Dorothy Allison’s Creation of the Post-Modern Appalachian Woman
Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina tells the story of ‘white-trash’ girl Bone Boatwright and her “no-good, lazy, shiftless” family (3). The novel explores some of the most common myths and realities plaguing the Appalachian region such as poverty, incest, and domestic abuse. Specifically, Allison confronts the institutional system of gender relations through all the characters she portrays within the novel. Bone’s mother, Anney, her aunts Alma and Ruth, her step-father Glen, and the other Boatwright aunts and uncles consistently address and live up to traditional gender expectations. With that being said, Bone and her Aunt Raylene are the only characters to break free from these gender roles and create a better future for themselves. Throughout Bastard Out of Carolina, Allison uses the aforementioned strong and independent female characters to challenge patriarchal gender relations and ultimately, she creates a new standard for Appalachian women in the post-modern era.
Agreeably, most of the characters in the novel fulfill traditional gender expectations. As a whole, the women are there to tend to the home and children while the men are expected to provide and protect. Yet, Allison uses these characters to expose the physical, psychological, and economic domination women must endure under a patriarchal system. For example after Anney marries Daddy Glen, she begins to deny her own self-agency and expects her new husband to tend to problems that would otherwise be her own: “Glen needs to take care of this… He needs to do it, and I’ve got to let him” (57). After all, Anney needs Daddy Glen “like a starving woman needs meat between her teeth” (41). Within the general gender expectations, Allison goes further to create a distinction between Boatwright men and Boatwright women. The Boatwright men exacerbate male gender roles through their drunkenness, rowdiness, and their inability to provide for their families despite it being their sole responsibility. Furthermore, regardless of their love towards their spouses, Boatwright men will not “stay away from other women” and they have no respect for situations that “could not be handled with a shotgun or a two-by-four” (24, 10). With that being said, the women succumb to their husbands behavior and accept it as “what men did was just what men did,” even when it leaves them tending to the house and children alone while the men are stuck in jail (23). In this way, Allison sets up a cyclical pattern of female-male dependency in the novel that is only eventually destroyed by Bone herself. Even Bone notices “[her] aunts treated [her] uncles like over-grown boys—rambunctious teenagers whose antics were more to be joked about than worried over” (23). Similarly, after Aunt Alma is cheated on by her husband, she tries but fails to survive independently from Wade and eventually goes back to him, justifying it with “I guess he ain’t no worse than any other man” (91). Ultimately, the Boatwright women carry the family’s burdens and do a better majority of the work while the Boatwright men do as they wish: “Men could do anything, and everything they did, no matter how violent or mistaken, was viewed with humor and understanding” (23). With that being said, by incorporating well-established gender constructs into her characters, Allison manages to both reinforce and resist standards associated with gender roles and expectations. However, Allison’s reinforcement of these stereotypes does not suggest her agreement or compliance. Instead, this portrayal allows Allison to juxtapose the ‘standard’ Appalachian woman with her own alternative: a new role for women in post-modern Appalachia.
Indeed, Allison’s ‘weak’ female characters are prisoners to the idea nothing in their lives or families can ever change. For example when Anney’s first husband, Lyle Parsons, dies, Aunt Ruth refers to Anney’s newly permanent look of hopelessness and despondency as finally “looking like a Boatwright,” but to Anney, “it didn’t matter…anymore what she looked like” (8). Similarly, both Aunt Ruth and Anney resign themselves to the same inevitable roles and future experienced by the majority of women in Appalachia. Aunt Ruth reminds the reader of the only goal for the women in the family: “Being pregnant was proof that some man thought you were pretty… the more babies she got, the more she knew she was worth something” (230-31). Likewise, the Boatwright women base their entire worth off something only a man can give them. However, as previously mentioned, Dorothy Allison’s reinforcement of the stereotypical roles of Appalachian women does not imply her endorsement of these values. Instead, she creates a standard through these characters to expose the effects of a patriarchal system and similarly, she uses Aunt Raylene and Bone to demonstrate the potential women have once they are able to discard traditional views of what it means to be feminine.
