Toward the end of Tobacco Road, preacher Sister Bessie Rice, explains why it’s better to preach against things rather than for things, because “That’s what the people like to hear about. They want to hear about the bad things” (161). This may be the theme for the entire novel, as the characters in the novel live in inescapably desperate poverty. Tobacco Road is a trap—though it was once, a few generations ago, the successful place of transport for tobacco, the changeover to sharecropping cotton resulted in leached soil, an inequitable sharecropping system, the growth of cotton factories, and eventually the pullout of the boss, which resulted in the general collapse of the area. With a very few exceptions, the only road for survival is escape—of the seventeen children born by Jeeter and Ada Lester, only two have remained at home: the harelipped and hypersexualized Ellie Mae and the simpleminded Dude, whose only interests are throwing a ball against the side of the house and finding a functioning automobile horn to honk.
Caldwell seems to be making a statement about those who have been left behind by industrialization and capitalism, as even those who are able to put in a crop can’t win: “A bale to the acre was the goal of every cotton farmer around Fuller; but the boll weevil and hard summer rains generally cut the crop in half. And on the other hand, if it was a good year for the raising of cotton, the price would probably drop lower than it had before. Not many men felt like working all year for six-or seven-cent cotton in the fall” (174). Jeeter Lester is worse off than those, though, as he hasn’t planted a crop in several years, as all possible sources of credit have dried up. The only possibility left for the Lesters is the county poor-farm—or, as the novel ends, death by fire. Often, Jeeter refuses to leave for better economic prospects, however, because he claims that the land is in his blood. Even then, however, the surviving son, Dude, seems to be haunted by the dead Jeeter, as he notes at the novel’s end that he thinks he might see about putting in a cotton crop, like his dad always wanted to. The novel ends on this sense of absolute futility.
Nevertheless, what’ s most interesting to me are the presentation of female ugliness and sexuality in the novel. Both Ellie Mae and Sister Bessie Rose are women whose faces are grotesque: Ellie Mae’s cleft lip is such that her “upper lip had an opening a quarter of an inch wide that divided one side of her mouth into unequal parts; the slit came to an abrupt end almost under her left nostril. The upper gum was low, and because her gums were always fiery red, the opening in her lip made her look as if her mouth were bleeding profusely” (21). Sister Bessie May, the preaching woman, is in fact “much better-looking than most women in the sand hills, except for her nose. Bessie’s nose had failed to develop properly. There was no bone in it, and there was no top to it. The nostrils were exposed, and Dude had once said that when he looked at her nose it was like looking down the end of a double-barrel shotgun” (45). Both of them are hypersexual—Ellie Mae doesn’t seem to talk, but only dawdles behind chinaberry trees, emerging to jump on men such as Lov with an “excited, feline agility” (34); Sister Bessie can’t keep her hands off of Dude when kneeling to pray with him, and the two of them shortly end up embracing and rubbing against each other (51). Further, in the hotel scene—a scene so absurd as to echo a Restoration play—Sister Bessie is taken to several different rooms throughout the night, all of which have occupied beds (and it’s implied that she engaged in sexual activity throughout the night in these different occupied rooms).
There’s a Faulknerian comparison of women to cows in the novel, as Lov’s complaint that his wife Pearl—the pretty Lester daughter, whom Jeeter approved marrying Lov at the age of twelve—as it’s considered as unnatural for a woman to reject male sexuality in the same way that Lester’s cow was worthless once it “wouldn’t take no freshening” (17). In refusing to sleep in the same bed as Lov, Pearl is frequently characterized as “queer.” (She’s also Ada’s daughter by someone other than Jeeter; all that’s known is that her father was that he was “from Carolina and on his way to Texas” (31)). So, while a properly natural woman responds to a man’s advances, it’s only a monstrous woman who expresses or acts on her own sexual desires, as we see with Sister Bessie and Ellie Mae.
This insistence on the “natural” is related to the role that God is understood to play in the novel’s deprivation. Jeeter’s concept of the unshakeable divine plan for the farmer is reminiscent of Anse Bundren in As I Lay Dying, such as when he explains that, “When He aims for something to be always a-moving, He makes it long ways, like a road or a horse or a wagon, when He aims for something to stay put, He makes it up-and-down ways, like a tree or a man” (36). Thus, anything that doesn’t work for Jeeter can be blamed on divine plan. Bessie, on the other hand, represents an interestingly active interpretation of the divine. Not only does God’s plan reveal itself to her to align nicely with her own desires—such as her desire to marry Dude—but she seems to consider God as finite, or having limited abilities. When, for example, Jeeter asks her to pray for Pearl, she suggests that it might be more successful if she was to talk to Pearl herself, as “I expect I know more about what to tell her than He does, because I been a married woman up to the past summer….I expect I know all about it. God wouldn’t know what to tell her” (48). Religion, like mules and guano (and women), is simply another resource available to those on Tobacco Road, to be used or blamed according to the individual’s ability and predilection.