Surviving Patriarchy: Survival Techniques Of Characters In Bastard Out Of Carolina
In order for women to survive in a patriarchal and racially-driven society, we have come to develop different strategies as a mode to withstand and persist in even the most trying circumstances. One specific approach commonly employed in literature is the use of masks. Typically, a mask is used to disguise or hide someone from the world—thus concealing his or her identity. They are often used to avoid recognition, and therefore enable the individual to remain anonymous. Female characters throughout Harriet Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861) and Dorothy Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina (1992) use masks to conceal not only in the literal sense, but figuratively as well. They use masks as a means to disconnect from their reality, and allow them to serve as the primary tool to separate from reality while providing access to a sense of power and control.
The women throughout these novels also utilize a degree of tricksterism to attain a sense of authority and power. In mythology, a “trickster” will disobey or manipulate societal norms and rules of behavior for their benefit. Although the trickster can be both cunning and foolish in their methods, they evolve to use this strategy as a method to control and gain power within their environment. Whether young or old, these modes of survival are embedded within the female psyche as well, and act as a method of providing women with a chance to acquire power and control within a society which naturally offers them little. While these survival tactics do not always work to their benefit, they frequently do and often provide women with a sense of escape critical for their survival.
While in very different physical spaces, Allison’s protagonist, Bone, from Bastard Out of Carolina, and Jacobs’ Linda, from Incidents In the Life of a Slave Girl, also provide evidence of the ability to make choices, as physically or emotionally difficult as they may be, to ensure their survival. Bone, a ten-year-old girl, often unconsciously manipulates her body and her reality to understand and gain control over it, while Linda, a matured adult, consciously manipulates her reality to obtain control. Ultimately, both women deceive and control her own body to disconnect as a means for survival and power over their circumstances. While comparing Bone and Linda throughout the texts, the reader witnesses the development, progression and maturation of these survival tactics within these characters and are able to consider the importance of these innate techniques to transform their realities.
The female characters in Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina seek freedom and independence in a world confining them to be someone they’re not. For instance, in an attempt to legitimize her child and her child’s identity, Allison’s character, Anney, pursues men to fulfill her need for codependency, as well as find a father for her daughters. Ultimately however, Anney’s codependency leads to Bone’s physical, sexual and emotional abuse. Looking for help, she turns to those around her, but soon recognizes the contempt her community feels for her and her family due to their inability to contribute to society in a meaningful way. Throughout the novel, Bone works to understand her mother’s codependency, her abuse and the pressures of social stratification while exploring and implementing strategies to defend herself from them.
In order to understand the development of Bone’s survival mechanisms, it is essential to recognize the distinction between the unconscious and conscious deception she employs throughout the text. One of the most indisputable examples of these survival mechanisms can be seen through Bone’s masturbatory fantasies. Before the age of ten, Bone masturbates frequently to escape her reality. Although she does not fully recognize why she enjoys the act to the extent she does, masturbation provides an unconscious escape. The manipulation of her body and the release of her mind provides a small degree of power to cope with her continued trauma, but as Daddy Glen’s abuse escalates, her fantasies become more violent and complex. While masturbating to the ‘story I told myself about [the beatings],’ Bone attempts to take possession of her body and the abuse it has endured. Before long however, she understands the power of sex and soon forms a concrete association between sex, violence and shame. This shame is evident when her Aunt Ruth asks her directly if Glen had ever abused her, and even she answers, “no.”
Although these shameful sexual fantasies enable Bone to obtain a small degree of control or escape from her immediate suffering, critic Deborah Horvitz, author of Literary Trauma: Sadism Memory and Sexual Violence in American Women’s Fiction, explains ‘how powerlessness becomes eroticized, then entrenched within the victim’s self-identity’ (21), which is exactly what happens to Bone. “Bone attempts to transform her nightmarish reality into fantasies as a means of coping with what she considers to be her ‘damaged’ and ‘ruined’ body, but that proves impossible since her desires, wishes, and passions, are entrenched in sadomasochism.’ Critic Deborah T. Meem’s argues that real power and control will not come “until Bone is able share her experience [until then], she will not assert control over it.” Regrettably, the unconcious mask of masterbation does not in the end offer enough power for Bone to survive her suffering.
Later in the novel however, Bone begins to take on a more active role in her need to manipulate her surroundings. Digging into her “bag of survival tricks,” she wears different masks to provide more power than a typical 10 year old child might have, thus providing control over her environment. For example, Bone often ends up wearing the mask of “family protector” to control her surroundings and keep her family safe. In the novel, Bone’s stepfather, Glen, is unable to hold a job, which in turn brings even greater fiscal volatility into Bone’s family and class discrimination by her community. Her mother refuses to accept the fact that she and her family are financially unstable and therefore a disgrace to their society.
