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A Feminist Reading of White Oleander

In White Oleander, the protagonist Astrid Magnussen has to struggle through life on her own after her mother has been sent to prison for murdering her boyfriend. Without family or friends, Astrid travels through a series of foster families, in each of which she develops to become a woman which includes an emotional detachment from her mother, who in letters tries to take influence on Astrid's life. In those letters her experiences, as Laura Callanan points out, “are interpreted through the lens of art” (Callanan, Laura: 507). In this article it will be analysed to what extent Astrid develops in each foster home and how far her relationship with her mother changes.

Astrid, who at the beginning of the novel is an innocent girl and dependent on her mother slowly develops as a woman. First steps towards this are taken at Starr's place, her first foster family. Astrid adapts their way of living very fast which especially becomes clear in the way Astrid's style of dressing changes : When before she dressed as a girl her age she now wears a pink dress, high-heals and, most importantly, her first bra which becomes a sign of her increasing feminine side (Fitch: 48). Astrid's growing interest in Starr's boyfriend called Ray rises first tensions between her mother and herself. When Ingrid tells Astrid to stay away from Ray, Astrid, for the first time, secretly is opposed to her by thinking that “She wasn't going to take him away from me” (Fitch: 57). This distance between her and her mother increases when Astrid decides to become baptised: Her mother is resentful of Astrid's independent decision, which she makes clear in a letter to Astrid: “ARE YOU OUT OF YOUR MIND” is the initial statement of this letter which underpins Ingrid's feelings (Fitch: 63-64). Astrid, however, remains firm in decision and simply states that she “prayed for her redemption” (Fitch: 63-64). Moreover, Astrid, against her mother's advice starts an affair with Ray and loses her virginity and innocence, a further step in becoming a woman (Fitch: 80-81). This affair then results in Starr's outburst in which she shoots Astrid.

In her next foster family, Astrid then is confronted with the values of a patriarchal, capitalist society and is taught to use her sexuality as a commodity. Her foster mother, Marvel, expects Astrid to perform the role of a typical woman, being a “baby-sitter, pot-scrubber, laundry maid and beautician” (Fitch: 102). She gains freedom by becoming acquainted with their neighbour Olivia, a prostitute whom Marvel tells Astrid to mind. Olivia, who becomes Astrid's only friend for some time, teaches Astrid to find her way as a woman in the society in which they live in. To her “It's a man's world” as men have the money and power (Fitch: 118-19). Olivia makes Astrid aware of using her femininity and sexuality, sex being “the theatre” with “siding panels and trapdoors” (Fitch: 119-120). Here, as Callanan asserts, the “emblematic role” of a prostitute in a capitalist society is depicted as someone who uses their sexuality as a commodity (Callanan: 510). Astrid, however, misinterprets Olivia's statement, and performs fellatio on a boy and is rewarded by receiving weed from him (Fitch131-32). Apparently, this act changes Astrid's outward appearance; in their next meeting, Olivia notices that Astrid looks different and reacts shocked when Astrid tells her what she has done: Olivia makes clear that this was not what she meant and Astrid has to admit that, after all, it did not feel “great” (Fitch: 132- 133). Of course, her action spreads around school and boys “wave money at her” during school. Astrid, after having spent more weeks with Olivia, thereby again acting against her mother's will since she asks her daughter to stay away from Olivia, exclaims that these boys “stay invisible” to her.

After spending a few more weeks in Marvel's family and afterwards being sent to Cardoza Amelia, a scheming woman who locks her fridge and makes her foster children starve, Astrid is brought to Claire, an unsuccessful actress. For the first time, someone really cares for Astrid and ensures that she feels comfortable. Claire notices Astrid's talent in painting and therefore sends her to take art classes. Astrid shows a lot of empathy when she notices the problems between Claire and her husband, who due to his job is often absent for several months. Claire believes that Ron is having an affair and tries to control his actions more and more. Astrid notices Claire's decreasing mental health and thereby is shocked when she finds out that Claire is in contact with her mother. Astrid is aware of Ingrid's strength and believes that she considers Claire to be inferior, thereby being a risk to Claire. After meeting Astrid's mother in prison, where a face-to-face conversation between Ingrid and Claire takes place Claire sinks into depression, causing more and more arguments with her husband. When he decides to leave, Astrid witnesses that she was only taken by them to fulfil a role: it turns out that she is kept as a keeper by Ron to prevent Claire from committing suicide. After he leaves, however, even Astrid cannot prevent her from taking an overdose from which she dies. Therefore, in the end, Claire is driven to suicide by Astrid's mum, Astrid sees her mother responsible for it. According to Callanan, Claire thereby becomes an other victim of Ingrid, who saw Claire as a threat to her social bond to Astrid (Callanan: 504).

The suicide of Claire has taught Astrid, however, never to get involved with anybody ever again. Therefore, in an interview at MAC, a fosterhome for children with no parents, she rejects to go to a caring family because she fears that there she would forget about her past and thereby would deny herself (Fitch: 244). She decides to go with Rena, a Russian woman, who lives with two other foster children. As Callanan puts it, Astrid goes with her “because she understands that she is not able to function within a system of normality any longer “ (Callanan: 501). Here, Astrid learns how to deal with capitalism, as she is forced by Rena to sell junk. Furthermore, she again starts an affair with an older man, namely Rena's boyfriend Sergei, and admits to herself that she has fallen for the “father” again. Because she holds her mother responsible for Claire's death, she finally loses all connection to her mother: She does not write to her any more so that she cannot “hurt her any more” (Fitch 275) and even exclaims that she hates her (Fitch: 280). However, she has to learn that the real traumatic event in the relationship with her mother is not the murder of her boyfriend which is responsible for Astrid's journey through many foster families. By accident, Astrid is reminded of the name of “Annie” and in flashbacks remembers that she was her baby-sitter. She is determined to learn everything about her past since she feels that there is more to it: she proposes a deal to Ingrid, including that she will lie on behalf of her mother therefore guaranteeing that she will leave prison earlier, when her mother tells her about her past. Besides explaining about Astrid's father, Ingrid then has to admit that Annie looked after Astrid for over a year when Ingrid did not come back to pick up Astrid after a party but rather stayed with her boyfriend “to be free” (Fitch: 346). This fact, as Callanan rightly puts, leads to Astrid's final detachment from her mother (Callanan: 517). She asks her mum not to expect her to testify for her.

The reader then learns that after coming of age, Astrid decided to move to Berlin with her boyfriend Paul, whom she has met at Mac. Here she earns money with her biggest obsession, namely painting. Here, she reads in a newspaper article that her mum has been released from prison. She imagines how it would be to live with her mum again, however, decides that she cannot go back because that would mean that she would have to abandon her boyfriend, who as she says, “was [her]” (Fitch: 356-357). The reader is told that no matter what she does, “her compass pointed west”, leaving it open to the reader whether she has fully gained independence from her mother (Fitch: 361).

Works cited

Callanan, Laura.'Three Cheers for Eve': Feminism, Capitalism, and Artistic Subjectivity in Janet Fitch's White Oleander.” Women's Studies: An Interdisciplinary Journal 37.5 (2008): 495-518. Web. 9. May 2013.

Fitch, Janet. White Oleander. London: Hachette Digital, 1999. Sony ebook file.