Esch, the narrator of Jesmyn Ward’s novel Salvage the Bones, tells the reader, “Bodies tell stories.”3 This essay 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.
The narrative of Salvage the Bones begins with China, a pit bull, giving birth. The reader learns that the protagonist’s mother died giving birth to her younger brother. In the absence of 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.
3 Jesmyn Ward, Salvage the Bones, 83.
4 Ward, 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 vulnerable in some ways, China’s pregnancy does not cause shame, and her ability to give life to another creature does not make her 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 specific situations. As Simon de Beauvoir writes, “if the biological condition of women does 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,” similar to how she grabs her puppy, “burrow[ing] into him with her head like a 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. But he doesn’t drink. He bites. He swallows her breast.”7 Kilo, the male dog, literally
5 Kathleen Lennon, “Feminist Perspectives on the Body”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy , Edward N. Zalta (ed.), December 14, 2022. URL = <https://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2019/entries/feminist-body/>.
6 Ward, 171.
7 Ward, 173.
devours the source of China’s maternal nutrition and feminine signifier, her breast, 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, or race, rather than her biological imperative or anatomical heritage. 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, she does not have the right to control what happens to her body. From a young age, Esch has been sexually objectified by the males around her and has been taught that she is not allowed 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 through the perceptions of others, as explained by de Beauvoir. “The way in which the young girl and then the woman experiences her body is, for Beauvoir, a consequence of a process of internalizing the view of it under the gaze of others.”11 As Foucault explains, there is another existence that makes us aware of our own existence, and this applies to both sexes.
Unfortunately, in Esch’s situation, she desperately needs Manny to look not only at her body 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
8 Ward, 174.
9 Lennon, “Feminist Perspectives on the Body.”
10 Ward, 238
11 Lennon, “Feminist Perspectives on the Body.”
pregnant body. She both wants her body to be seen and seeks to avoid having her pregnant 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, othering is strongly connected to power and knowledge. When we “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,… and then I am crying again for what I have been, for what I am, and what I will be, 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, social experience, social position, race, and socioeconomic circumstances can weaken female bodies. Thus, it is important to consider Beauvoir’s assertion that the experience of embodiment is a result of situation.
Ward, Jesmyn. Salvage the Bones. London: Bloomsbury, 2017.
Lennon, Kathleen, "Feminist Perspectives on the Body", The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2019 Edition), Edward N. Zalta (ed.), December 14, 2022. URL =
12 Ward, 147.