‘“We’re not bad people,’ Mama told us. ‘We’re not even really poor. Anybody says something to you, you keep that in mind… we pay our way. We just can’t always pay when people want.” Reese and I nodded earnestly, agreeing wordlessly, but we didn’t believe her. We knew what the neighbors called us, what Mama wanted to protect us from. We knew who we were….’ (143).
Bone discovers that she can keep the bill collectors away from her home by learning their schedule and lying that her mother is not home. Here, Bone illustrates the development of her innate survival mechanisms. Even as a 10 year old, she is willing and able to manipulate her environment and role in the family to protect her family from those that could tear her world apart. She consciously chooses to manipulate her surroundings for her, and her family’s, benefit, Bone takes control over the situation, and therefore gains power over it. It is with this calculating decision to trick the bill collectors in which Bone is empowered and proclaims, ‘We’re smart, I thought. We’re smarter than you think we are.’ Due to her manipulations, Bone feels ‘mean and powerful and proud of all of us’ (61). While providing immediate control over her circumstances, this example highlights a major problem often present in women’s survival techniques: what begins as a strategy for protection often becomes an identity.
A final survival technique for women often comes in the form of storytelling. For Bone, storytelling becomes an essential means of survival which offers sense of power in a world where she has none. The stories she tells allow her retell reality in manner in which she is not the victim. By the end of the novel, Bone has become a master storyteller. Engaging in her world through storytelling demonstrates a significant indication of the maturation in Bone’s instinctive survival techniques. Through stories, she is given the power to consciously manipulate everything she needs. In her early years, Bone finds comfort in the stories her aunts and grandmother tell her which validate her place (and her importance) within her family. Soon however, she uses narrative storytelling to work through and heal from her trauma.
One of the first instances we see of Bone consciously creating stories occurs when she moves to a new school and lies about her name to circumvent being labeled “white trash,” audaciously announcing to her class that she is ‘Roseanne Carter from Atlanta’ (67). Here, Bone demonstrates that creating stories provide power to tell her story any way she chooses. Later, worried about her sister Reese “flagging down strangers,’ (75) Bone attempts to keep Reese safe by fabricating a terrifying story about hitchhiking. While these stories are no more than little white lies at this point, we begin to see the evolution of this survival mechanism, as well as the development of her stories into something far more consequential.
Bone desperately wishes ‘to be more like the girls in storybooks, princesses with pale skin and tender hearts’ (206) and attempts to recreate stories where she becomes the princesses she daydreams about. It is around this time that Bone recognizes the failures of storytelling and realizes her stories can no longer offer the alternative identity she desperately longs for. Furthermore, as Bone’s relationship with Daddy Glen becomes more twisted, Bone finds it considerably more difficult to fabricate stories of princesses, joy and happiness. Her stories become consumed with boys and girls “gruesomely raped and murdered, babies cooked in pots of boiling beans, vampires and soldiers and long razor-sharp knives’ (119), and soon, her stories entirely mirror the torture and suffering she faces with Daddy Glen. Realizing her stories can no longer provide control or power over her intensifying situation, she creates new stories—no longer about princesses—but about outlaws. Bone no longer romanticizes Roseanne Carter – she now aspires to be someone rougher; someone more in control. This transference in storytelling is an important one as it is here that Bone’s stories becomes her reality. In other words, she has decided she will become who she pretends to be. Once her fictional identity has become her genuine identity, she and her cousin Grey arrange to burglarize the Woolworth. This decision demonstrates the self-fulfilling prophecy Bone has made for herself through her stories. Without realizing it, by adopting the identity of an outlaw, she inadvertently destroyed any power she had over her reality and instead succumbed to it. Ultimately, what began as a strategy now became her identity.
Towards the end of the novel, Bone’s problematic storytelling strategies equalize as she learns to create stories grounded in something other than anxiety and hatred. For example, at one point, she notices a school bus from Bushy Creek Baptist Church filled with “flat-faced children pressed against the windows staring at [her] hatefully’ (262). Aggravated by their unprovoked disgust, she ‘glared back at them.’ Caught off guard by her spontaneous retort, Bone feels internally tormented: ‘Anger was a steady drip of poison into my soul, teaching me to hate the ones that hated me’ (262). Here, Bone’s Aunt Raylene offers invaluable advice, urging her to consider a different perspective, one in which the children on the bus were not what she imagined. “Make up a story where you have to live in their house, be one of their family, and pass by this road. Look at it from the other side for a while. Maybe you won’t be glaring at people so much.’ she encourages her niece (262). That night, Bone tries to imagine a different type of story, one with a little positivity and hope:
I closed my eyes and tried to make up a story for myself. I pretended we were back in that house over in West Greenville that Mama had loved so, pretended that Daddy Glen had joined the Pentecostal Church and gotten a cross-country trucking job that would pay him lots of money but keep him away from home. I imagined Mama getting a job where she could sit down all she wanted, where the money was good and she never got any burns or had to pull back her hair back so tight off her face that she got headaches. Maybe she could be a teacher? Or one of those women behind the makeup counter at the Jordan Marsh? I bit my lips and let it all play out under my eyelids–Reese in a new dress for Easter, me with all the books I wanted to read, Mama sitting in the sun with her feet up, Daddy Glen far away and coming home only often enough to make Mama smile. I fell asleep there dreaming, loving the dream (263).
