Child of God
The Devolution of Man: Animalistic Sexual Desire in Tobacco Road and Child of God
Both Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and McCarthy’s Child of God concern themselves with quintessential poor white people. Tobacco Road follows the Lester family, a poor family on the outskirts of town, struggling for food and money during the Great Depression, whereas Child of God follows Lester Ballard, a man who lost his land and subsequently loses his mind. In both of these novels, the theme of devolution is explored. These authors reduce their characters to their most primitive, animalistic state, reflecting what loss can do to the individual. One of these animalistic characteristics is craving sex. When comparing both of these novels and their characters’ subsequent attitudes concerning sex, it becomes apparent that this animalistic, sexual desire is especially prevalent in the devolution of poor white communities.
Caldwell’s Tobacco Road opens with Lov Bensey on his way home, thinking about his new wife, Pearl, and her avoidance of having sex with him. On his way home, he stops by his father-in-law’s, Jeeter Lester, house to try to convince Lester to talk to Pearl. He argues, “I’ve got the need of Pearl for a wife as bad as any man ever had” (4). The reader can assume this “need of Pearl as a wife” alludes to her having sex with him. Through this quote, it becomes immediately apparent just how focused Lov is on sex. He is starving, walking seven miles every day to get turnips; however, he is most preoccupied with sex. This may be a normal human want, but Caldwell differentiates Lov’s state of mind with that of the average married man when he writes, “For the past few weeks, Lov had been thinking about taking some plow-lines and tying pearl to the bed at night. He had tried everything else that he could think of so far, expect force, and he was still determined to make her act as he thought a wife should” (5). After Caldwell provides this insight into Lov’s mind, it becomes apparent that Lov no longer has normal, healthy sexual urges. He is considering resorting to violence and rape, proving that he will do nearly anything to fulfill his sexual cravings.
After stopping by Lester’s house, however, Lov is able to relieve some of his sexual frustrations due to the curiosity and determination of Ellie May, his sister in law, and her own sexual desires. Caldwell writes that Lov nearly forgets about his unwilling wife because, “now that Ellie May had dragged herself all the way across the yard, and was now sitting on his legs, Lov was thinking only of Ellie May” (26). Lov is so focused on his own sexual urges that they become all that matters to him in that immediate moment. He forgets not only his young wife at home, but also, “he would forget that he had turnips. She had made him forget everything” (27). One would think that food would be most people’s top priority during the Great Depression; however, Lov’s animalistic instincts appeared in this time of need, and he chose sex over protecting his food.
Jeeter Lester, the patriarch of the Lester family, has a wife, so one would assume that his sexual urges would be fairly tame; however, this is not the case. After Sister Bessie marries his son, Dude, Lester makes it extremely apparent that he is lusting after her, disregarding his own wife. After interrupting Sister Bessie and Dude attempting to consummate their marriage, Caldwell writes, “Jeeter looked at Bessie. He pulled back the quilt so he could see her better” (108). Jeeter has a wife; he should not need to look at other women for satisfaction. However, all of this changes with his devolution. Because of his loss of land, work, and food, he has reverted to a primitive, animalistic state, trying to find sex wherever he can. Jeeter even says himself, “No matter how many children a man’s got, he always wants to get more” (109). Jeeter is not afraid to say or show that he wants Bessie. Even with his wife beside him, he tries to see Bessie’s naked body (127). He disregards love, loyalty, and morals, all because he cannot contain his intense, primitive sexual cravings.
However, it is not just the males that have sexual urges in this novel but some of the women as well. This notion is apparent in Ellie May’s desire to be with Lov, but it is additionally explored with the character of Sister Bessie. Bessie is sexual throughout the entire novel, especially when trying to seduce Dude after their wedding day (105); however, her sexual desires are most prominent in her stay with Dude and Lester at the hotel in Augusta. It is assumed that Bessie is prostituted throughout the rooms when she states, “Every once in a while someone came and called me to another room. Every room I went to there was somebody sleeping in the bed… I didn’t sleep none, except about an hour just a while ago. There sure is a lot of men staying there” (150). Bessie does not protest to any of this prostituting; she goes where she is told and does what is expected of her. The readers could assume Bessie preforms these acts because she believes it is “what women ought to do” (49); however, she truly enjoys hopping rooms overnight, exclaiming, “I truly had the best time last night. It made me feel good, staying there” (152). Here, it becomes apparent that Bessie is not accepting being prostituted because she feels it is what she should do but that she is accepting it because she feels is if what she wants to do. Just like the men in this novel, after the loss of her first husband, Bessie has animalistic, primitive sexual cravings that she will fill wherever is possible.
Through naming his protagonist Lester Ballard, one can assume that Caldwell’s Tobacco Road provided much inspiration for McCarthy’s Child of God; this is apparent not only in characters names and settings, but also in the themes of devolution and animalistic, sexual desire. The first glimpse the readers get into this primitive lifestyle is through the characters of the dumpkeeper and his daughters. One summer day, the dumpkeeper catches one of his daughters having sex in the woods (27). The boy runs away, and McCarthy writes, “Next thing [the dumpkeeper] knew his overalls were about his knees and he was mounting her” (27-28). This is the most primitive, animalistic form that sexual desire can take. The dumpkeeper caught his daughter and presumably was filled with both arousal and rage, prompting him to rape her. Similar to Lov’s rape “solution” in Tobacco Road, rape is an impulsive, “last-resort” decision for both of these characters. They have been without sex for so long and are so full of anger that they are willing to devolve into animalistic sexual behaviors.
