Hillbilly Elegy


J. D. Vance

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Hillbilly Elegy: Chapter 3 Summary & Analysis

After Uncle Jimmy, Mamaw and Papaw had two more children: Vance’s mother Bev and his Aunt Wee (her real name is Lori). Following several years of relative peace, Mamaw and Papaw started fighting frequently, usually spurred by Papaw’s burgeoning drinking problem. During this time, their home life steeply declined in quality, as the two adult figures warred with one another and allowed garbage to pile up in the house. One night, Uncle Jimmy rushed downstairs to plead with his parents to stop fighting. As he did so, he watched Mamaw hurl a vase, which hit Papaw between the eyes and split his forehead open. Later, Mamaw told Papaw she would kill him if he ever came home drunk again. He eventually stumbled home one night after drinking and passed out on the couch, where Mamaw doused him in gasoline and lit him on fire. Luckily, Aunt Wee—who was only eleven at the time—jumped to her feet and extinguished the flames.
In the same way that Vance looks back on the history of hillbilly migration in order to understand the community’s current problems, he now considers his own family’s history. Despite the fact that his grandparents had achieved financial success, they appeared unable to apply this kind of stability to their domestic lives. This is perhaps because their new circumstances isolated them from one another. While Papaw was forced to navigate the working world of Middletown, Mamaw had to stay at home by herself. Rather than banding together in their respective struggles, they unfortunately went to war with one another, neglecting to support each other or their children.
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Uncle Jimmy left the house when he turned eighteen and secured a job at Armco. This left his sisters in the middle of their parents’ domestic disputes. Aunt Wee dropped out of high school at sixteen and married an abusive husband. This went against what Mamaw and Papaw had hoped for their children, for although they themselves modeled domestic instability, they believed their economic achievements put Jimmy, Bev, and Lori in a position to surpass their own accomplishments. Fortunately, Lori found a way out of her abusive relationship and secured a job working in radiology, eventually marrying a kind husband. As for Jimmy, he acquired a sales job and was the first Vance to have a “career.” Unfortunately, Bev succumbed to the statistical odds that come along with growing up in an abusive household. Although she was incredibly intelligent and had succeeded in high school, she put off college, got pregnant, and found herself incapable of “settling down” because “she had learned the lessons of her childhood all too well.” As such, she divorced her first husband after giving birth to Vance’s sister Lindsay at nineteen years old.
When Vance says that his mother “learned the lessons of her childhood all to well,” he frames domestic instability as cyclical. Of course, this makes it even more impressive that he himself was able to attain upward mobility and that he didn’t fall prey to the statistics of growing up in an unstable household.
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In spite of their fraught history, Mamaw and Papaw reconciled, and Papaw stopped drinking in 1983. Vance believes that it was around this time that they set to work making reparations for the chaotic and difficult life they had inflicted upon their children. First of all, they helped Lori escape her abusive first husband. They also lent Bev money to help her pay for childcare, gave her shelter, supported her when she frequently attended drug rehab, and paid for her nursing degree. Most importantly, though, they helped her raise Vance, acting as a support system that promoted stability in the young boy’s otherwise hectic life.
Although Vance frames instability as cyclical, it’s important to note that he provides many examples of people who have avoided or grown out of disastrous lifestyles. Mamaw and Papaw are perfect examples of this, since they stopped fighting and focused on making amends for the damage they’d inflicted upon Bev as a child. And because Hillbilly Elegy is very much about debunking stereotypes, it’s worth recognizing that Bev herself—a drug addict and unstable mother—was able to attain a nursing degree, an impressive accomplishment that does not fit into the derogatory notion that hillbilly drug addicts are unintelligent.
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