Bastard Out of Carolina

Bastard Out of Carolina Themes


Bone and her family feel marginalized from Greenville's wealthier residents. The courthouse clerks sneer at Anney when she attempts to secure an unmarked copy of Bone's birth certificate. James (Glen's wealthy brother) refuses to let Bone and Reese come inside his home. In writing Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison sought to portray the Boatwrights as "larger than [the] contemptible myth" that oppresses the working class (McDonald 18). Allison suggests that "the poor are as disenfranchised as African Americans in the pre-Civil Rights South" ("Bastard Out of Carolina" 55). Poverty shapes and limits the lives of Allison's characters but she does not allow cliches to define them. Bone is an avid reader and excellent student. Raylene is strong and full of thoughtful wisdom. Anney proves herself to be resourceful and defiant, relocating her family in a single night when she has to protect them.


Dorothy Allison creates a convincing and moving portrait of abuse by drawing from her own traumatic experiences. In the Boatwrights' dysfunctional family dynamic, Glen vents his feelings of frustration and rage through violence and Anney tacitly endorses his behavior by shifting responsibility for the abuse to his victim, Bone. Anney's enabling behavior and final betrayal "raises questions that perhaps no one can answer" about love, family and moral responsibility (Korb 62). Allison's depiction of abuse does not give the reader any easy answers, nor do her depictions exploit or sensationalize Glen's physical and sexual assaults. Instead of repeating "page to page, the variations in the ways Daddy Glen beats Bone" the novel remains focused on Bone's experience of the abuse: her pain, her thoughts, her doubts (Hollibaugh 15). By focusing on Bone's attempts to process the abuse instead of the abuse itself, Allison's novel transcends the social message genre, which is why it has since become a classic piece of contemporary American literature.


The Boatwright legacy is a force of nature, and the family members can never truly escape the toxic patterns. Anney, initially dedicated to rising above the family's reputation, becomes forever entangled in it when she becomes a single parent at 15. Likewise, Bone seethes against the public contempt for the Boatwrights and vacillates between embracing her family and longing to escape from them. At the end of the novel, Bone reflects on her mother's life and faded ambitions before concluding that she has already been pulled into the Boatwright's tragic destiny. She says, "I was who I was going to be, someone like her, like Mama, a Boatwright woman" (Allison 309). For Bone, being a Boatwright is both a well-worn comfort and a curse.


Intersectionality is the study of how different forms of oppression, like sexism and classism, combine and reinforce one another. In Bastard Out of Carolina, Bone experiences discrimination because of her socio-economic status and also because of her gender. Her gender shapes her experience of poverty, and her working-class background shapes her identity as a woman. Bone observes that Boatwright women age quickly, and must tolerate their the whims and drunken outbursts of the men around them. Dorothy Allison also briefly addresses the ways in which race and poverty collide when Alma moves into a primarily African American neighborhood. Bastard Out of Carolina presents a unique and heartbreaking exploration of "the intersection of class, race, and gender, and how that intersection of social forces is lived, felt and resisted" (Gamson, 449).


The novel ends tragically with Anney's decision to abandon Bone in order to continue her romantic relationship with her husband, Glen (Bone's rapist). Anney's betrayal takes place over time, starting right after the first time Glen beats Bone. Instead of punishing her husband, Anney asks Bone what she did to provoke Glen. This establishes a pattern of victim-blaming that peaks during the chaotic scene at Aunt Ruth's wake, where the Boatwright men pull Glen outside and beat him for what he has done to their niece. Afterwards, Anney moves out with her girls, but she is visibly upset about losing Glen. Meanwhile, She treats Bone in a cold and uncaring way. It is unclear why Anney behaves like this. Anney does not depend on Glen for financial support; in fact, "Glen's inability to hold down a job and frequent periods of unemployment make him more a liability than a source of support" (McDonald 20). Anney is not immediately struck by Glen's appearance or charm when they first meet, either. Anney's love for Glen baffles both Bone and the reader. Allison provides no easy answers, making Anney's eventual betrayal even more wrenching and painful.

Female Independence

Anney is not the only Boatwright sister who believes "she needs a man to survive" (McDonald 20). Aunt Alma also returns to a destructive relationship with an emotionally abusive man, moving back in with Wade several months after leaving him. Both sisters' dependence on men produces toxic results: Anney loses her daughter and Alma suffers a nervous breakdown. Aunt Carr lives in Baltimore because she ran away after Wade rejected her. The only exception to this pattern is Aunt Raylene, who lives alone and supports herself. Her sisters lead remarkably unstable lives, constantly moving and relocating, flying from crisis to crisis. Raylene, however, lives a relatively uneventful life in her house by the river. Aunt Raylene provides "an alternative to both the gender roles of her family and the expectations of the upper and middle classes" (McDonald 21). The novel ends with Bone finding refuge with her independent aunt, who, unlike Anney, has never let a man threaten or demean her.


The power of storytelling in shaping identity is a recurring theme in Bastard Out of Carolina. Bone learns about the Boatwrights' history primarily from the family lore. Through Granny and Aunt Ruth's wild tales, young Bone sees herself as part of the family's violent and exhilarating heritage. Later, traumatized by Daddy Glen's abuse, Bone begins masturbating to a fantasy where she quietly endures her stepfather's beatings while a watching crowd adores her and despises him. This fantasy is Bone's attempt to tell a different story about her abuse: one in which she resists Daddy Glen and receives love and support from those who witness the beatings. Bone also explores her increasingly dark emotions through the gruesome and disturbing stories she tells her younger cousins. Finally, the novel itself is an example of the redemptive power of storytelling. By narrating her childhood experiences, Bone transforms herself "from the victim of a story into the author of one" (King 136).