Though the dumpkeeper provides the readers with the first instance of primitive sexual urges, McCarthy uses the protagonist, Lester Ballard, to explore these urges to their full extent. The moment after Ballard loses his land, he begins his devolution in to a primitive, animalistic state. One characteristic of this state is his intense sexual desires, which become apparent when he happens upon a coital, dead couple (86). The first action that Ballard takes after realizing this couple is dead is entirely sexual. McCarthy writes, “He could see one of the girl’s breasts… Ballard stared for a long time. Finally he reached across the dead man’s back and touched the breast… He stroked the full brown nipple with the ball of his thumb” (87). Because he only barely relieved his sexual urges, Ballard wants more. He moves the man’s body out of the way and, “Kneeling there between the girl’s legs he undid his buckle and lowered his trousers. A crazed gymnast laboring over a cold corpse. He poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman” (88). This is a crucial moment in measuring Ballard’s devolution. He is already homeless and starving, but he still craves sexual intimacy. Because he is rapidly devolving into a primitive state, he will find this intimacy wherever he can, including a dead body.
However, this sexual encounter is not a one-time experience. Ballard, despite relieving his sexual urges, still craves more. After taking the body of the girl home, he goes into town and buys makeup and clothes for her. Ballard then dresses up the corpse, and McCarthy writes, “He undressed her very slowly, talking to her. Then he pulled off his trousers and lay next to her. He spread her loose thighs. You been wantin it, he told her” (103). Relieving his sexual desires is no longer an impulse decision; Ballard has brought this corpse home knowing he would use her for this purpose. His animalistic sexual desires have become so intense that he feels he needs an ever-present outlet. After this corpse is incinerated in a house fire, Ballard finds a replacement, proving that he is a victim to his own sexual urges and that his primitive side has taken over.
Throughout this novel, it would seem as if only poor white people have these animalistic sexual desires; however, a tale told about Sheriff Fate challenges this notion. The narrator of this section of the novel states that Fate once happened upon a boy and a girl in a car on Frog Mountain, where he then asked the boy to step out of the car, knowing that he was in the middle of having sex, and then lets him go after humiliating him (44-45). This scene can be overlooked and justified as Fate just being obscene; however, in the context of the novel, it is representative of so much more. After being arrested for false rape charges, Ballard tells Fate, “You kindly got henhouse ways yourself, Sheriff,” meaning that Fate is just the same as he is (56). With this in mind, Fate’s confrontation of the couple on Frog Mountain becomes immoral. Fate disturbed this couple on the mountain not because they were breaking the law but because it provided him with entertainment. He is seemingly able to hide his sexual urges in his everyday life; however, they still need to be released. He has animalistic, sexual desires just like Ballard, but he is just able to acknowledge them more discreetly due to his lack of apparent devolution.
Caldwell’s Tobacco Road and McCarthy’s Child of God both deal with the topic of the devolution of mankind in poor white trash, resulting in characters with primitive, animalistic sexual desires. This is apparent in poor white trash males, such as Lov and Jeeter Lester in Tobacco Road and the dumpkeeper and Lester Ballard in Child of God; females, such as Ellie May and Bessie; and normal, working class citizens, such as Sheriff Fate as well. This insight into the personal lives of these characters not only provides the reader with a sense of intrigue and disgust but also leads to the realization that they, too, may have these desires deep inside as well.
Local Perspective in Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God
“The strangeness of the story of Lester Ballard, the child of God, begins not with its subject
matter but with the way the story is told.”
Vereen Bell, The Achievement of Cormac McCarthy
In his 1991 essay, Andrew Bartlett suggests Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God “derives not so much from the force of Lester Ballard as subject or object but rather from the play of positions taken by the narrator through whom we see Ballard” (Bartlett 3). With that being said, much of the novel relies on the descriptions of a third-party narrator intermixed with first-person accounts of Ballard’s fellow Sevier County residents. Characterized by the community as violent, unpredictable, and sociopathic, Lester Ballard is alienated from his peers from a very young age. Surrounded by a tight-knit community situated within the isolated confines of the Appalachian mountains, Ballard is unable to escape the negative characteristics projected onto him by the community he is a part of. With that being said, the novel presents a constant struggle between Lester’s personal choices and his socially determined welfare. By presenting Ballard as a communal scapegoat, McCarthy emphasizes the role of community in deciding moral standards. Furthermore, McCarthy presents Lester Ballard through two opposing narratives: one lens which views Ballard sympathetically, a “child of god,” and another perspective from the eyes of the surrounding community (4). Often times harsh, subjective, and judgmental, McCarthy uses the local’s vision of Ballard to explore inherent moral hypocrisies characteristic to the Appalachian region. By doing so, he reveals the community’s responsibility for Lester Ballard and his atrocities.
In order to gain a deeper understanding of the social climate which shaped Ballard, it is necessary to first consider the historical implications of the region. In the late nineteenth century, a group referred to as the “White Caps” plagued the Appalachian region, specifically in Sevier County, Tennessee where McCarthy’s novel is set. The vigilante group “threaten[ed] those who deviated from traditional community mores” and reacted violently when their authority was compromised (Banker 143). In turn, the group perpetuated national stereotypes of Appalachians as “gun-toting, revenge-seeking hillbillies” (Banker 144). Internally, this point in history exacerbated an Appalachian tendency to construct identities based on local and national biases. Similarly, McCarthy uses this mindset to shape Lester Ballard’s identity. In the final chapter of Part I, unidentified communal narrators reveal speculation about Leland Ballard, Lester’s grandfather: “I’ll tell you one thing he was if he wasn’t no soldier. He was a by god White Cap” (McCarthy 80). By making a point to reference the White Caps in the last chapter written in first-person narration, McCarthy reminds his reader to consider the significance of this regionally influential group in relation to the fictional community’s creation of Lester Ballard.
As Bartlett points out, only the novel’s first section employs the voices of characters situated in the middle of Sevier County alongside Ballard (6). Interestingly, when the townspeople’s voices disappear in Part II and III, Lester’s isolation and violence increases exponentially. Although Bartlett believes the communal narration serves as “gentle preparation” for Lester’s atrocious acts in the subsequent sections, I contend that the first person narration in Part I reveals insight into the community that made Lester into the man he becomes (6).