Although Bone’s story offers a minute of solace, her dream demonstrates the regression of her stories to those of princesses. Bone is still young, which explains why she is unable to rewrite the experiences which shape, demean and violate her into anything other than unrealistic fantasies. At her age, her underdeveloped ability to tell stories can only yield so much relief from her vulnerability to violence.
In Allison’s essay,”Believing in Literature,” she argues that “telling the truth — your side of it anyway,” must be countered with the understanding that there are “truths other than your own.” Vincent King, author of Hopeful Grief: The Prospect of a Postmodernist Feminism in Allison’s Bastard Out of Carolina, connects Allison’s argument to Bone when suggesting that in order for Bone to recover and move past her trauma, she must accept that how she chooses to tells the story of her life, including of herself and her abusers, makes her in some way, responsible for her story’s outcome. He argues that, “it is only when [Bone] looks at her story from the ‘other side’ that she is able to clear the bone of hatred from her throat and sing a gospel, not of hopelessness, but of hopeful grief.” Unfortunately, possibly due to her age, the reader only sees glimpses of Bone’s ability to see her story from “the other side” and gain any power from it, yet remain hopeful she can overcome her suffering.
Due to a sophistication and maturity in her ability to tell stories, protagonist Linda Brent, from Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, is able to look at her story from the “other side” in such a way which offers her significantly more control than most given her situation. When considering storytelling as a survival technique, recognizing the disparity between how Linda and Bone wield the power which comes from it is critical. While evaluating the abilities of a ten-year-old child, to those of a fully matured adult, it is clear that fully embracing and utilizing these techniques is imperative for genuine survival. Unlike Bone, who for a great deal of Bastard Out of Carolina unconsciously manipulates herself and her reality to seek control, Linda is much more aware of her manipulations, and consciously creates a world suitable to her needs.
One major difference between Linda and Bone, was the strong familial network Linda had to support her through difficult times. Maintaining a strong community network was not easy for Linda – it was a conscious decision for her well-being. Throughout her novel, Jacobs exposes how the institution of slavery cripples the traditional family structure of slaves to disempower and disenfranchise. For instance, slave women needed permission to marry, physical and sexual abuse were used to dominate and family structures were incessantly threatened by the distribution of members sold around the country. Although these attempts to weaken slave family units were difficult to withstand, Linda endured and secured a support system to fall back on. Linda writes, “How often did I rejoice that I lived in a town where all the inhabitants knew each other! If I had been on a remote plantation, or lost among the multitude of a crowded city, I should not be a living woman at this day” (35). Unlike Bone, who lacked a secure family or societal unit and did not have the capability of building her own, Linda utilized her community to support and protect herself—thus empowering her to stand firm in her convictions and give her power.
Another survival technique Linda employed was her decision to be tremendously proactive, regardless of the cost, in all aspects of her life. While observing those around her, she quickly understood that if she took a backseat, others would choose a path for her—particularly in regards to her sexuality. The importance of sexual purity was a significant theme weaved throughout the novel. Early on, the reader learns that during her childhood, Linda fell in love with a “young colored carpenter; a free born man…[who] proposed to marry me” (38). Linda loved him “with all the ardor of a young girl’s first love. But when [she] reflected that [she] was a slave, and that the laws gave no sanction to the marriage of such, [her] heart sank…” (38). Her lover wanted to buy her, but she understood that her master would never sell. Although she abandoned her first love—she refused to give herself sexually to her master, Dr. Flint. Flint’s sexual persistence only strengthened her resolve and longing to control her life. When his advances get too perverse however, Linda took matters into her own hands and married a White man, named Mr. Sands. In this deliberate decision, Linda preserved a sense of control over her sexuality. Although she felt dishonest being with a man who she didn’t love, she was content knowing that her decision granted her the ability to choose who she would sleep with—instead of having it decided for her.
The decision to determine her sexual partnerships is one that Bone was never given the opportunity to consider. Sexual abuse, domination and exploitation were major themes between both novels, and it was heartbreaking to witness how the characters handled their sexuality, sexual advances and sexual abuse. Bone was helpless in controlling what happened to her body sexually in large part because she had not yet developed the strategies needed to fend off the sexual advances and attacks. Skilled in recognizing the limits of her power, Linda, on the other hand, was able to manipulate the men around her to take control of her situation, fend off Dr. Flint’s sexual advances, and ultimately, pave a way her to eventual freedom.
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