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A Character’s Purpose

mpan1's picture

A question that arose after reading Suzan- Lori Park’s “Getting Mother’s Body” was why was having nontraditional characters and characters who suffered loss necessary to the plot of the novel. There are elements of characters that many authors do not incorporate in their books such as untraditional sexualities and people with disabilities. In this novel, Dill Smiles is referred as a “bulldagger” according to Teddy (Parks 25). Most of the main characters, who are the Beedes, also have a reputation of being cursed with bad luck. As Star, Homer’s mother, describes them, “They will always be Beedes, which is to say they will always be grubbing in the dirt”(Parks 137). The curse can be seen throughout the family. It can be exemplified through Teddy who “used to be a preacher but lost [his] church”(Parks 20) and through Willa Mae who passed away trying to abort her unborn child leaving Billy an orphan. Loss is also prevalent in the novel as June has lost her leg and the fact that the families are not that financially stable. Most of these elements are not considered traditional aspects of characters, which makes the plot so much more interesting.  

These characters are all disadvantaged in some way but all are important characters in the journey of retrieving the jewels that Willa Mae was buried with. When in the town of Tryler Teddy stops by the location of where his church used to be. When he stumbles across where it used to stand Teddy shockingly finds that it is no longer there. Teddy is devastated as he tells readers, “I close my eyes and open them. My church is still gone” and, “It weren’t just a church. It was my church. I made it myself out of slats of pine wood” (Parks 179). This conveys the devastating loss of Teddy’s church. Now the thought of preaching is even more like a dream. It was obviously a big part of his life but now, it seems as if there is no hope as Teddy states “The worst is coming. I can feel it coming” (Parks 180). A piece of him has died after seeing the nonexistent church.  

Nontraditional characters also are an essential part of the novel. Dill Smiles, who identifies more as a man than a woman although he is biologically a woman. He lives his life as a man from the way he dresses to the way he acts though he keeps it a secret from almost everyone. Dill is exposed when "Willa Mae went and bellowed through the streets that [Dill] weren't no man (Parks 89). Since the time period of this novel takes place in the 1960s where it was more untraditional to identify as different from your given gender and straight, this was looked down upon. "[A]s time went on, [Dill] did get the looks and there were whispers"(Parks 89). Despite that, Dill claims that the people of the town do not speak much about it and that he is still respected. This demonstrates that many characters, specifically Dill, attract negative attention. Another example includes the time when the Beedes visit Homer and Star and Star comments about their status of being uncivilized.  

Many characters experience hardships though these untraditional roles and elements that are not accepted in society. The fact that these characters are not that privileged and accepted in society makes the outcome of the novel more victorious. In the end, the ring is found which is a success for everyone apart the journey including Billy, Teddy, June and Homer. In addition to that, "June got her leg", "Dill's hog farm is going pretty good", and "Teddy's got another church"(257). As for Billy she receives her mother's diamond ring back, is now married to Laz and is pregnant with her second child. Therefore the obstacles and pain these characters suffered makes the ending that much more triumphant than if the characters were not struggling in any way and were not on a desperate journey to find the jewels.  

Another theory that untraditional characters were used is that Parks was trying to incorporate contact zones into the novel. In "Arts of the Contact Zones", Mary Louise Pratt defines contact zones as “social spaces where cultures meet, clash and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power…”(34). In this case readers get to experience many backgrounds. For example, the Beedes' background is very different from Star's background. The Beedes are poor but are not afraid to admit it whereas Star is struggling but will never admit it and sees herself as superior to her relatives. Readers also get to experience the culture and atmosphere of Texas along with all the stops throughout their journey to Arizona and what it meant to be a black person during 1960s. The way these characters were treated and lived cause readers “rage, incomprehension, and pain… [and] exhilarating moments of wonder and revelation, mutual understanding, and new wisdom”(39). Ultimately, Park's decision to include characters who are minorities especially in the novel's time period and in some aspects even today allows readers to be more understanding of the hardships these characters faced back then.  

Despite these conclusions, perhaps it was just as Parks said that these characters were just speaking to her and that their untraditional elements served no purpose to the plot. Parks leaves many questions for readers to discover and infer for themselves. Therefore, my conclusion of the reason why such different characters were incorporated into the novel is to make the ending so much more rewarding. Furthermore it is also to bring people of different backgrounds and situations together to learn from and be less judgmental about.  


Anne Dalke's picture

You pose here the question of why Parks’ novel uses “non-traditional characters” and those who are “disadvantaged in some way”; you answer the question by saying that seeing characters struggle so much makes “the plot so much more interesting” and “the ending so much more rewarding” for readers. You do a nice job of gathering evidence to show that the characters are all disabled in some way, though I’m less convinced by your claims about what “readers” experience—who are you speaking for?

Where I want to nudge you, for the upcoming revision of this paper, is in the presumptions that seem to lie behind your questions and answers. Your first line says that “a question arose after reading.” From what perspective did that question arise? In whom? You? I’m wondering, in short, about the normative framework you use: who are the “many authors” with whom you contrast Parks’ work, and who makes up the audience whose reactions you describe? Are you generalizing from books you read in high school, and from your own reading experiences?

Park wrote this novel as a riff on Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, which is filled with “non-traditional,” struggling, disabled characters. Many of the major texts of the American tradition—Melville’s Moby-Dick, Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn—are filled with disabled figures. If you’re interested in expanding your sense of the canon, read Rosemarie Garland Thomson’s Extraordinary Bodies: Figuring Physical Disability in American Culture and Literature (which looks @ texts in the African-American tradition by Toni Morrison and Audre Lorde, along with many others).

You say that the characters “untraditional roles…are not accepted in society,” but our conversation in class last Tuesday focused almost entirely on how accepting the characters are of one another….

I think your attempt to see if “Parks was trying to incorporate contact zones into the novel” is an interesting one, though (as you acknowledge) she said very clearly on Thursday night that she does not start w/ ideas, but with characters. I agree that the novel operates as a contact zone, and I think it’s a very interesting idea to consider whether each time a reader picks up a novel she enters a contact zone….maybe that’s an idea you could develop for your revision? If you do so, you’ll need to re-examine your presumptions about who the readers are. You end by saying that they “get to experience the culture and atmosphere of Texas…and what it meant to be a black person during 1960s,” that Parks’ inclusion of minorities “allows readers to be more understanding of the hardships these characters faced back then,” that her novel brings “people of different backgrounds and situations together to learn from and be less judgmental about.”  Are you assuming that none of her readers are minorities? That none of them have experienced such hardships? What are the experiences of the readers whom you imagine encountering the novel? You are reading Parks work, in other words, from a standard of “normal” that you don’t define, and seem to presume is shared among readers (who are like yourself? Still puzzled about this…)

What if you started where you end—with what Parks said about handing over the meaning-making of the novel to her readers….? Where might that take you?

Looking forward to seeing where you might go with this,