The novel begins with Lester being forced out of his Sevier County home after foreclosure. When the home is being auctioned, potential buyers “came like a caravan of carnival folk” intending to purchase the home cheaply and knowingly send Lester into the streets (McCarthy 3). Lester, unable to comprehend the insensitivity of his peers, insists they get their “goddamn ass off [his] property” (7). However, his protests are in vain and he is eventually removed from the only home he has. Understandably, Lester “never could hold his head right after that” (9). This initial experience exposes Lester to the disdain and general contempt his community has towards him and serves as the catalyst for his mental deterioration. More directly, the communal narration reveals the illogical fear and hatred towards Lester that is inherent within the county. Describing Ballard punch a younger boy, one speaker admits: “I don’t know what it was… We just felt real bad. I never liked Lester Ballard from that day. I never liked him much before that. He never done nothing to me” (18). A relatively custom event in the fictional community, not much thought is given to other characters who engage in the same time of petty violence and fighting. Yet, this local voice expresses the general animosity the community projects onto Lester. As a result of his alienation, Lester is obligated to find comfort in inanimate objects (and later, inanimate people). During the county fair, Lester participates in a contest by demonstrating his marksmanship only in hopes his prize will be “them big’ns [stuffed animals] yonder” (63). After winning two stuffed bears and a large tiger, Lester becomes attached to them as a young child would a toy and totes them around for the rest of the novel. Once again, his strange behavior can be attributed to his ostracization from society.
Ironically, the community which isolates Lester is the same community he blindly looks to for appropriate thought and action. For example when he is at the fair, he sees another man cheating during a game by “trying to steer two fish into his dip net at the same time” (62). After watching the man for awhile and coming to the conclusion his behavior was acceptable, Lester copies him and begins cheating himself. Interestingly, it is Lester who is caught and reprimanded for violating game rules. Nevertheless, it was another member of the community that unknowingly taught and prompted Lester to cheat – this urge did not originate in Lester himself. A similar incident is depicted during Ballard’s unwarranted stay in jail for alleged rape. Another inmate tells Lester, “white pussy is nothing but trouble” and never having considered it, “Ballard agreed that it was. He guessed he’d thought so but he’d never heard it put that way” (53). Once again conforming to the ideas of those around him, Ballard blindly believes and agrees with things he overhears other community members say. Even when he boasts to other inmates claiming “all the trouble [he] ever was in…was caused by whiskey or women or both,” he admits it was only because “he’d often heard men say as much” (53). Throughout the first part of the novel, it is clear Lester is simply a bi-product of his environment and the community at fault repeatedly refuses to take responsibility for the savage they have created.
On another note, McCarthy’s communal narrators never directly address Lester’s most egregious offenses – his murders, necrophilia, and extreme acts of brutality are all described to the reader by the third-person narrator. Although the community subtly acknowledges Lester’s tendency for these behaviors, it is never explicitly mentioned in fear his actions could taint the already complex reputation of Appalachians as violent savages. For the locals to accept one of their own as a homicidal sociopath would compel them to openly consider their culture’s tendency for unnecessary aggression, and force them to recognize their role in Lester’s personality. In the final communal narration, the general tendency to avoid conversation about Lester becomes evident:
I’ll say one thing about Lester though. You can trace em back to Adam if you want and goddamn if he didn’t outstrip em all.
That’s the god’s truth.
Talkin about Lester…
You all talk about him. I got supper waitin’ on me at the house. (81)
The desire to disassociate Lester from the Sevier County community is confirmed by the local narrator’s assertion that he is the worst human being to exist throughout the course of history, not simply the worst from the region. By failing to discuss Lester’s most deplorable acts, his society once again refuses to take responsibility for their role in creating him. It is hard to say whether the community’s acknowledgement and support would have altered the course of Lester’s life, but their refusal to do so reinforces his character at the very least. After all, his destructive and primitive nature does not surface until after he is fully alienated from society.
Ultimately, to understand the social, cultural, and regional context in Child of God leads to a greater understanding of Lester Ballard himself. Isolated from an already isolated community, Lester is left to struggle with his own self agency while he is exposed to the negative opinions and expectations of those around him. His role as the community’s collective scapegoat reveals not only the culture’s moral standards, but the grounds they are based off of. In addition, choosing local storytellers to narrate a majority of Part I allows McCarthy to explore and illuminate moral hypocrisies characteristic to the Appalachian region.
Banker, Mark T. Appalachians All: East Tennesseans and the Elusive History of an American Region. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 2010.
Bartlett, Andrew. “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.” Southern Literary Journal 24 (1991): 3-15.
Bell, Vereen M. “The Ambiguous Nihilism of Cormac McCarthy.” Southern Literary Journal 15 (1983): 31-41.
McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. Random House, Inc. 1973.
