From the meat carcasses swinging low on the branches of the Dolly family’s timber woods at the start of the novel to Ree’s sickening encounter with her father Jessup’s corpse at its end, decay defines the atmosphere of Winter’s Bone. Woodrell painstakingly shows his readers time and time again how the environment’s physical destitution reflects the emotional voids his characters experience due to a lack of stability, lack of trust in one another, and lack of hope for a better future, both economically and emotionally.
The physical decay Woodrell describes directly reflects the intense moral decay that blights Ree’s world, and physical injuries characters suffer are similarly used to illustrate those characters’ injured internal states as well. Ree’s Uncle Teardrop, a complicated moral figure throughout the novel, is disfigured from a meth lab explosion, and is covered in prison tattoos. His compromised physical form reflects the consequences of his dangerous and morally shaded past. When Ree is beaten by the Thump women, her injuries are described in mortifying detail; two of her teeth are knocked out, one of her eyes is swollen shut, and she soils herself out of fear. Readers are confronted with an image of Ree that directly reflects her internal state; she is exhausted, beaten down, and completely at the mercy of the shadowy figures that comprise her rural community.
Ree helping to sever Jessup’s hands from his bloated, pond-sunk corpse is easily the most horrifying image in the novel. Merab Thump and her sisters, in the wake of their beating Ree, recognize that their reputations have been tarnished by “upset talk” traveling through the Ozarks. In exchange for her continued silence, the Thump women offer to take Ree to her “Daddy’s bones.” They bring Ree to a frozen lake, cut through the ice, and tell her to reach down for his body; when she does, they sever his hands (“flecks of meat and wet bone hit Ree in the face” as they do) so that Ree can bring his hands to the police as evidence of Jessup’s death, and can keep her home and land.
Ree’s having to be complicit in the mutilation of her own father’s corpse for her own benefit, and that of her family, is both physically and emotionally grotesque. It represents a point of no return—though in finding her father’s body Ree is able to uncover a secret and obtain both closure and freedom for herself, her mother, and her brothers, she has had to succumb to the influence of the cyclical violence and horror that permeates her homeland in order to do so.
Violence and Decay ThemeTracker
Violence and Decay 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.
“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.”
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!”