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.
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