At the very beginning of Rubyfruit Jungle, Molly declares that she is a “bastard,” and her status as an outsider of sorts affects and influences nearly every aspect of her life: economically because she is poor; politically because she is a female in a man’s world; legally because she has no father; spiritually because she is a bastard child; and emotionally because she is eventually rejected by her adoptive mother, Carrie. Despite being born at a disadvantage, however, Molly never blames herself for her troubles and rarely becomes despondent, even as she encounters hatred, betrayal, and exclusion from society. Instead, she draws on her belief that she is innocent of wrongdoing in order to call up the spiritual defiance, ambition, and courage that help her accomplish her goals. These qualities give Molly a strong sense of self, perhaps her most distinctive characteristic. Her unwavering honesty, pride in being poor, and rejection of Chryssa’s offer to “keep” her all demonstrate her unwillingness to compromise this sense of self. Her refusal or inability to hold on to a lover is most likely a symptom of this ardent sense of independence.
As a woman and individual, Molly is a quadruple threat to those around her: she is beautiful, athletic, highly intelligent, and fiercely funny, and she uses these advantages to pursue her personal goals. She believes in equality for women and for all people, and she distrusts those who seem to condone or endorse the system of inequality she sees around her. This belief sets up many of the conflicts Molly faces as she develops into an adult and aspiring filmmaker. Throughout the novel, Molly must struggle against the institutional and personal prejudices of traditional society in order to fulfill her dreams. Yet she remains optimistic about her eventual success, if not about the rectification of society. Her pluckiness in the face of adversity distinguishes her from the other characters in the novel, and the novel ends on a high note, despite Molly’s professional and personal troubles.
Like Molly, Carrie is stubborn and strong-willed and has a well-defined sense of values and an aversion to class pretense. In other words, she is proud and poor. Molly reveals that even though Carrie is well below the poverty line, she assiduously refuses handouts, and Carrie is pleased that Molly is intellectually superior to the rich northerners who are her classmates in New York. Even when she is emotionally destroyed by Carl’s death, Carrie notes with caustic humor that they never could have ridden in a Lincoln Continental if Carl hadn’t died. Carrie’s observation in this scene points to her astute awareness of how class differences are played out in everyday life.
Unlike Molly, Carrie is firmly rooted in the patriarchal social system that prescribes secondary, supporting, and, above all, “ladylike” roles for women. This difference constitutes much of the tension between Carrie and Molly, especially when Carrie learns of Molly’s lesbianism and throws her out of the house. Carrie’s resentment of Molly ultimately stems from the fact that she couldn’t have a child of her own. Because she believes genuine maternity consists of giving birth to one’s own child, Carrie cannot accept Molly as her daughter or as an individual. She frequently rebukes Molly for arrogance and unladylike behavior, revealing how threatened she is by Molly’s brazen illegitimacy and how deeply she believes in traditional gender roles. At heart, Carrie wants Molly to inherit the shame she feels as an illegitimate mother. As an older woman, alone and dying of cancer, Carrie asserts that she never disowned Molly and that she’s always seen herself as Molly’s true mother, but whether she actually believes this is unclear.
As a child, Leroy is slow and chubby, physical characteristics that also represent his malleable personality. He relies on Molly for all of his behavioral cues, because she is as boyish as the rest of the boys in town. When Carrie forces Molly to stay inside and learn domestic chores, Leroy volunteers to learn them as well. He can’t maintain his resolve, however, and Carrie bullies him into leaving by telling him the rest of the neighborhood will think he’s queer if he stays in the house. This scene highlights Leroy’s major weakness, which significantly separates him from Molly: he fears what others will think of him, especially in matters of sexuality. As an adolescent, Leroy confides to Molly that he’s had a homosexual experience. However, even as he considers the possibility that he is gay, he clings to the dictums of society. His rabid fear of social deviance shines through when he says, “I may be queer but I ain’t kissing no man.” Ultimately, Leroy is a slave to what others think. Without Molly’s constant reassurance and influence, he falls into the modes of behavior prescribed by the indigent greasers and rednecks who make up his society, where intelligence is suspiciously regarded and homosexuality is punished with violence. Not surprisingly, when Leroy marries and has children, he remains unfulfilled, having made everyone happy but himself.