After finishing all of Lullabies for Little Criminals by Heather O’Neill, I have seen protagonist Baby’s life go from bad, to worse. As I have witnessed her journey through adolescence, I have come to find that the feminist literary theory is very prominent throughout the novel.
The way Baby views many of her fellow female characters in the text can be linked to the loss of her mother. Because she had never gotten to know her mother, and undivided attention from Jules was a rare occasion, Baby craved all the attention she could get from adult figures. She thinks to herself, “I’d get excited when grown-ups paid attention to me. It always made me feel special. I didn’t have a mother and my dad wasn’t ever around anymore” (O’Neill 146). She especially desires this attention from female adults, and when she encounters someone who may be able to fill this void where her mother should be, she desperately clings to them. When Jules has to live in the hospital to be treated for tuberculosis, Baby temporarily moves into a foster home, and finds the attention she desires from the caregiver of the home, Isabelle. Right before she is about to return to Jules’ custody, she has second thoughts. She recalls, “Isabelle walked me out, her arm squeezing me to her side. For a second, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted her to let me go. Isabelle was very good about making me not worry about things” (O’Neill 47). During her time in the foster home, she finally has the closest thing she has ever felt to a mother, and she is very reluctant to leave her.
Baby’s views on her interactions with males shift from the beginning of the storyline to the end. Her timeline with Alphonse really encompasses how she feels about her relationships with men. At the beginning of her interest in love, she was a typical young girl, happy and head over heels. She gushes, “I was a little bit obsessed after that. No one had ever made me feel that wild, unusual way before. I started watching out for Alphonse, trying to bump into him” (O’Neill 162). Through the “honeymoon phase” of her love affair, she is overjoyed with the attention Alphonse gives to her. Later, however, being with a much older man backfires when he begins to pressure her into doing sexual acts with him. After the first time she sleeps with Alphonse she feels awful. She recalls, “I peeled off my clothes and walked to the bathroom naked. I felt as if my insides were cold. I turned on the hot water and stuck my hand under it, waiting to feel warm-blooded again” (O’Neill 210). Though at one point she was thrilled with her budding relationship with Alphonse, she is now feeling very dirty and used, and throughout the remainder at the novel she views other men in the same light.
One of the most prominent ways females are seen in this novel are as sex objects. As mentioned in my previous blog posts, Baby was forced into selling her body for sex at the tender age of thirteen. She was already sleeping with Alphonse on a regular basis, but once he saw her as being “ready” he sent her on her way, offering her a ride home from one of his friends, who in fact turned out to be a random man looking to pay to have sex with her. Slowly feeling less and less like herself, she recalls, “I stank differently. I didn’t smell like myself. I smelled like cigarettes and somebody else’s hands” (O’Neill 222). After a while of this, she has desensitized herself to sex, coming back to the reoccurring theme of losing her childhood innocence. After meeting with another client she says, “I think my body went numb from lack of circulation because I didn’t feel much. Every time I’d had sex before, it had been kind of painful. That time I didn’t feel a thing” (O’Neill 221). Sex is something that is traditionally supposed to be shared between two people that love each other, and Baby is being forced into it at a very young age as a way to make money for Alphonse, who shares minimal amounts of the profits with her.
Women are also confined to gender roles throughout the plot. The are only few women that Baby has been truly exposed to throughout the novel, but all the ones she came across were working women who had jobs that were considered typical of a female in her town. As mentioned earlier, Isabelle is the owner of the foster home that Baby stays in near the beginning of the novel. Isabelle’s job was to provide care for the children as well as maintain the cleanliness of the home, and this demonstrates a woman doing a “traditional” women’s job.
One of the only other women Baby is exposed to is Leelee. When describing Leelee for the first time, Baby says to herself, “It was impossible not to know Leelee if you lived in that neighbourhood. She was skinny, with a big nose and tons of freckles. She was one of those blonde girls who looked as if they’d just been rained on…It was also impossible not to know that she was a prostitute. She would get lazy and try to turn tricks right outside of her building instead of going to the strip. The tenants were always calling nasty things out the window to her” (O’Neill 164). Leelee is another woman who, throughout her time in the novel, is seen as little more than a sexual object to men.
Baby grows up in a town where the women she encounters are viewed in a very sexist manner, and are never seen breaking the “traditional woman” stereotypes. This, combined with the loss of her mother, creates a toxic environment for Baby, which in my opinion is the greatest contributor down her path of self-destruction.
O’Neill, Heather. Lullabies for Little Criminals: a Novel. HarperCollins, 2006, New York. Print.