Skip to main content Skip to navigation

A Close Reading of 'White Oleander'

The most striking aspect of the White Oleander is Astrid’s movement across L.A. to her different foster homes. Janet Fitch has specifically structured the novel so that the time Astrid spends in each location is weighted differently. Astrid spends between one year and eighteen months in three of her foster homes (Starr, Ed and Marvel and Claire) which amounts to approximately four chapters at each location. However, this time which Astrid spends with Claire- probably the most sustained period of positivity- is surrounded by individual chapters of intense experiences. Astrid spends chapter fifteen with Amelia who treats her foster girls as slaves and denies them food. Had Fitch devoted more of the novel to this situation, the reader may have begun to lose hope for Astrid. Instead, it serves as an intense, painful experience for both Astrid and the reader. Astrid’s time with Claire is followed by one chapter which describes her nine month stint at Maclaran Children’s Centre. This place has been referred to previously in the novel to instil fear, however, Astrid’s experience is not the negative one the reader may be expecting as she meets Paul, the first person her age who she truly seems to connect with. This encounter appears all too brief though it creates a moment of hope which then comes to fruition by the novel’s conclusion.

When re-assessing the structure of the novel, it was surprising to find that although Astrid only spent a matter of months with Rena at her final foster home, nine chapters were devoted to this experience. Astrid knew that her freedom would come on her eighteenth birthday when she became an adult. On one level, by assigning a substantial amount of pages to this time, Fitch is trying to reflect the drawn-out experience which Astrid feels as she waits to turn eighteen. However, more significantly, during her time with Rena, Astrid finds the most time for self-reflection and learns from the lifestyles of Rena and the other girls. Rena is a product of modernity- her life depends upon picking up items left by others to clean up and sell for her own benefit. Fitch indicates that Astrid’s personal development comes from learning about these results of modernity so that when Astrid leaves Rena’s she uses old suitcases and objects that are symbolic of her experiences to create new works of art.

When reading White Oleander, it often seems that Astrid’s life is lacking in positive experiences. However, at the mid-point of the novel, Astrid is living with Claire and her life appears to be improving. Her school grades are good, she is honing her art skills and seems to have found a mother figure. Though, at this point, one is aware that there is still half the book to read. The novel could not simply plateau at this point with so much of the text left. Thus, it felt that either Astrid’s life would only get better or that this positivity could not continue and that there would be a turning point when her luck would begin to unravel. Fitch makes the more interesting choice to have Astrid’s life decline in favour at this point which then allows her to, by the end of the novel, create a peak to a more interesting and hopeful conclusion.

White Oleander is also, among other things, a coming of age story, and Fitch uses Astrid’s narrative voice to give a sense of the way in which Astrid’s character develops as she matures. One of the key aspects of this is her changing relationship with her mother. Initially, Astrid regularly quotes her mother’s beliefs: immediately after Ingrid is arrested, for example, Astrid is sorry that she did not lie in order to help her mother, even though she knows that Ingrid is guilty and she even actively attempts to “remember the things [her mother] taught” (Fitch 42) her. As the narrative progresses, however, Astrid appears to gain a more objective ability to critique and appraise her mother and her opinions, refusing to identify with her mother as a beautiful Norse woman anymore. Indeed, Astrid’s pleasure that her scars show indicates not only her emotional, as well as physical, scars but also that she is rejecting her mother’s insistence on the importance of beauty.

Ingrid’s voice still manages to infiltrate the text however, through her letters to Astrid. Indeed, Ingrid’s presence dramatically increases at certain points in the novel. For example, there are several letters within a few pages while Astrid is staying with Rena, showing how, although this is Astrid’s final placement and she appears to have gained some independence, her mother’s influence is still prevalent. The way in which Astrid sometimes responds to her mother’s letters by directly addressing Ingrid, as opposed to the reader, creates the sense of a dialogue between the two characters, with the reader as an observer. For example, when Ingrid attempts to “forbid” Astrid from “[lying] down for the father” (Fitch 84), Astrid immediately reacts to the letter by addressing Ingrid, saying: “you couldn’t stop it, Mother. I didn’t have to listen to you anymore” (Fitch 84). Furthermore, the way in which Astrid cuts up her mother’s letters and uses them to create artwork suggests that Astrid is transforming the symbols of her relationship with her mother into something of greater personal significance.

Much as the interaction between Astrid and her mother through the medium of letters assists in Fitch’s characterisation of both characters, the dialogue in the text is also a valuable technique in character development. In a novel in which human relationships is one of the central themes, particularly between women, the verbal interaction between the characters is key. Dialogue is, of course, important simply for the fact that otherwise Astrid’s voice would be the only one present in the novel, but Fitch uses speech for further purposes. For example, when Astrid is staying with Starr, the conversations are very much one sided, with Starr monopolising the conversations and Astrid barely speaking. Not only does this portray Starr’s overbearing character, but it also serves to depict how Astrid has been psychologically damaged by Barry Kolker’s murder and her mother’s arrest. On the other hand, when staying with Claire, who Astrid cares for and trusts, there is a dramatic increase in the amount Astrid says, portraying how Astrid has seemingly found a relationship based on interaction and mutual contribution. Towards the end of the novel, Astrid’s voice becomes much more dominant in conversations, which is particularly highlighted by her argument with her mother’s lawyer, Susan, in which Astrid interrupts Susan and asserts her own opinion, portraying her personal development throughout the text.

List of Works Cited

Fitch, Janet. White Oleander. London: Virago, 1999. Print.