Hillbilly Elegy

Papaw Character Analysis

Vance’s grandfather, and Bev’s father. Like Mamaw, his wife, he grew up in Jackson, Kentucky and fully embodied the hillbilly lifestyle. In his early years of fatherhood, he was a ferocious drinker who rarely came home sober from a day’s work. Mamaw found this behavior unacceptable and even took violent measures to put an end to his drinking: one evening after he came home drunk, she doused him in gasoline and lit him on fire while he was sleeping. If not for Vance’s Aunt Wee, Papaw and Mamaw’s eleven-year-old daughter, he would have burned to death. Eventually, he quit drinking, though not before he and Mamaw decided to live in separate houses in Middletown. Nonetheless, they reconciled their differences and continued to spend everyday with one another for the rest of his life, though they kept their individual houses. Papaw was a very influential figure in J.D.’s life because he promoted the importance of education, taking the time to sit down with his grandson after school each day to quiz him on increasingly difficult mathematical equations. A steelworker at Armco—Middletown’s largest manufacturing plant—he insisted that J.D. should make his money with his mind rather than with his hands, a message that communicated the value of intellectual pursuits. When Papaw died, the entire family was devastated, especially J.D.’s mother, who subsequently plunged deeper into a downward spiral of drug addiction.

Papaw Quotes in Hillbilly Elegy

The Hillbilly Elegy quotes below are all either spoken by Papaw or refer to Papaw . For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper Collins edition of Hillbilly Elegy published in 2017.
Chapter 2 Quotes

For starters, a remarkable stigma attached to people who left the hills of Kentucky for a better life. Hillbillies have a phrase—“too big for your britches”—to describe those who think they’re better than the stock they came from. For a long time after my grandparents came to Ohio, they heard exactly that phrase from people back home. The sense that they had abandoned their families was acute, and it was expected that, whatever their responsibilities, they would return home regularly. This pattern was common among Appalachian migrants: More than nine in ten would make visits “home” during the course of their lives, and more than one in ten visited about once a month. My grandparents returned to Jackson often, sometimes on consecutive weekends, despite the fact that the trip in the 1950s required about twenty hours of driving. Economic mobility came with a lot of pressures, and it came with a lot of new responsibilities.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Papaw
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

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Within two generations, the transplanted hillbillies had largely caught up to the native population in terms of income and poverty level. Yet their financial success masked their cultural unease, and if my grandparents caught up economically, I wonder if they ever truly assimilated. They always had one foot in the new life and one foot in the old one. They slowly acquired a small number of friends but remained strongly rooted in their Kentucky homeland.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Papaw , Bev Vance, Aunt Wee (Lori Vance) , Uncle Jimmy
Page Number: 36
Explanation and Analysis:

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Chapter 10 Quotes

Every time the drill instructor screamed at me and I stood proudly; every time I thought I’d fall behind during a run and kept up; every time I learned to do something I thought impossible, like climb the rope, I came a little closer to believing in myself. Psychologists call it “learned helplessness” when a person believes, as I did during my youth, that the choices I made had no effect on the outcomes in my life. From Middletown’s world of small expectations to the constant chaos of our home, life had taught me that I had no control. Mamaw and Papaw had saved me from succumbing entirely to that notion, and the Marine Corps broke new ground. If I had learned helplessness at home, the Marines were teaching learned willfulness.

Related Characters: J.D. Vance (speaker), Mamaw, Papaw
Page Number: 163
Explanation and Analysis:

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Papaw Character Timeline in Hillbilly Elegy

The timeline below shows where the character Papaw appears in Hillbilly Elegy. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Chapter 1
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
In the 1940s, Mamaw moved with her husband—Vance’s Papaw—from Kentucky to Middletown, Ohio, leaving behind the Blantons, her large family, which was well-respected in... (full context)
Chapter 2
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
Vance writes that Mamaw and Papaw’s presence in his life was the best thing to ever happen to him. He then... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
...their rural communities due to the fact that these towns hadn’t been industrialized. Mamaw and Papaw, Vance points out, were part of the second wave of hillbilly migration, which occurred in... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
While Mamaw and Papaw’s relatives resented them for abandoning their home, their new neighbors “viewed them suspiciously.” To these... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Despite how hard it was to integrate into Middletown, Mamaw and Papaw slowly started to get used to their new life. In 1951 they had their first... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
Although Mamaw and Papaw felt isolated from their culture, Middletown’s values aligned with their belief in hard work and... (full context)
Chapter 3
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
After Uncle Jimmy, Mamaw and Papaw had two more children: Vance’s mother Bev and his Aunt Wee (her real name is... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
In spite of their fraught history, Mamaw and Papaw reconciled, and Papaw stopped drinking in 1983. Vance believes that it was around this time... (full context)
Chapter 4
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
...political conservatism are not always aligned in Middletown,” especially considering the fact that people like Papaw were so committed to the Democratic party, or “the working man’s party.” Although the town... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Politics and the Economy Theme Icon
...elders reinforced this sentiment—“Your generation will make its living with their minds, not their hands,” Papaw told Vance. In keeping with this, high school kids came to see Armco as an... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
...intelligence and knowledge. So I assumed I was an idiot,” he says. Seeing his frustration, Papaw sat him down at the end of the day and taught him multiplication. From then... (full context)
Chapter 5
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...and Bob decided to move away from Middletown, thereby cutting him off from Mamaw and Papaw, the most dependable adult figures in his life. Not long after, Bev and Bob started... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...long thereafter, the family moved (without Bob) into a house extremely close to Mamaw and Papaw in Middletown. Unfortunately, this didn’t calm Bev, whose behavior grew more and more unpredictable. She... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...return, he made a deal with his mother that he could live with Mamaw and Papaw whenever he wanted, a deal Mamaw reinforced my promising that if Bev had a problem... (full context)
Chapter 7
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...turned thirteen and Bev started dating a firefighter named Matt—with whom Vance still keeps in touch—Papaw died. The family found him slumped in a chair after not having heard from him... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
The family had two visitations to honor Papaw’s death. One was in Middletown, the other in Jackson. The audience was free to speak... (full context)
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...he was my dad, not yours, so stop acting like you just lost your father.” Papaw’s death revealed to J.D. what he hadn’t seen before: his mother had already begun a... (full context)
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
...was hesitant to turn to Mamaw because he didn’t want to burden her now that Papaw was gone. As such, he relied on himself and on Lindsay. They even enjoyed their... (full context)
Chapter 8
The Hillbilly Identity Theme Icon
...out that he felt trapped by the fact that he had nobody to turn to; Papaw was dead and Mamaw was aging quickly and seemed too frail to care for a... (full context)
Conclusion
Upward Mobility and Personal Agency Theme Icon
Religion and Education Theme Icon
...later, Brian’s mother died. “What happens to Brian?” Vance asks. “He has no Mamaw or Papaw, at least not like mine, and […] his hope of a ‘normal life’ evaporated long... (full context)