Thursday, August 16, 2012

Gestational Imagery in William Gay's Provinces of Night

Those who have followed this blog since its inception know that I am particularly drawn to Appalachian literature (see my posts on Bastard Out of Carolina, A Virtuous Woman, and Fair and Tender Ladies).  I find the tenor and themes of Appalachian stories compelling perhaps because I’m only a single generation removed from the hills of Kentucky myself.  My father was born into a stereotypically impoverished and under-educated Kentuckian family, not unlike many of those depicted in contemporary Appalachian novels.  And it seems to me that he’s spent a good portion of his life trying to break away from the oppressive confines of his roots.  My dad can tell you about the day that he realized, as an elementary school student newly relocated to Indiana, that he would have to change the way he talked in order to gain acceptance from the other kids in school.  And he’s always proud to talk about how he worked his way through college as a janitor, eventually earning his Bachelor’s degree in elementary education.  From there, my father went on to obtain a Master’s degree and finally a Doctorate, and he currently works as an Assistant Superintendent for a school district.  He believes in the power of education and sees his pursuit of learning as that which has lifted him from the poverty that plagued his parents and the generations before them.  

William Gay’s Provinces of Night, an Appalachian novel about the aggrieved Bloodworth clan of Tennessee in the 1950s, also posits education as a way out.  Interestingly, it depends on gestation and birth imagery to carry this message, using the maternal body as a necessary metaphor for the positive change that is possible through education.  

Like others of the Appalachian literary tradition that use Southern Gothicism to both lament and satirize the dysfunctional lives of an oppressed people, Provinces of Night is largely about death.  The great patriarch of the Bloodworth family, who abandoned his wife and three sons years ago, has returned home to die.  No longer a legendary rabble-raiser or skirt-chaser, he is simply a proud old man who wants to live out his days with a measure of dignity.  In the end, E.F. commits suicide rather than face the “chickens coming home to roost,” the wife who is growing senile but vividly remembers the ways that E.F. hurt her in their youth, the son who seeks vengeance by trying to have his father committed to “a home,” and the stranger who wants revenge for having been taken by one of E.F.’s schemes (264).  As Tom Conoboy points out in a post on the novel, “there is something elegiac in the writing.”  Indeed, we feel as though we might tip our hats to those in the novel, like E.F. Bloodworth, who do the best that they can in troubled circumstances—or, at least, have complex reasons for making the decisions that they make.  

For E.F.’s seventeen-year-old grandson, Fleming Bloodworth, though, E.F.’s death literalizes the living death that he sees as his future if he follows in footsteps of the men in his family.  He honors E.F.’s desire to live and die on his own terms by assisting his grandfather in carrying out the suicide, but Fleming is transformed by witnessing the once invincible E.F. Bloodworth choose to blow his own brains out.  Stephanie Sorensen says that the novel suggests that “jewels can emerge from the rough.”  Although Fleming earlier finds himself getting caught up in the often illegal and/or immoral schemes of his uncles and his cousin Neal, by the end of the novel, he is ready to stand on his own—and to move away from the way of life of the other Bloodworths, that which leads to death and belongs to the provinces of night.  

After the suicide, Fleming quickly takes action to change the trajectory of his life.  In a gesture of closure, he burns the tumbledown cabin in which he has lived alone for months.  The cabin has offered Fleming little in the way of direction, as it is where he has simply existed, awaiting the return of his father, who left to pursue and kill the peddler who ran away with Fleming’s mother.  When it is gone, he continues with his newfound plan.  He registers for the Navy, intending to fulfill his military contract so that the government will then fund his education.  Finally, Fleming looks up Raven Lee Halfacre.  

