A Close Reading of 'White Oleander'
In White Oleander, Janet Fitch has the reader accompany protagonist Astrid on a ‘coming-of-age’ journey in the harsh world of foster care in 20th century America, whereby she accumulates multiple emotional scars from her experiences in each vastly different and distressingly temporal home. Fitch herself recognises the defamiliarisation and ultimate fragmentation behind Astrid’s experiences and draws parallels between the separate, inherently broken worlds of each location and the disintegrated nature of contemporary society as a whole.
“I’ve always been concerned with what happens to children in our society when there’s nobody left to take care of them. I’ve always been aware of that, and of course she would end up in foster care — and start moving from house to house and really seeing the various components of our society. We don’t have a unitary society anymore, you know; it’s very fragmented. I look up and down my block in Silverlake and there is a different universe in every house. Fifty completely different worlds and who would see that better than somebody in foster care?”– Janet Fitch
The geographical movement and variety of map locations in the novel give a somewhat ephemeral and temporal quality to Astrid’s existence, reiterating the themes of independence, loneliness, “burgeoning sexuality”, corrupt beauty, desired parental relationships and the perpetual search for a settled home. The narrative structure appropriately designates a time span of roughly four chapters per foster experience, the weighting noticeably different in accordance with the more significant and character-defining experiences. For instance, Fitch builds up the increasingly hopeful events at Clare’s over a number of sequential chapters, making the regression from “the one good thing that ever happened to [her]” (212) to the familiar sense of isolation in her hardships even more poignant for the reader. The juxtaposition between this and the structurally brief starvation period at Amelia’s residence ingeniously maintains the reader’s emotional engagement in Astrid’s sense of optimism without dwelling in the bleak hopelessness which frequently threatens. In addition, the period in which Astrid is anticipating the freedom obtainable at her eighteenth birthday is drawn out by Fitch in a way which allows Astrid to fully evaluate her sense of self and personal identity. Indeed, it seems that “each home is its own universe, with a new set of laws and lessons to be learned”. Astrid is sensitive and unstable with the structural addition of each antithetical universe, allegorically likening her life to a string of pearls; “I wished my life could be like that, knotted up so that even if something broke, the whole thing wouldn’t come apart” (198)
The difference ascertained between both positive and negative experiences is endorsed by Fitch as a framing device through her subtle elimination of hope, as she outweighs positivity with the planting of a fundamental flaw or counteracting event. Astrid’s foster home at Clare’s is discernibly the most positive and makes Astrid feel “hopeful, like someday my life would make sense too, if I could just hold all the pieces together at the same time” (204). Yet beneath the illusion of security and happiness, Clare’s clinical depression parallels the poison beneath the deceptive beauty of the white oleander, hiding the corrupt truth that will eventually lead to tragedy. The poignancy aroused in Astrid’s lowest moment is ironically at her best placement, as we regard her pathetically arranging Claire’s dead body; “The worst always happened, why did I keep on forgetting that?” (255) Fitch evokes pathos for the hardship enforced on an impressionable young girl at the lowest and most emotionally distressing moment of the novel.
Through distinctly vivid imagery and symbolism, Fitch opens each chapter with seasonal and ecological allusions. Intermittent descriptions of the natural world and environmental connotations frequently appear at the beginning of each chapter, emphasised by pathetic fallacy relevant to Astrid’s emotional instability and present situation. For instance, on her fourteenth birthday at Starr’s dwelling in Tujunga, “the sun-light washed the boulders in gold” (74), providing an optimistic setting where she enjoys the rarity of a celebrated occasion as part of a slightly distorted family. However, it seems that even the natural elements are oppressive in their indiscreet aggression and destructive qualities. Summer is described to have “paralyzed [and] stunned [the city] into stupidity” (361), the vexatious characteristic of an otherwise pleasurable concept emphasised as it “fell like a hammer” at Marvel’s in Van Nuys. In addition, the fires seem almost mesmerising in their annihilation of the natural world, removing the “smudge on the horizon” and “sift[ing] a fine powder over everything.” (72) It’s force is intrusive and adds to Astrid’s suffering even under the oppressive laws of nature.
The white oleander itself is an undeniably a poignant motif permeating the entire novel, it’s “delicate poisonous blooms [and] dagger green leaves” (3) connoting the sinister deadliness and poison beneath unfathomable beauty. In addition, its distinct whiteness and purity arguably reinforce the metaphor of untainted youth and virginal innocence, aspects which are gradually extracted and discarded from Astrid’s character as she adopts the tainted elements of real life existence as opposed to the ideal reality she shared with her mother. Like Astrid’s downhill spiral from an encompassing beauty to a sense of corruption, the Oleander regresses to reveal its poison behind such a deceptive disguise; “the white oleanders cook[ed] down [to reveal] the slight bitter edge of the toxin” (220).
With regards to setting and location, Fitch provides an unexpected inversion of the preconceived ideas concerning a recognisable place. Hollywood, for example, is idealistically seen to be the epitome of celebrity wealth, fame and good fortune. This stereotypical image is somewhat undermined as the reader witnesses Astrid scrounging from bins in desperation to satisfy her incessant hunger. Fitch is revealing the concealed corruption beneath the surface of a supposedly ideal culture. In addition, it is clear that each location has a single influential event which occurs and consequently affects Astrid’s progression on her physical and emotional journey. At Ray and Starr’s dwelling in Tujunga, for instance, the first illegal act of underage sex occurs in an area full of criminals, aware of this location as one where the law can essentially be avoided. The stark antithesis between crime and the supposed purity of the Christian religion (presented in Starr’s character) make the sexual encounters even more dangerous and ominous in the reader’s eyes, alluding to sexual encounters in the future. Additionally, the prostitute living next to Astrid at Marvel’s house brings her own purpose to the narrative, whereby Astrid becomes aware of the necessary life-choices surrounding realistic aspects such as social status, reputation and financial welfare. The dog attack at this location is also accountable for the scars temporarily detrimental to Astrid’s beauty; “In a peverse way, I was glad for the stiches, glad it would show, that there would be scars. What was the point of just being hurt on the inside?” (155) External appearance has become the visual evidence for Astrid’s significant internal pain, which is a progressive step in her journey to adulthood. Such a journey draws to a close in Astrid’s eventual residence in Berlin with Paul, the location symbolically representative of the need for rebuilding and aiming towards a more hopeful sense of modernity. Fitch uses the geographical settings, locations and natural elements in her novel to structurally encompass Astrid’s development and engage the reader in hidden ‘poisons’ which the white oleander deceptively hides.
Fitch, Janet. White Oleander. London: Virago, 1999. Print.
“White Oleander by Janet Fitch.” Oprah.com. Oprah Book Club Collection, n.p. Web. 6 May 1999. Web.
“Making a Monster” Salon.com. An Interview with Janet Fitch, Laura Miller. Web. Thurs. 1 July 1999. Web.