The Mascot- Lester Ballard as the Southern Other
Tennessee Williams once said “If people behaved in the way nations do, they would all be put in straightjackets.” Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the case of Lester Ballard from Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God. Lester Ballard, through his dispossession, violence, and sexual deviance, is an allegory for Southern culture, an exaggerated mascot for the Southern “other.” The violence with which Ballard conducts his “sex life” mirrors the “Peculiar Institution” of slavery. His desire for sexual contact, despite his aversion to personal interaction with living beings may be seen as an attempt to carry on his bloodline, an act that is representative of a very important part of Southern heritage. Most importantly, however, Lester Ballard represents Southern “otherness” through the countless examples of his dispossession from and misunderstanding by the society in which he has been placed. Lester Ballard is, simply put, a necrophiliac and a mass-murder. However, for Cormac McCarthy, these traits are not something to be despised or feared in this character because they are not really personal traits. The fact that Ballard combines his murderous impulses with his sexual urges may be viewed as a representation of the practices of Southern slave-owners. It is commonly known that slave-owners would routinely rape female slaves. While this practice essentially provided the South with a self-replenishing supply of free label, economic gain simply doesn’t make sense as a sole compulsion to rape another human being. If Ballard’s actions are any indication, and I strongly believe that they are, the common practice of slave rape stemmed from a confusion of sexual gratification and the gratification that comes from having power over another person. As Andrew Bartlett suggests, “for Ballard erotic impulses are painfully confused with destructive impulses” (4). Ballard’s sexual deviancy shows us that slave owners were sexually aroused by the thought of having power over another human, and that they used sex, like any rapist, as a way to assert that power. This double-pleasure created the vicious circle that plagued female slaves for over 250 years. Lester Ballard’s necrophilia can further be tied to another great Southern impulse: continuing his name. The Euro-centric importance of coming “from good stock” crossed over the Atlantic and settled in the South. We can see this in the classist divisions of Southerners, Creoles, and Cajuns; we can even see it in the modern stereotype of the “inbreeding hillbilly.” A sense of royalty migrated to the South, bringing with it the need to continue strong, pure bloodlines and the need for decorative titles. While the need to call himself a colonel for no reason certainly isn’t present in Ballard’s mind, it seems that the need to spread his seed is. McCarthy shows us this when he says “You could say that he’s sustained by his fellow men, like you. Has peopled the shore with them calling to him. A race that gives suck to the maimed and the crazed, that wants their wrong blood in its history and will have it” (156). We see here the damage that such an obsession can cause. It promotes delusions of grandeur, encourages the Southerner to consider himself better than other men simply because of his last name. It creates a sense of entitlement in a nation where the rank and file are supposed to be every bit as worthy of respect and success as these false nobles. Ballard’s strongest connection to Southern culture, however, is revealed by the fact that society has expelled him and completely misunderstands him. It is this dispossession that makes Ballard a true mascot for the Southern other, rather than just a character with personality traits that tie in with Southern culture. McCarthy seems clearly to acknowledge Ballard as an allegory for Southern otherness because he “differs from most writers in that he does not seem interested in his character’s actions within society, but rather outside of it” (Carr 10). We see through Ballard that our fascination with Southern culture, whether we condemn or applaud it, results simply from the fact that our societies are different. Southern society, with its agrarian ways and air of romanticism, feels older, outdated. But McCarthy shows us that, just like Ballard should not be condemned for his differences, neither should American society condemn Southern culture because it is a bit “behind the curve.” McCarthy “very pointedly projects an image of man as extremely isolated, alienated, violent, and amoral” (Carr 10). However, he also encourages us to question these assessments of Lester Ballard, as well as common assessments of Southern culture. They are only isolated and alienated because they are different and because the society around them is unaccepting. They become violent only when they are dejected and put through social crucifixion. They are not inherently amoral. Instead, we must recognize that their morals have been stolen from them along with their ways of life. McCarthy shows us through his voyeuristic style exactly why we misunderstand the South and why society misunderstands Lester Ballard. As Bartlett describes it, “narrative information is most often restricted to what characters say and do [rather] than what they think or feel” (5). This shows us that our inability to accept Southern culture stems from the fact that we fail to recognize the motivations behind the South’s actions. Many people are taught to view the Civil War as a war between evil slaveholders and righteous emancipators. However, we must recognize that the South’s rebellion, despite the fact that it espoused values that do not mesh with today’s society, was inherently patriotic. We must respect the fact that these men were fighting for their rights as the Constitution then defined them. When the government threatened their way of life, it was their patriotic duty to protect it. In the latter half of the novel, Lester Ballard comes to represent the South as it was under Reconstruction. Despite being beaten, broken, and subdued, Southern culture could not be exterminated. McCarthy perfectly describes this situation through Lester’s near-drowning: “He could not swim, but how would you drown him? His wrath seemed to buoy him up” (156). It is this wrath that prompted events like the formation of the Ku Klux Klan. Again, Southerners were not inherently violent, they were simply responding to being conquered and to being treated as a conquered nation by a government that was supposed to be their own. It is perfectly understandable that one would revolt against the power by which one was dispossessed. Ballard mirrors this idea in his comparatively quiet stalking of the man who now occupies his house: “Ballard took to wandering over the mountain through the snow to his old homeplace where he’d watch the house, the house’s new tenant. He’d go in the night and lie up on the bank and watch him through the kitchen window… Ballard laid the rifle foresight on his chest. He swung it upward to a spot just above the ear. His finger filled the cold curve of the trigger. Bang, he said” (109). The KKK, the lynchings of hundreds of black men, the attacks on polling places were the South’s “bang.” What we must learn through Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God is that Lester Ballard, like Southern otherness, is a product of social rejection. While both certainly possess qualities that are less than wonderful, most of modern society’s aversion to the South is nothing more than misunderstanding. We must recognize that the violence we associate with the South is nothing more than a reaction to perceived wrongs. Despite the violence, sexual deviancy, and backwards nature of Southern culture (in comparison to modern American culture), we must extend the empathy we feel for Ballard and allow ourselves to accept the Southern other for what it is. Lester Ballard, as mascot for Southern otherness, shows us that we must recognize that difference is not fault. Works CitedBartlett, Andrew. “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God.” The Southern Literary Journal Vol. 24(1991): 3-15.Carr, Duane R. “The Dispossessed White as Naked Ape and Stereotyped Hillbilly in the Southern Novels of Cormac McCarthy.” The Midwest Quarterly.McCarthy, Cormac. Child of God. New York: Vintage Books International, 1993.
