- Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion by Monica Carol Miller
The thesis behind Monica Carol Miller’s new book, Being Ugly: Southern Women Writers and Social Rebellion, is compelling; that is, “that southern women have created physically ugly female characters in order to reject, subvert, and rebel against the narrow strictures of retrogressive southern gender expectations of marriage and motherhood” (2). This is a fascinating subject, considering the number of books that have been written about the belle and her place in southern literature and culture. Anyone interested in the female in the South would be drawn to this topic.
The book is brief—a mere 150 pages of actual text—and is divided into an introduction, five chapters, and a short conclusion. Miller spends a great number of these few pages explaining her thesis: the introduction and first chapter (“What is Ugliness?”) define and reiterate her main idea and its “foundational claims”: 1) ugliness draws attention to itself; 2) ugliness is a result of “change over time” and “its relational, historical, geographical, and racial context”; 3) ugliness refers to both appearance and behavior; and 4) the “ugly plot” usually leads to a fate outside of marriage and motherhood. This theoretical discussion is lengthy, and by the time chapter two comes along the reader is eager for some specific examples.
Miller’s strength comes when she engages directly with the primary texts that prove her thesis: her chapter on Scarlett in Gone with the Wind is especially interesting once Miller reminds the reader that Margaret Mitchell describes Scarlett as “not [End Page 569] beautiful.” Chapter three discusses Eudora Welty’s short stories, focusing mainly on the Medusa allusions found within them and Welty’s general use of the mythological in her work. The analyses of “Clytie” and “Petrified Man” are front and center and advance Miller’s thesis admirably. Chapter four, however, digresses from primary works back to theory, as she defines and explains her idea of the “ugly plot.” She does spend a great deal of time on Katherine Ann Porter’s novel The Old Order and Monique Truong’s Bitter in the Mouth in the second half of the chapter, and this is a complete and well-written section, analyzing two often-overlooked novels from a fresh perspective. Chapter four turns to other contemporary authors such as Flannery O’Connor, Zora Neale Hurston, and Lee Smith in order to further Miller’s point that ugly characters often take different paths than marriage and motherhood, either by fate or choice.
One of the problems with this book, however, is that Miller does not address primary works enough. The majority of the text is an engagement with a wide variety of secondary sources, which can be interesting but lacking in specificity and substance. Miller dedicates more than a half dozen pages to the theories of “staring”—fascinating, yes, but when she finally begins discussing the literature of Eudora Welty in that chapter, she focuses more on the mythic in Welty’s work rather than the physical act of gazing. (A missed opportunity here: if she were not so focused on Welty, Miller might have examined Flannery O’Connor’s “Revelation,” in which the ugly Mary Grace can’t stop staring at Mrs. Turpin, as though she could read her ugly thoughts.) Too much time lingering on the theory of ugliness and not enough time looking at the myriad examples possible makes the book feel more like a graduate research paper proving that the author knows who has written on this subject and what has been said rather than being a fully imagined book of original insights into southern women’s literature.
In another such example, Miller discusses the stereotype of the “maiden aunt” thoroughly, even quoting the definition found in the Encyclopedia of Southern Culture—with a number of secondary sources backing her up. She mentions Faulkner’s Miss Rosa in Absalom, Absalom! and even Jane Austen’s spinster figures but never actually offers one specific example of such...