Themes, Motifs, and Symbols
The Role of Sexuality in the Search for the Self
Rubyfruit Jungle chronicles Molly’s homosexual odyssey in lurid detail, but it does more than just dramatize one woman’s life as a lesbian. More important, it shows that the search for individual identity is not limited to defining oneself sexually. Molly’s homosexuality may be a fundamental part of her identity, but it is still just one facet of a more complex self. She often repeats “I’m me” and “I’m here,” which suggests her desire to be regarded in her totality, not just as a type or as a part of her past. In this sense, Molly seems to embody an idea of humanity in which sexual identity is subordinate to broader considerations of selfhood. Her journey in the novel ultimately leads her to realize that her identity already exists within her and that she’ll have to fight society to be true to herself.
The Exploitative Nature of Capitalism
Throughout the novel, Brown criticizes American society by illuminating how the capitalist system exploits individuals in order to generate commerce. Molly unwittingly demonstrates this principle when she creates a lucrative business parading Broccoli’s penis around the forest. As Molly grows up, she becomes acutely aware of this phenomenon, often finding herself the object of exploitation. Her first two legitimate jobs in New York, as a bunny-suited waitress and a dancer, involve the crass use of sexual enticement to attract customers. Calvin and Holly’s occupations as hustler and “kept” woman literally embody the idea that sex sells. In each of these cases, Brown criticizes the dehumanizing effects this kind of capitalism has on individuals. As both Holly and Molly experience firsthand, sexual exploitation promotes gender inequality by pitting women as objects that men can purchase.
The Oppressive Nature of the Patriarchal System
In the American society of Rubyfruit Jungle, the patriarchal system, where men rule, threatens women’s selfhood and precludes the possibility of gender equality. In every sphere of her life, including public, personal, sexual, and professional, Molly encounters obstacles and resistance, which seem to be ingrained in the social fabric of the world around her. As a child, she is discouraged from playing doctor because only men are doctors, and as a teenager, she faces Carrie’s criticism for serving as student council president instead of running for prom queen. As an adult, Molly loses jobs in the film industry to her male classmates, despite her stronger performance in school. For both Brown and Molly, being a woman in a patriarchal world means being at a social disadvantage. Worse, the patriarchal system also creates a climate of hostility among women. Carrie and Dean Marne butt heads with Molly, whom they think improper for challenging the status quo, instead of standing together in solidarity. As long as the patriarchal social structures are in place, Molly and other women cannot have the total freedom needed to lead fulfilling lives.
Nature As a Source of Strength
Molly’s embrace of rural Pennsylvania and her antipathy for the urban North reflect her feelings about the natural world. Mired in New York, Molly longs to return to Pennsylvania, not only because it was her home during a more innocent period of her life but also because New York City’s manmade ugliness distresses her. Molly returns to rural Pennsylvania just before completing her degree at NYU and joining the professional urban world, and the trip rejuvenates her. Molly has a vivid, unburdened narrative style in this scene, as she finds strength in the nature around her. Her love of nature may stem from the fact that women are freer to forge their own roles and identities there than they are in actual human society, where being in the world requires a woman to subordinate her personal agenda to the patriarchal system’s needs.
Partly as a result of her disadvantaged beginnings, Molly learns the importance of humor both as a survival mechanism and as a device for self-advancement. She employs it in elementary school to become best friends with her first crush, Leota. She uses it in middle and high school to become popular among her wealthier classmates, managing to avoid their resentment even though she is smarter, more beautiful, and more athletic than they are. As Molly grows older, she uses humor to make her controversial opinions and behavior more palatable. Her amusing social observations to Polina about how sex sells not only bring Polina around to her point of view but also make Polina feel more comfortable about having sex with her. Throughout the novel, Brown uses humor as a method of inclusion and persuasion. The constant joking wins readers’ loyalty, even as Brown casts a critical eye at how society mistreats women, gays, minorities, and the poor.
Names and Naming
Brown gives many of her characters names that reveal something significant about their personalities. Molly’s surname, Bolt, suggests that Molly surges with energy, much like a bolt of lightning. It also suggests that Molly anchors her convictions with steadfast stubbornness, just as a bolt that fastens two things together. In both senses, Bolt aptly characterizes Molly’s plucky resolve. The similarity of Paul and Polina’s names implies that they are facsimiles of each other, an idea that gains credence as they both reveal their penchant for academic debate and transsexual fantasies. Likewise, the similarity of the names Holly and Molly suggests that despite their frequent airing of differences, the two women are more alike than they think. Molly criticizes Holly for her social climbing, but she is just as guilty of it when she is a teenager—she is thrilled to have sex with Carolyn because she is the head cheerleader. And though Molly disapproves of Holly’s idea to go to Paris to clear her head, Molly herself makes a ritual of escaping her problems by leaving New York.