The Exemplification of Freudian Sexual Development in McCarthy’s Child of God
In Child of God, Cormac McCarthy presents readers with the story of Lester Ballard, a young man abandoned by and expelled from society. Ballard’s is a gothic tale overflowing with depravity, libidinal pressure, necrophilia, and psychopathy, yet it is also a testament to the ways in which a society can create monsters out of men. McCarthy creates an empathy for Lester Ballard via flashbacks and personal discussions between various residents of the fictional Sevier County, Tennessee. Readers are given Ballard’s life, as presented in the book, as an exemplar of the various stages of psychosexual development in Freudian theory, and there are numerous symbolic actions and images within the novel which prove this. While Ballard serves as a disenfranchised, quasi-Everyman with whom readers can identify and sympathize, his horrific actions set him apart as a psychological deviant. Thus, he simultaneously personifies the stages theorized by Freud and showcases the outcome of what occurs when those stages are not traversed completely and/or adequately. Furthermore, the novel proves that, rather than aiding human development, society sometimes makes it impossible for humans to advance psychosexually.
From McCarthy’s anonymous narrator and the town residents, readers learn that Lester Ballard’s mother “had run off” and that his father committed suicide when Lester was very young (21). The novel never explains Ballard’s care or living situation. The information of his parents’ death is delivered by an anonymous townsperson after the reader has been introduced to the adult Ballard. This introduction takes place on Ballard’s property—a property that is being auctioned off for what can be assumed to be a failure to pay taxes (3-8). The interim between the suicide and the auction is largely unaccounted for, but the fact that Ballard is still in possession of his familial homestead suggests that he has been there all along, in the absence of parental figures.
The scene of the elder Ballard’s hanging frames the first image of Lester Ballard presented by McCarthy. The novel states that Ballard “moves in the dry chaff among the dust and slats of sunlight with a strained truculence…Standing in the forebay door he blinks. Behind him there is a rope hanging from the loft” (4). Immediately, readers are shown that Ballard is quite literally living in the shadow of his father’s death. Readers are later informed that Ballard showed no emotion upon seeing his father’s dead body cut down from the barn loft. McCarthy writes, “He stood there and watched, never said nothing [sic]” (21). This is the earliest moment in Lester’s life to which readers are privy, so it marks the birth of the character in the readers’ minds. Ballard’s inability to orally respond to his father’s death is symbolic of his inability to work through the oral phase of his sexual development. Dino Felluga, in his explanation of Sigmund Freud’s theory of sexual development, explains that the initial phase of this development is centered on the “lips and… mouth.” The mother’s breast is the first object of desire in this phase, but it is eventually replaced by the mother herself. Boys incorporate their fathers into this stage—and eventually into their own internal parental authority (or superego) –by imitating the father’s actions. As these feelings of desire for the mother and mimicry of the father grow, boys begin to see that their fathers are competition for their mothers’ affection and comfort. Thus, the Oedipus complex is established: boys wish to possess their mothers in the sexual way that their fathers do, and so they want their fathers “out of the picture.” Realizing that neither of these is a socially acceptable act, boys repress these feelings (Felluga). Ballard’s development is stymied, though. When readers first meet him, his mother is absent, connoting a lack of the familial comfort associated with the oral stage; and his father is dead by his own hands, thus fulfilling, on one hand, the Freudian desire to destroy the father and, on the other, negating Ballard’s ability to overthrow his father on his own. Ballard is left in limbo, with no proper means of finding either the comfort he needs or the feeling of power of overcoming his father. He has no way to work through the Oedipus complex because he has no parents and no apparent substitutions.
To reinforce the novel’s depiction of an unhealthy oral phase, McMarthy creates a graphic scene of animal cruelty enacted by a grotesque child. Ballard visits an acquaintance’s house only to find that the man, Ralph, is gone, but the man’s wife, teenage daughter, and toddler son are home. Previously, Ballard had caught a robin under a cedar tree, and he brings the bird as a “playpretty” for the youngest child (76-77). Billy, the toddler, is described as something aberrant—the narrator questions if the child should even be called such—“a hugeheaded bald and slobbering primate that inhabited the lower reaches of the house, familiar of the warped floorboards,…perennially benastied and afflicted with a nameless crud” (77). The view of the reader is momentarily taken away from Billy while Ballard, the wife, and the girl make small talk. Their talk is interrupted when the girl calls from the other room “I wish you’d looky here Mama” (78). She has returned to find that her younger brother has bitten the feet off of the bird (79). This is a dark example of the oral sexual stage. Billy has learned to attain pleasure and comfort through his lips and mouth, as Felluga paraphrases, but his pleasure is derived from an act of violence. “Ballard grinned uneasily,” the novel tells us, “‘He wanted it to where it couldn’t run off,’ he said” (79). Billy is an expression of Ballard’s younger self, and Ballard seems to understand Billy’s need to take comfort from pain. He knows from the loss of his parents that stability and comfort are fleeting, so he instantly recognizes that the child’s biting off of the bird’s legs is an act to keep the bird from leaving.
