Hillbilly Elegy

Hillbilly Elegy Chapter 14 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
In Vance’s second year of law school, things were going well, but his relationship with Usha was showing signs of distress due to his hesitancy to open up to her. After returning from a bad job interview one night, he grew angry at her for trying to comfort him, accusing her of making excuses for his shortcomings and weaknesses. To avoid engaging in a full-fledged argument, he stormed out and walked the streets of D.C., where they had come to pursue several job prospects. He finally saw her sitting on the steps of Ford’s Theatre, and though he expected her to be furious with him, she embraced him and told him that it was never acceptable to simply leave—that he had to learn how to talk openly with her, especially in times of duress. She then accepted his apology.
The kindness and patience Usha showed Vance stands in stark contrast to the behavior various adult figures displayed during his childhood. Conflict, Vance had learned, always led to heated arguments and violence. This was the hillbilly way (as Vance experienced it), which makes sense when one considers again how much the culture values honor—to give up a fight would be to give up one’s honor. But Usha didn’t learn these values, and thus had no misgivings about the positive power of open communication and heartfelt apology. In this moment, she taught Vance how to comport himself in relationships that existed outside the hillbilly community.
Themes
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Vance writes that he still struggles with the impulse to fight and the tendency to approach situations with suspicion. But now he tries to shift away from these mindsets. He considers the effects of traumatic childhood situations on grownup hillbillies, wondering how much somebody should blame his or her upbringing and how much he or she should take personal responsibility as an adult. “How much is Mom’s life her own fault?” he asks. “Where does blame stop and sympathy begin?” Vance himself is conflicted regarding this question, but he’s willing to recognize that Bev is not a bad person—she loves him and Lindsay and did try (in her own way) to be a good mother. At the same time, he believes she deserves to shoulder a significant amount of blame because “no person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card.” Right as Vance was about to finish at Yale, he learned that Bev had taken to heroin. As a result, she missed his graduation ceremony.
The fact that Vance still has to work on controlling his temper reinforces the notion that the process of upward mobility is a constant battle, not something that ends when a person rises out of poverty. This is because it’s not only a process of economic improvement, but also a sociological transition from one culture to another. Still, Vance doesn’t allow himself to use this difficult transition as an excuse to perpetuate the irresponsible behavior taught to him throughout his childhood. This is what he means when he says that “no person’s childhood gives him or her a perpetual moral get-out-of-jail-free card.” Regarding his mother—who seems to believe that her childhood does give her a “perpetual” right to act irresponsibly—Vance exercises his characteristic ability to hold two contrasting ideas in his head at once: though he detests her behavior, he recognizes her struggle and finds a way to love her.
Themes
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon