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  • Writer's pictureESSMAT SOPHIE

The portrayal of reproduction in Salvage the Bones, the vulnerability of female human and non-human

This article will examine the vulnerability of female human and non-human bodies and their reproduction function in Salvage the Bone and the importance of the roles played by racial and socioeconomic factors in the rural south.The goal is to examine how Ward’s novel highlights the tensions and contradictions surrounding Hurricane Katrina for female bodies and how situation, social experience, and social position reveal these dimensions.

Esch, the narrator of Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, tells the reader, “Bodies tell stories.”3 The narrative of Salvage the Bones begins with China, a pit bull, giving birth. The reader learnsthattheprotagonist’smotherdiedgivingbirthtoheryoungerbrother.Intheabsenceof her mother, Esch identifies herself with the female figures that she is familiar with, which include the non-human China and a mythical figure named Medea, who comes from a story about revenge. Esch also sometimes identifies with Hurricane Katrina. In tandem with Esch’s association with mythological heroes, the lines between China, Esch, and her mother are frequently blurred: “What China is doing is nothing like what Mama did when she had my youngest brother, Junior.”4 With only a few days before Hurricane Katrina arrives, an inner storm is brewing for Esch. Her financial struggles have forced her to steal a pregnancy test from a store, and she is shocked to learn that she is pregnant. In Salvage the Bones, the bodies of Esch as a human character and China as a non-human figure represent gender, race, and class inequalities, as well as sexual, racial, and class oppression. In Ward’s novel, China is more than a pit bull; she is the clearest symbol of nature’s force. She also symbolizes the power of motherhood and female strength. She exemplifies the dual nature of the natural world by having the capacity to both create and destroy. She also acts as a mirror image of the novel’s protagonist, as the vulnerability, challenges, and problems the dog faces are extremely similar to those of the narrator and main protagonist, a girl named Esch. 3JesmynWard,SalvagetheBones,83. 4Ward,1.


Even though Esch’s female body has the potential to be a source of pleasure, fertility, and empowerment, in this pregnancy situation, her pregnant body becomes a source of horror, confusion, and shame. Although both China’s and Esch’s pregnant bodies make them vulnerableinsomeways,China’spregnancydoesnotcauseshame,andherabilitytogivelife to another creature does not makeher weak. This is evident when China wins a fight with her mate, even though she only recently gave birth. Ward makes it clear that China’s postpartum body is strong, and that she enjoys the love of Esch’s brother; Skeetah as well. When Esch sees China’s strength during childbirth, she compares it to that of her own mother, wishing that her mother could have survived childbirth and that she had been able to fight as fiercely as the dog. Furthermore, every time she sees China's frailty and helplessness, she is reminded of her mother's fragility and vulnerability during childbirth. “The dog barks loudly, …and something about the way the bark rises at the end reminds me of Mama’s moans, of those bowing pines, of body that can no longer hold itself together, of something on the verge of breaking.” However, Esch’s pregnant body is not a source of power, and she is rejected by the baby’s father, Manny, whom Esch loves and craves the attention of. These differences between Esch’s and China’s situations as a human and a non-human female, respectively, can be viewed from the perspective of the phenomenology of female bodies as having lived in specificsituations.AsSimondeBeauvoirwrites,“ifthebiologicalconditionofwomendoes constitute a handicap, it is because of her general situation … It is in a total situation which leaves her few outlets that her peculiarities take on their importance.5 The dogfight between China and her mating partner, Kilo, is one of the most violent acts of femininity in Salvage the Bones. During their fight, “China grabs Kilo at the back of the neck,”similartohowshegrabsherpuppy,“burrow[ing]intohimwithherheadlikea worm tunnelling into red earth.”6 The concept of sexual violence can further be seen is the following excerpt: “Kilo has just seen her breasts, white and full and heavy and warm, and he bows his head like a puppy to drink.Buthedoesn’tdrink.Hebites. Heswallowsherbreast.”7Kilo,the male dog, literally 5KathleenLennon,“FeministPerspectivesontheBody”,TheStanfordEncyclopediaofPhilosophy ,EdwardN. Zalta (ed.), December 14, 2022. URL = <>. 6Ward,171. 7Ward,173.


devoursthesourceofChina’smaternalnutritionandfemininesignifier,herbreast,with“the nipple, missing.”8 From a feminist perspective, the body is not simply a representation of a biological object. Even though the female body can be perceived as weak, having fewer muscles than the male body, it is not only a source of vulnerability. It can also be a source of sensual pleasure and strength, as reflected in China’s situation. The potential of becoming pregnant prevents Esch, a human female, from celebrating her feminine body as a source of sexual pleasure. The burden that Esch’s reproductive function imposes on her body is mostly a result of her social experience,gender,orrace,ratherthanherbiologicalimperativeoranatomicalheritage.This shows “a complex and non-reductive picture of the intertwining of the material and the cultural in the formation of our embodied selves.”9 In addition, Esch does not seem to have much control over her body, or to be more specific, shedoesnothavethe righttocontrolwhathappenstoherbody. From ayoungage,Eschhas beensexuallyobjectifiedbythemalesaroundherandhasbeentaughtthatsheisnotallowed to say no. This extends to her relationships as a teenager, when she is unable to say no to the sexual requests of her male peers: “… held him the way I’d embraced those boys I’d fucked because it was easier to let them get what they wanted instead of denying them…” 10 When she has sex with Manny, whom she loves and wants to sleep with, she either does not know how to prevent pregnancy or is forced to bow to the law of reproduction due to her class, gender status, and position. Not only is Esch’s body an object for others, but she experiences and only knows her body throughtheperceptionsofothers,asexplainedbydeBeauvoir.“Thewayinwhichtheyoung girlandthenthewoman experiencesherbodyis,forBeauvoir,aconsequenceofaprocessof internalizing theviewof it under the gazeof others.”11As Foucault explains, thereis another existence that makes us aware of our own existence, and this applies to both sexes. Unfortunately,inEsch’ssituation,shedesperatelyneedsMannytolooknotonlyatherbody but also into her eyes. At the same time, she refuses to remove her clothes when they are swimming at the beach because she is embarrassed or worried that other people will see her 8Ward,174. 9Lennon,“FeministPerspectivesontheBody.” 10Ward,238 11Lennon,“FeministPerspectivesontheBody.”


pregnantbody.Sheboth wantsherbodytobeseenandseekstoavoidhavingherpregnant body viewed.

Manny, however, wants to define Esch as the other. He chooses to ignore and misuse Esch, pointing out her perceived weakness to make himself seem stronger. According to Michel Foucault,otheringisstronglyconnectedtopowerandknowledge.Whenwe“other”another group, we point out their perceived weaknesses to make ourselves look stronger or better.

Thus, Esch’s body is merely an object for Manny’s use, and Esch has no agency over it. Manny wants to keep his power over Esch. He turns away from her and her pregnancy, as Esch describes: “I think Manny saw me, and that he turned away from me, from what I carry,… andthenIamcryingagainforwhat Ihavebeen,forwhat Iam,andwhat Iwillbe, again.”12

Despite the fact that the female body has the potential to be a source of pleasure and that the ability to reproduce does not necessarily make females weak, as seen in Salvage the Bones, socialexperience,socialposition,race,andsocioeconomiccircumstancescanweakenfemale bodies. Thus, it is important to consider Beauvoir’s assertion that the experience of embodiment is a result of situation.



Lennon,Kathleen,"Feminist Perspectives ontheBody", TheStanford Encyclopedia ofPhilosophy(Fall2019Edition),EdwardN.Zalta (ed.),December14,2022.URL=



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