Felluga says, “Among those individuals who do not progress properly into the genital phase, the Oedipus Complex, according to Freud, can still be playing out its psychodrama in various displaced, abnormal, and/or exaggerated ways.” These abnormalities appear in numerous horrific ways in Ballard’s story. He is incapable of fulfilling his initial pleasure instincts—the sexual union with his mother and the mimicry/destruction of his father—so he seeks out extreme surrogates to work through the ideas and instincts he has repressed. Freud says:
…the instinct-presentation develops in a more unchecked and luxuriant fashion if it is withdrawn by repression from conscious influence. It ramifies like a fungus, so to speak, in the dark, and takes on extreme forms of expression, which when translated and revealed to the neurotic are bound not merely to seem alien to him, but to terrify him by the way in which they reflect an extraordinary and dangerous strength of instinct. (“Repression” 423)
Ballard’s ways of expressing his desire for his mother are horrendous: he becomes a necrophiliac and a murderer who wears the undergarments and skins of his victims (McCarthy 140, 173). He cannot possess his mother, so he has projected the idea of that possession onto the women he kills. His first foray into necrophilia, though, does not include murder. While hunting on Frog Mountain—the local spot where young couples go parking—Ballard comes across a parked car, its engine still running, on a country road. The two young people in the back seat are in the missionary sexual position, but they are both dead, presumably from the car’s exhaust fumes (85-88). Ballard rolls the man off of the young woman and has sex with the woman’s corpse in the backseat (88-89); he then carries the corpse back to his shack for future use (89-91). This violation of the woman’s body is the “extreme form of expression” discussed by Freud, and it only gets worse from there. Ballard repeatedly has sex with the corpse, and the novel makes it clear that he feels that he has a relationship with this young woman. The narrator says that, during the initial intercourse, “[Ballard] poured into that waxen ear everything he’d ever thought of saying to a woman” (88). He buys her a new dress and new underwear (96-98), brushes her hair (102), and positions her in various ways so that he can gaze upon her through the window of his shack; at times, he sits holding her (103). Even when there is sex, it is not the rampant, rushed variety one might expect from a deviant in lust. Ballard “undress[es] her very slowly, talking to her. Then he pull[s] off his trousers and [lies] next to her” (103). There is an obvious desire for a relationship and a form of comfort. When his shack burns down and the corpse is consumed by the flames, Ballard begins to murder women and to collect multiple bodies (149). He is attempting to recreate his missing family unit, but specifically the relationship with his mother.
The novel contains a few notable moments wherein Ballard’s lack of ability to reconnect with the maternal/feminine are apparent. When he goes to visit Reubel, the dumpkeeper, Ballard walks into “a clearing where two cars lay upturned at either side of the road like wrecked sentinels” (McCarthy 26). This yonic gateway leads to the home of the dumpkeeper and his nine daughters—an allusion to the inspirational Muses of Greek lore. Yet, Ballard finds no inspiration here. Despite his concerted efforts at flirting, he is laughed at by Reubel’s daughter (28-29). The next failed attempt at making a connection with a female is when Ballard visits Ralph’s home and makes advances towards his daughter (118-120). Again, the denial of live female companionship takes place in a domestic sphere to which Ballard will never belong. Ballard is keenly aware of the fact that he is psychosexually stunted, as presented by one of the most moving scenes in the novel. When spring returns after a harsh winter, Ballard sits and watches “two hawks couple and drop, their wings upswept” (169). He hikes into the mountains and watches a man bringing an empty wagon back from town stop to let his mule drink (170). The novel states that he watched not only the coupling of the birds and the tending of the mule by the farmer, but also the gray fields returning to life and “the slow green occlusion that the trees were spreading.” At this point, he squats, hangs his head between his knees, and cries (170). Ballard realizes, perhaps not for the first time, that he has a part neither in the natural coupling of the world nor in the new life it creates.
Ballard’s obsession with his absent mother, however, finds its culmination in his crossdressing and wearing of female flesh. Á la Norman Bates, Lester Ballard tries to recreate his mother by donning the clothing of his victims. He begins to stalk John Greer, the new owner of his confiscated and recently-auctioned house. After a few observations from afar, Ballard attempts to shoot Greer as the new homeowner is digging a spot for a septic tank behind his house. Just as Ballard fires his rifle, Greer raises his shovel, deflecting the shot that was meant to kill him (McCarthy 172). Greer races to the front of his house with Ballard close behind him. As Ballard races into the doorway of his previous home, Greer shoots him. The novel reads, “He looked like something come against the end of a springloaded tether or some slapstick contrivance of the filmcutter’s art, swallowed up in the door and discharged from it again almost simultaneously, ejected in an immense concussion backwards…” (173). This depiction is poignant in that it emphasizes the idea that Ballard has been expelled from a traditional family unit. He has no mother, no father, no true friends, and so he is literally propelled out of the domestic sphere. When he finally gets a good look at Ballard, Greer finds that he is dressed in “skirts” (172) and is wearing a wig “fashioned whole from a dried human scalp” (173). Unable to find a true return to the maternal via these pseudo-relationships with corpses, Ballard constructs the maternal around himself via women’s clothing and women’s skin.
The second stage in Freudian theory, according to Felluga, is the sadistic-anal phase. Felluga says that this phase is “split between active and passive impulses: the impulse to mastery on the one hand, which can easily become cruelty; the impulse to scopophilia (love of gazing), on the other hand.” Furthermore, the pleasure center associated with this phase is “the rectal orifice.” Felluga again paraphrases Freud when he explains that the child’s pleasure is taken from his or her ability to produce something of his or her own—in this case, feces (Felluga). The two main problems encountered in this phase are anal-retentiveness, in which a child attains pleasure by holding in his/her excrement/urine and refusing to release them at appropriate times; and anal-explosiveness, in which a child attains pleasure (and power) by releasing excrement/urine at will and whim (“Three Contributions…” 108-110). It is this second tendency which explains Ballard’s actions. When readers first see Ballard, he is urinating in his open barn (4). Later, after he has been evicted and has taken up residence in an abandoned shack, Ballard bypasses the spot where the outhouse had been and “went behind the barn where he trod a clearing in the clumps of jimson and nightshade and squatted and shat” (13). His ignoring of the conventional and appropriate places to relieve himself foreshadows his future explosive personality. By choosing to urinate in an open barn rather than behind it and to defecate in the weeds rather than in the more socially acceptable remnants of an outhouse, Ballard is expressing his power and control, a same power and control he will wield over his victims in the coming months depicted in the novel.