Verb Tense Change
Molly narrates the story in the past tense, from a time just after the novel’s final events. However, she occasionally shifts into the present tense when depicting a particularly remarkable scene or strongly felt emotion in order to signify that her impressions during that specific moment are still very much with her. This narrative trick helps reveal particularly vulnerable aspects of Molly’s life and puts us right in the moment with her. In these sections, Molly’s feelings take on an immediacy that distinguishes them from the rest of the text. This technique works particularly well when Molly recreates her reaction to Carrie’s calling her a bastard in Chapter 1. Her lapse into the present tense demonstrates how strongly Molly feels her illegitimacy as a seven-year-old girl—and continues to feel it even as a twenty-something relating the story.
Brown often uses roles and role-playing to highlight Molly’s struggle to define her identity. Strangely, the role-playing that occurs during scenes of actual stage acting tend to have a stronger basis in reality than do the scenes in which Molly is forced to play roles in real life. Cast as the Virgin Mary in her sixth-grade production of the Nativity, Molly finds herself in a position like Carrie’s: a mother caring for an illegitimate child. Molly’s fight in this scene with her school rival Cheryl, who plays Joseph, and the subsequent breakdown of the play dramatize the effect that Molly believes she has at home, where she witnesses Carl and Carrie fight over her. Molly’s casting as one of the Weird Sisters in her high school production of Macbeth, along with her best friends Carolyn and Connie, also seems revealing, given Molly’s homosexual relations with Carolyn.
Molly’s sexual identity as a lesbian forces her to play various phony roles in her real life. The greatest acting Molly undertakes involves convincing the university psychiatrists that she is normal enough to rejoin society after being hospitalized for her lesbianism and aggression toward Dean Marne. Similarly, Molly finds that in the trashier gay bars in New York, lesbians typically take on gender roles in matters of behavior and sex. For example, there are “butch” lesbians, who assume a man’s role and become the active, aggressive partner in a sexual encounter. There are also “femme” lesbians, who assume a woman’s role and become the more passive partner. Molly is femme, but she lies that she is butch to a butch lesbian named Mighty Moe in order to avoid her advances. Through these experiences, Molly comes to distrust the idea of roles in real life because they limit one’s individuality by dictating behavior.
The forest is where Molly’s early childhood business with Broccoli and sexual adventures with Leota take place, and it represents a wilderness of possibility for Molly, a setting in which she may experiment with impunity. In this light, the forest suggests Molly’s spiritual freedom. At the same time, it also suggests the dark and frightening feelings of loneliness Molly experiences when she runs away from home in the first chapter. Frightened by the chilly dark of the woods, Molly realizes she cannot support herself alone in the world and decides to return to her house.
In the South, Molly fails to find tolerance for her sexuality, and from a distance, the city suggests the hope and possibility of success and freedom. Faye’s final letter to Molly after they have been broken up exhorts Molly to find a city so that she may live freely. Molly takes Faye’s advice, realizing she’ll succeed only in a place where she can find acceptance for her lesbianism. When Molly finally arrives in the city, however, it winds up representing something entirely different: the false promise of the American dream. Instead of finding unbridled opportunities and a network of friends, Molly encounters a legion of impediments to her goals. The city itself becomes one of the forces Molly must strive against in order to achieve success.
The drainpipes in Rubyfruit Jungle suggest the birth canal leading back to the womb of Molly’s childhood, when she led a more innocent, idyllic life. Molly mentions drainpipes the first time when she dreams of leaving the hell of New York by sewer to return to warm and peaceful Fort Lauderdale. She mentions them again when she crawls through an old drainpipe during her trip back to her Pennsylvania hometown. In each reference, Molly reveals her metaphoric desire to move back in time to the places where she has felt most secure.
Polina, Paul, and Mr. Bellantoni
Through their areas of professional specialization, Polina, Paul, and Mr. Bellantoni suggest the intellectual bankruptcy of modern life and academics. As university professors, they are highly educated and in positions to contribute to the discussion of meaningful themes of existence. Instead, they fritter away their considerable talents on minutia, such as Polina’s study of Babylonian underpants and Mr. Bellantoni’s study of the representation of cows in Western art.
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