Before Bone begins spending time with Aunt Raylene, she is unable to see past the system of patriarchy. Feeling as though she is doomed to follow in her mother and aunt’s footsteps, Bone even wishes “[she] had been born a boy” so she could enjoy the seemingly endless freedoms the men around her take for granted (23). However, Aunt Raylene’s strong, independent, and self-assured disposition encourage Bone to transcend the stereotypical role of women in Appalachia. Aunt Raylene lives on the outskirts of town, separately from the close-knit community of her sisters, explaining to Bone “out here where no one can mess with it…trash rises” (180). Ultimately, this phrase becomes a metaphor for Bone’s eventual ‘rise’ above standardized roles for Appalachian women. Aunt Raylene is the only character in the story “completely satisfied with her own company,” an attribute she teaches Bone over the course of the novel (179). Similarly, Aunt Raylene’s relentless self-agency is what allows her to escape the patriarchal system her sisters perpetuate: “I made my life…out of pride and stubbornness and too much anger” (263). In fact, Raylene embodies the exact opposite values of her sisters. She smokes, loosely uses profanity, has short hair, and wears “trousers as often as skirts” (179). By isolating herself from her family and their strictly defined roles for men and women, Aunt Raylene becomes the “something magical” Bone has fervently searched for (207). She tells Bone of her younger years working at a carnival, defending herself against a man who made unwarranted sexual advances towards her, and her romantic relationship with another woman. To Bone, these instances represent a realm she had never before considered: the ability to live life as an independent woman in Appalachia, free from the confines of gender roles and expectations. Similarly, Aunt Raylene encourages Bone’s own independence by allowing her to help can fruit and vegetables and collect trash from the river to exchange for money. Eventually, Bone comes to the conclusion she and Aunt Raylene “ain’t like nobody else in the world” (258). But perhaps the most important contribution Aunt Raylene makes to Bone is her newfound confidence. It is during her stay with Raylene that Bone decides to never live in the same house with Daddy Glen again. Although Aunt Raylene is defenseless in preventing Daddy Glen’s final and most vicious sexual assault, Bone has gained enough self-agency and confidence to at least attempt to defend herself from the wrath of her abusive step-father. Albeit unsuccessful, this instance hints at the future Bone that will survive long after the novel’s conclusion.
On that note, Linda Nicholson’s “Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism” poses the question, “What is a postmodern approach…that avoids the essentialist arrogance of much modernist, and some feminist, discourse but that also does not reduce feminism to silences or to a purely negative stance?” (80). She answers herself by saying such an approach “is a discourse that recognizes itself as historically situated, as motivated by values and, thus, political interests, and as a human practice without transcendent justification” (Nicholson 80-81). Indeed, Dorothy Allison’s portrayal of Aunt Raylene presents the dismantling of patriarchy as a simple “human practice.” While not explicitly criticizing patriarchal institutions or purposefully directing Bone, Aunt Raylene becomes a model for Appalachian women, especially her niece, in the post-modern era. Although the novel ends far removed from any ‘happy’ ending, since Bone is retelling her story retrospectively, the reader is left with no choice but to assume she lived out the rest of her childhood alongside Aunt Raylene, forging a new path for women in the Appalachian region.
Allison, Dorothy. Bastard Out of Carolina. New York: Plume, 1992.
Nicholson, Linda. “Feminism and the Politics of Postmodernism.” Feminism and Postmodernism. Eds. Margaret Ferguson and Jennifer Wicke. Durham: Duke University Press, 1994. 69-85.
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Dorothy Allison’s novel Bastard Out of Carolina tells the story of ‘white-trash’ girl Bone Boatwright and her “no-good, lazy, shiftless” family (3). The novel explores some of the most common […]