The physical, psychological, and emotional atmosphere of Winter’s Bone is one of extreme desolation. The cold valleys and ramshackle hillside compounds that the characters inhabit are cut off from much of what traditional readers would consider “civilization.” A trip Ree makes to a nearby grocery store is one of the few times we see her in the public sphere; her life is almost entirely enveloped in the remote and the rural. Because of this, Ree, her family, and the other clans who make their homes in the Ozarks have a fiercely independent worldview that excludes and rejects almost everything and everyone outside of their insular community.
Woodrell creates this atmosphere in order to display the conditions necessary for the persistence of the cyclical way of life that the Ozark clans cling to and inherit from one another. An isolated community is one that must protect its own in order to ensure its survival. It is a community that demands isolation in order to maintain its independence from the rest of the world. That isolation is not just physical, but also economic and emotional. And yet, Woodrell makes clear in his portrayal of this community that such staunch adherence to the principle of indpendence, and the isolation required to maintain that principle, ultimately harms the community itself.
“Never ask for what ought to be offered,” Ree warns her younger brother Harold in the opening pages of the novel. These words define Ree’s worldview from the outset—she is dependent on the other members of her family, but is also proud, strong, and reluctant to ask for help lest she make herself appear weak and incapable of making do, or, worse, revealing to the stronger, more wily members of her family a weakness that might be exploited or preyed upon. Though this is a network of families that rely on each other and, for the most part, take a certain kind of care of one another, there’s a ruthlessness and a dog-eat-dog mentality to the Ozark clans.
Ree understand this nature of her community abstractly at the start of the novel, but as the novel progresses and her search for her father brings her in contact with other extended family members she comes to understand it more concretely. Sonya, one of Ree’s cousins, brings her and her siblings a box of goods early on in the novel; later, Teardrop and Victoria give Ree money; everyone Ree visits offers her drugs. There’s the sense that there’s a very specific kind of symbiosis in this community. Favors and goods are given and traded, but always with a price, or always as a stand-in for what should be offered—in Ree’s case, information or help in finding her father.
Ree’s independent nature and need to prove herself make her strong and also make her vulnerable. At just sixteen, she is the primary provider for her younger brothers and her sick mother Connie. She is both too proud and too fearful to allow herself to become indebted to her extended family, however, and so her burden deepens and worsens the more she isolates herself from them. Ree’s predicament is thus a microcosm of the larger predicament of the Ozark community as a whole.
Isolation and Independence ThemeTracker
Isolation and Independence Quotes in Winter’s Bone
Ree’s grand hope was that these boys would not be dead to wonder by age twelve, dulled to life, empty of kindness, boiling with mean. So many Dolly kids were that way, ruined before they had chin hair, groomed to live outside square law and abide by the remorseless blood-soaked commandments that governed lives outside square law…The rough Dollys were scornful of town law and town ways, clinging to their own.
Ree needed often to inject herself with pleasant sounds, stab those sounds past the constant screeching, squalling hubbub regular life raised inside her spirit, poke the soothing sounds past that racket and down deep where her jittering soul paced on a stone slab in a gray room, agitated and endlessly provoked but yearning to hear something that might bring a moment’s rest.
Ree nearly fell but would not let it happen in front of the law. She heard thunder clapping between her ears and Beelzebub scratchin’ a fiddle. The boys and her and mom would be dogs in the field without this house. They would be dogs in the field with Beelzebub scratchin’ out tunes and the boys’d have a hard hard shove toward unrelenting meanness and the roasting shed and she’d be stuck along side them ‘til steel doors clanged shut and the flames rose. She’d never have her own concerns.
“Don’t you, nor nobody else, neither, ever go down around Hawkfall askin’ them people shit about stuff they ain’t offerin’ to talk about. That’s a real good way to end up et by hogs, or wishin’ you was… Our relations get watered kinda thin between this valley here and Hawkfall.”
“Settin’ out food’ll draw em close—that’s likely how they’ll come too close and get shot, Harold. Don’t set no goddam food out. It looks like you’re doin’ nice, but you don’t. You’re just bringin’ ‘em into range, is all.”
“Ma’am, I got a real bad need to talk with Thump Milton…I need to, I really, really need to, ma’am. Please—I am a Dolly! Some of our blood at least is the same. That’s s’posed to mean somethin’—ain’t that what is always said?”
To have but a few male names in use was a tactic held over from the olden knacker ways…Let any sheriff or similar nabob try to keep official accounts on the Dolly men when so many were named Milton, Haslam, Arthur or Jessup… Jessups, Arthurs, Haslams and Miltons were born to walk only the beaten Dolly path, live and die in keeping with those bloodline customs fiercest held.
“You son of a bitch. You go straight to hell’n fry in your own lard. Sonny’n Harold’ll die livin’ in a fuckin’ cave with me’n Mom before they’ll ever spend a single fuckin’ night with you. Goddam you, Blond Milton, you must think I’m a stupid idiot or somethin’—there’s horseweed standin’ chin-high inside that place!”
“Mom, I’m goin’ to need you to help. There’s things happenin’ that I don’t know what to do about. Mom? Look at me, Mom. Mom?” Ree waited kneeling for several minutes, kneeling as raised hopes fell to modest hopes, slight hopes, vague hopes, kneeling until any hope at all withered to none…She released Mom, stood and walked away into the shadows.
Ree pushed a mulish shopping cart in the Bawbee Store…The wheels were splayed like walleyes, so the cart would not easily go where it looked to be aimed bust screeched off-line in half-moon spins toward one side of the aisle, then the other.
“I got two little brothers who can’t feed theirselves…My mom is sick and she is always goin’ to be sick. Pretty soon the laws’re takin’ our house away n’throwin’ us out…to live in the fields…like fuckin’ dogs. The only hope I got to keep our house is I gotta prove Dad’s dead. Whoever killed him, I don’t need to know that. I don’t never need to know that. If Dad did wrong, Dad has paid. But I can’t forever carry…them boys’n Mom…not…without that house to help.”
Sonny said,“What’ll we do with all that money? Huh? What’s the first thing we’ll get?”
…Ree stood and stretched. Twilight dimmed the snow, but icicles overhead held that gleam. “Wheels.”