The novel contains numerous fecal symbols associated with this anal stage. Immediately after the scene with the outhouse, Ballard takes pleasure in cleaning out the waste strewn about his new home. According to the text, “…with a piece of cardboard…he swept up the old newspapers and he swept out the dried dung of foxes and possums and he swept out bits of brickcolored mud fallen from the board ceiling with their black husks of pupae [emphasis added]” (14). When he goes to bed on his worn mattress, he sees the “belly and tail of a blacksnake” hanging from a board over the window. He “prods” it with his finger, at which point it “drop[s] to the floor with a thud” (16). These images either explicitly state or overtly imply fecal matter, and Ballard has no qualms about engaging with them. There are further references to Ballard in a squatting position (91, 107, 137), to Ballard covered in filth from crawling into the mouth of various caves (107, 133) and to Ballard living “in the bowels of the mountain” (135). Even Ballard’s one friend, the dumpkeeper, makes a mention of finding random “piles of rags in a corner. Small lumps of yellow shit wrapped up and laid by” (27). While the transiency of Ballard’s oral psychosexual phase results in his psychopathy, his obsession with the anal phase results in the explosive nature of his murders.
Freud’s third psychosexual phase is the phallic phase, in which the penis (or clitoris) becomes the center of libidinal focus. This phase is marked by a fear of castration brought on by, one, the new focus on the penis as an erogenous zone, and two, the need to limit or control the pleasure principle. The phase also begins the resolution of the Oedipus complex, at which point a child chooses to identify solely with his/her father or mother (Felluga). Ballard’s phallic phase is marked by the absence of his father and his chilling attempt to recreate his mother around himself. Ballard is incapable of typical human sexual interaction, so he uses a phallic symbol—his rifle—to represent his emergent sexuality and his need for a connection to the masculine. When he finds another couple parked, he shoots the man in the neck and makes the girl get out of the car. He turns her to face away from him and then fires into the base of her skull ((McCarthy 150-151). He has, in essence, penetrated the living girl with the bullet from his rifle so that he may have intercourse with her dead body. The rifle is the means by which he attains both the normative act of penetrating a living being and the macabre act (and thus the only one he can fully accomplish) of having sex with a dead body.
This phallic symbol is present in most of Ballard’s scenes, and he constantly carries it in his hand or manipulates it in some way. When he is carrying the first dead girl back to his shack, he has the rifle in his hand (McCarthy 89). The rifle is also there when he stores her in the attic space and when he climbs down the ladder again (101), when he moves into the cave after the burning of his shack (107), and when he traverses the river to set up residence in a cave in a sinkhole in the mountain (158). He pays special attention to the rifle’s upkeep. When he comes home alone at night, he “sits and dries the rifle and ejects the shells into his lap and dries them and wipes the action and oils it and oils the receiver and the barrel and the magazine and the lever and reloads the rifle and levers a shell into the chamber and lets the hammer down and lays the rifle on the floor beside him” (67). This constant handling of the rifle is masturbatory imagery, and masturbation usually begins in this phase of development. Ballard, fearing castration/removal of his power, perpetually reminds himself that his rifle/phallus is still present by keeping it in his hand. The rifle helps him to identify with his father, as it represents the anatomical feature that they share, yet it also helps to shift Ballard’s focus onto the sexual pleasure found in the opposite sex. Freud explains that masturbation causes a fixation on one’s own genitals, but that fixation eventually leads to a focus on the genitals of the opposite sex; thus, it promotes the healthy sexual lifestyle to come in the future (“Three Contributions…” 115). Ballard’s rifle, with its connotations of masturbation, does create his eventual sexual expression, but his expression is unnatural because he never properly participated in the preceding psychosexual stages.
After Ballard is shot and caught, he is taken to the local hospital. There, a mob of angry townsmen come and force him to tell them where he has hidden the bodies of his victims (McCarthy 177-183) He leads them into the caves in the mountains, and he quickly loses them in the labyrinth of turns and crawlspaces (184-185). The problem is that Ballard goes so deep into these unfamiliar chambers that he cannot find his way out. The text reads that he wandered “for three days…in an attempt to find another exit (187). This is symbolic of Freud’s fourth stage of sexual development: the latency period. It is a time marked by a decrease in sexual development and libidinal energy. Dino Felluga says that it also may contain an element Freud called “infantile amnesia:” the repression of early memories found to be too traumatic or overly sexual. Felluga also states that this is a time of overcoming the Oedipus complex by freeing oneself from both parents. This time in the caves is Ballard’s latency period. His flashlight gives out, and he is forced to wander slowly in the darkness (McCarthy 187-188). He eventually finds a smaller cavern in which a single ray of sunshine falls through the ceiling, so he begins to dig through the dirt and rock above him to escape. Ballard’s time in the cave is a symbolic gestation. He has returned to a primordial Mother to restart his developmental process, and the struggle to be reborn—wandering in dark, tight tunnels; clawing and scratching his way into the sunlight—helps him to finally separate from his parental influence. When he emerges from the cave, his rifle is nowhere to be found; this is the first time in a long time that Ballard has been separate from it, and his lack of concern over this fact is telling. Also, he is dressed in men’s clothing for the first time since the middle of the novel—he had left the feminine clothing/flesh behind as well. He walks across fields and hops fences until he finds a road. McCarthy writes, “Seeing that uphill it led toward the mountains he took the other way and soon was hobbling along weak but able, the night being as fine as you could wish and a faint bloom of honeysuckle already on the air” (190). Ballard, who previously would have sought the comfort and distance from society granted by his caves, now chooses to walk towards that society. Another first happens here: McCarthy’s writing takes on a hopeful tone, with the “fine” night, the whiffs of “honeysuckle already on the air” (190), and the roosters of Sevier County “calling” out to each other as if they “sensed a relief in the obscurity of night…” (191). Ballard has found not wholeness but progress. He has moved through the latency period and out of the “obscurity of night” and into a more adult role. This is further symbolized by his brief encounter with a boy riding by in a bus. As the bus “clatter[s] past,” Ballard observes the people in the windows, and
At the last seat in the rear a small boy was looking out the window, his nose puttied against the glass. There was nothing out there to see but he was looking anyway. As he went by he looked at Ballard and Ballard looked back. Then the bus rounded the curve and clattered from sight. Ballard climbed into the road and went on. He was trying to fix in his mind where he’d seen the boy when it came to him that the boy looked like himself. This gave him the fidgets and though he tried to shake the image of the face in the glass it would not go. (McCarthy 191)
Ballard has a face to face encounter with the boy he once was, and the bus quickly moving away as Ballard walks in the opposite direction signifies that he is moving into the adult period of his psychosexual development. Andrew Bartlett, in “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God,” explains it this way:
Previously, Ballard has looked intently at the posters of the wanted in the town post office, perhaps for his own face (McCarthy 55). He has almost touched his own image, Narcissus-fashion, in a pool on the Blount county side of Frog Mountain (127). But not until this relatively random visual confrontation—only relatively, because the church bus is appropriately ironic, and the exceptional boy’s puttied nose directing the vision out the back window instead of straight ahead like all the others is suggestive—not until this mirroring event occurs does the direction of Ballard’s actions change” (14).
