well, especially by the conclusion. Glen is pretty much exempt from all of the above: he makes excuses himself, and others go right along with it. So the real question is: what do guilt and blame achieve in the end?

    Questions About Guilt and Blame

    1. Glen alone is at fault for committing acts of abuse, but Bone feels the need to assign blame to other people: namely, to herself and to Anney. Anney, too, assigns blame outside of Glen: to Glen's father for not loving Glen enough, to Bone for "provoking" Glen, and also to herself. Why all the blame?
    2. Do we as readers ever feel compelled to assign blame to any of the characters other than Glen?
    3. Before Glen rapes Bone, does Bone ever blame Anney for not protecting her?
    4. Do we ever feel like Glen gets properly blamed for what he does?

    Chew on This

    At the very end of the novel, Bone blames Anney for choosing Glen over her.

    At the very end of the novel, Bone does not blame Anney for choosing Glen over her.

  • Suffering

    Bastard Out of Carolina is not a book about puppies and rainbows, that's for sure. You might want to keep the Kleenex handy. While pointing to every instance of suffering in the book would take too long and just tell us what we already know—which is that there is a lot of it in the novel—there are definitely thematic trends within these instances of suffering. Stuff to look for includes who suffers and how, what form suffering takes, what characters say about suffering, and how characters react to it. Suffering is a fact of life, but it takes different forms, and there are many different ways to react to it.

    Questions About Suffering

    1. If you had to describe the biggest cause of suffering in the novel, what would it be?
    2. Does the novel ever give us a break from the suffering, or is everyone suffering pretty much all the time?
    3. How do we as readers find redemption after all of the suffering the characters undergo? Or is there none? Does the end of the novel make us despair at the cruel world we live in?
    4. Bone arguably suffers more than any character in the novel, but is there any character who doesn't suffer in some way or at some point? What might this tell us?

    Chew on This

    We are supposed to interpret suffering in the novel as something that stays with the characters and never really goes away. It's just a fact of life, and you can't change it.

    In the novel, suffering is pretty much the same for everyone, even if each character experiences it in a different way.

  • Sex

    Sex is definitely the elephant-in-the-room topic for Bastard Out of Carolina. Normally this would be everyone's favorite theme, but of course sex in this novel—by which we mean quite a few kinds of sex acts, including molestation, rape, intercourse, masturbation, and sexual attraction—is for the most part really, really dark. Since Bone's sexual abuse is the overriding instance of sex in the novel, it tends to loom in the background during all the other sexual moments. Just take a look at the way it infiltrates Bone's masturbatory fantasies, for instance. Bone's struggle to come to her own conclusions about sex—and how it relates to Glen's abuse of her—is one of the big conflicts in the novel.

    Questions About Sex

    1. What is Bone's understanding of sex? How does she reconcile her notion of sex with Glen's molestation?
    2. Why is Bone reluctant to answer when Ruth asks her point blank if Glen has ever touched her?
    3. What do you make of Bone's masturbatory fantasies? What do they tell us about how she feels about her situation with Glen?
    4. What role does sex play in Anney and Glen's relationship?

    Chew on This

    Earle's and Wade's constant philandering (sometimes with much younger girls) is in direct contrast to the stamp of illegitimacy on Bone's birth certificate that haunts Anney. The men can get around without blame, but the women can't.

    People are always talking about sex in this novel. They gossip about Earle dating young girls; they talk about Glen's penis size; even Shannon and Raylene make snide comments about Mrs. Pearl's sex life. Bone's abuse is set apart by the fact that it is not talked about.