As a result of a brief relationship before she met Fleming, Raven Lee is pregnant with Neal Bloodworth’s child.  Neal denies his paternity of the baby and has now left the state.  After the episode with E.F., Fleming is no longer unsure about how to handle this situation.  When Raven Lee says, “I wish this was your baby,” he replies, “I’ll take it then. . . . I want it.  It’s mine.  Neal doesn’t want it and he doesn’t want you. . . . I want you any way I can get you and I’ll treat the baby the same as if it was mine” (285).  As they make plans to marry and move away to wherever Fleming is stationed, Raven Lee’s maternal body—previously degraded and abandoned—is reclaimed as valuable and loved.  More importantly, because it holds the potential for new life, it becomes representative of Fleming and Raven Lee’s hope for the future.  This innocent new life, despite its being borne of generations of poverty and depravity on both sides, will have a better existence than those of its forebears.  

No one knows better than Fleming, however, that there are “no givens” in life (287).  In fact, considering what we know of their family histories, it seems like a long shot that Fleming and Raven Lee will live out the rosy life that we’d like to imagine for them.  Sure, they love each other, but the flashbacks in the novel show us that E.F. and his wife loved each other, too; that didn’t stop them from tearing each other apart.  
In an epilogue, the novel puts our doubts to rest (and, I would argue, sort of wrecks the beautiful ambiguity of the more natural ending which leaves us to wonder what will happen to Fleming, Raven Lee, and the baby).  This final section tells us that the dam being built throughout the action of the novel is completed and that a rush of water flushes and drowns the basin where Fleming’s cabin once stood: “Then the waterway was cut from the river and the water poured down the slope toward the creek, churning and moiling and talking to itself, and the basin began to fill in earnest. There was no life here. It was a world creating itself, caught in the caesura between the scraping away of the old order and the gestation of whatever altered form might follow” (292).  The water imagery here connects this description to Raven Lee’s maternal body.  Like Raven Lee’s womb, the basin is transformed from a despised and barren place to a space of promise.  Fleming’s old life is swept away by powerful life forces, and his new life is gestating.  We are left to imagine that, with another gush of water, this new life will ultimately emerge from Raven Lee’s maternal body and triumph completely over the old ways.

And the triumph that is suggested as soon to come is inextricably linked to the pursuit of education.  Fleming is set apart from the other Bloodworths from the beginning, in that he reads anything that he can get his hands on and has even already written one book (although the publishing company won’t accept the manuscript because it is handwritten).  Raven Lee is different as well.  She buys cokes at a downtown store in order to sit and read the magazines for sale there, and she spends hours at the library.  Most significantly, of course, the two will get their opportunity for real change by pursuing Fleming’s education, provided by the military.  If Raven Lee’s maternal body is the symbol of positive change, Fleming is its agent.  As they seem to figure out in the final pages of the novel, they depend on each other to realize their dream for change.  Raven Lee is tied to Fleming in that he is the one who has the opportunity to earn an education.  Fleming needs Raven Lee because she represents hope, now that she is pregnant more than ever.

The emphasis on education as a pathway to change in this text parallels the significant role that it is has played in my father’s life.  As Fleming seems to sense when he admits that there are “no givens,” and as I’m sure my dad would agree, education doesn’t solve all problems.  But it often provides a way out of poverty and, therefore, we like to believe, frequently improves our quality of life.  Certainly, an educated E.F. Bloodworth might not have been forced to make the tough decisions that he made throughout his life, perhaps would not have hurt the people he loved so deeply by playing out his limited options, and may not have faced the grotesque end depicted in the novel.  

Note: Provinces of Night was released as a feature film entitled Bloodworth in 2010.

Works Cited

Gay, William.  Provinces of Night.  New York: Anchor Books, 2000.


  1. I think I am going to use Bastard Out of Carolina for my dissertation...

  2. Oh my gosh. I love that book, but it is so hard to read. I actually taught it in my "othering" course, and I was planning on teaching it again this semester before the course was cancelled due to low enrollment. But I dread it every time. Weirdly, the students really "related" to it. They loved it. (Which made me concerned about teaching it for other reasons; I mean, it does sort of eroticize sexual abuse, right?) But I used it as a way of "talking back" to the white trash stereotype, specifically the one proffered in Gone with the Wind. Remember the part in which Bone says that she relates more with Emmy of Gone with the Wind than with Scarlett? And remember the line, "trash rises"? Love that.