Ballard looks for himself among the wanted signs in the post office, but he fails to see himself there amongst the “men of many names” (55) because he is a psychopath who has no idea that he is a psychopath. He fails to see himself in his own reflection because, at that point in the novel, he is still crossdressing and wearing human flesh. It is only after these things have been stripped away by his descent and ascent in the cave that he is able to identify himself. This encounter is so new and disconcerting that it frightens Ballard (“gave him the fidgets”) ; it lingers with him (“it would not go”) long after the other images have faded because it is the truth.
The change from the latency phase into the final genital phase of Freudian psychosexual development is expressed when Ballard makes his way back to the hospital willingly: “I’m supposed to be here,” he says to the nurse (192). This admission marks his first acquiescence to social normalcy—he has accepted his place and goes there of his own volition. Felluga explains that the genital phase is when an individual progresses into a normal sexuality aimed at reproduction and, thus, the continuation of the human race. It is at this point when “the individual enters adulthood and ensures the survival of the species” (Felluga). Ballard enters adulthood by shucking the remnants of his past—his paternal rifle, his maternal clothes and flesh—but he never attains the proper sexual encounter. After his return to the hospital, he is sent to a state mental facility, where he lives for several decades more (193-194). Upon his death, his body is donated to science, and he is “flayed, eviscerated, dissected” (194). He never attains true sexual intimacy with another living being, and thus never fully evolves into what Freud would call the normal sexual aim.
Lester Ballard is a poster boy for Freudian psychosexual development. Each stage of his life presented in the book is representative of one of Freud’s phases, but he also represents what Freud believed would be the outcome for anyone who did not complete each of those phases. Ballard is physically stunted—“small, unclean, unshaven” (4)—and he “never could hold his head right” after he lost a fistfight on the day his home was auctioned (9). His physique serves as a visual representation of his psyche. His inability to properly work through the process of the Oedipus complex leads him to seek sexual gratification in one of the most taboo and socially reprehensible ways possible. His lingering obsession with the anal phase creates the explosive nature exhibited during his murders and the subsequent sexual encounters with his victims. His latency period—the time when these urges are supposed to be repressed or sublimated into acceptable avenues of expression—is the shortest phase represented in the book. It lasts mere days while the others last for years. Thus, while he engages with this phase long enough to allow him to enter into a more logical, adult role, he does not linger there long enough to move into the final adult stage fully. By the end of the book, he is a child still, although a more mature and less aggressive one.
McCarthy’s book repeatedly points out that Ballard is “a child of God much like yourself” (4). It posits that “people are the same from the day God first mad one” (168). Thus, it is societal acceptance or denial which creates what humans are. Is Ballard then a monster created by the society that abandons him, ostracizes him, and hunts him? Or is he a monster from birth because of his inability to move through the stages of his development correctly? The answer is a combination of the two questions. Ballard is a monster because of his inability to progress, but his inability (as represented by the portion of his life observed in the book) is brought about largely by the society in which he lives. Rather than creating the impetus by which he could progress smoothly through these phases, his society hinders him at every juncture. With no real explanation as to why they are doing it, they take Ballard’s homestead (McCarthy 6-7); when he visits his friend the dumpkeeper, he is not invited into the house (37); when he tries to help a woman sleeping on the side of the road, he is attacked and accused of rape (42-43); and the sheriff, aptly named Fate, has a long-standing hatred of Ballard (56). The struggle between the pleasure principle—human desire to attain pleasure or to avoid pain—and the reality principle—the idea that one cannot attain pleasure or avoid pain simply whenever one wishes—is largely created by societal norms (“Civilization…” 774-775). That is, people in a civilized society cannot do what they want whenever they want without consideration for what is acceptable in that society. Thus, social pressures, either those enforced in the home during the oral and anal phases or those enforced by society at large in the later phases, are the stimuli by which humans move through these phases. Lester Ballard receives no such stimuli. He is excommunicated from society, but given no hope of reconciliation. This makes the citizens of Sevier County culpable in Ballard’s destitution. The society has not fulfilled its end of the Freudian bargain, and so Ballard has no way of fulfilling his. The citizens see Lester Ballard as some deviant Other, but in reality they are projecting their own unfulfilled role and social irresponsibility onto him.
Bartlett, Andrew. “From Voyeurism to Archaeology: Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God” The Southern Literary Journal 24.1 (1991): 3-15. Web.
Felluga, Dino. “Modules on Freud.” Introductory Guide to Critical Theory. 31 January 2011. Purdue University. 7 December 2013. Web.
Freud, Sigmund. “Civilization and Its Discontents.” Hutchins 767-802. Print.
—. “Repression.” Hutchins 422-427.Print.
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Hutchins, Robert Maynard, ed. The Major Works of Sigmund Freud. Chicago: Encyclopedia Britannica, Inc, 1952. Print.