Andre Dubus, a Louisiana native and devout Catholic, created fiction often noted for its psychological realism and gentle morality. His short fiction emphasizes character study and examines moments of affection, violence, and self-discovery in American life. Dubus’s straightforward narrative contrasts with the postmodern styles explored by his contemporaries in the 1960s and 1970s. “The Fat Girl,” first published in the 1977 collection Adultery and Other Choices, imagines the interior life of the overweight Louise, who begins to eat secretly at age nine in response to a strict diet imposed by her image-conscious mother. Eating little in public, Louise enjoys snacking as a private and sensual pleasure. Her extra weight causes parental disapproval and awkwardness with her peers. In high school, Louise’s social life is limited to the company of other outsiders: a plain girl and an anxious smart girl. In college, Louise forms a deep friendship with her roommate Carrie, who notices and accepts Louise’s secret eating. As they near graduation, Carrie begins dating and urges Louise to diet to increase her chances of finding romantic love. Carrie offers structure and affectionate encouragement (far more nurturing than the discipline imposed by Louise’s mother) to help Louise shrink to 113 pounds over the course of a year. The process is difficult and painful, one that Louise will “remember always, the way some people remember having endured poverty” (50). Now the darling of her mother and the country club circles that once eluded her, Louise marries Richard, a partner in her father’s law firm, and settles into affluent life. When she becomes pregnant with a son, however, Louise begins to loosen the self-restraint that has kept her thin. In spite of her husband’s displeasure, she refuses to diet during or after the pregnancy and regains much of her weight. Enraptured with her son and feeling misunderstood by her husband, she embraces her return to food as truer expression of her selfhood. In the story’s conclusion, Louise decides to eat a candy bar in front of her husband, excited by the prospect that he will soon leave her and she can be alone with her child.
Louise’s relationship to her weight is inextricably tied to her understanding of identity and love. Though self-conscious about her body (she will neither eat in public nor be seen with other fat girls), Louise finds both food and her fat body appealing to the senses and diets only for social acceptance. As a child, she imagines that fat actresses are “fat because they chose to be” (46). After losing weight, she feels that her friends and husband cannot truly know her without understanding her struggle with fat. She feels like an imposter in her new life: “There were times . . . when she was suddenly assaulted by the feeling that she had taken the wrong train and arrived at some place where no one knew her” (55). When discussing her childhood with her husband, “she felt as though she were trying to tell a foreign lover about her life in the U.S., and if only she could command the language he would know and love all of her and she would feel complete” (56). Until the birth of her son, none of her new relationships rivals the acceptance and affection of her friendship with Carrie. As a mother, she finds that the surface-driven relationships in her life, including her marriage, pale in comparison with her feelings for her child. Her decision to regain weight at the expense of her marriage strikes readers not as a reflection of a troubled mind but an act of assertion. By eating in the presence of Richard, she both changes her childhood pattern of secret eating and rejects social rules in favor of her own standards of pleasure and beauty. In this tribute to a woman’s self-determination in the face of restrictive social norms, Dubus’s story seems linked to the feminist ideology gaining strength in the years leading up to the collection’s publication. More generally, “The Fat Girl” offers a detailed portrait of a character outside the social mainstream and explores the resonance of her decisions and longings.
Dubus, Andre. “The Fat Girl.” In Adultery and Other Choices. Boston: David R. Godine, 1977, 45–59.
Kennedy, Thomas E. André Dubus: A Study of the Short Fiction. Twayne’s Studies in Short Fiction, 1. Boston: Twayne, 1988.