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Shuggie Bain Summary & Study Guide

Douglas Stuart
This Study Guide consists of approximately 47 pages of chapter summaries, quotes, character analysis, themes, and more - everything you need to sharpen your knowledge of Shuggie Bain.
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Shuggie Bain Summary & Study Guide Description

Shuggie Bain Summary & Study Guide includes comprehensive information and analysis to help you understand the book. This study guide contains the following sections:

This detailed literature summary also contains Quotes and a Free Quiz on Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart.

The following version of this book was used to create the guide: Stuart, Douglas. Shuggie Bain. Grove Press, 2020.

Stuart's novel is divided into five parts, divided further into a total of 32 chapters. The narrative focuses on the life of Shuggie Bain between the ages of five and sixteen. The main conflict of the narrative during these years is Agnes Bain's, the mother of Shuggie, struggle with alcohol addiction, and the impact this has on the people around her, most notably Shuggie. Shuggie Bain is narrated by a detached third person omniscient narrator, who weaves together the thoughts, sights and sounds of the novel, as well as past events in the characters' histories.

The novel begins with a depiction of Shuggie's life as a 16 year-old, living alone in Glasgow. He works at a grocery store, rarely attends school, and has aspirations to become a hairdresser. When he is leaving work, he takes with him several cans of fish.

After this brief depiction, the time and setting of the novel shift to the high rise buildings in the Sighthill neighborhood of Glasgow in the year 1981. Shuggie is five years-old, and he lives in one of the high rise buildings with his mother, Agnes Bain, his father, Shug Bain, his half-brother and half-sister, Leek and Catherine, and his maternal grandparents, Wullie and Lizzie. Agnes experiences life at Sighthill as dull and constraining, and she longs for the excitement-filled, carefree days of her youth. Shug is largely absent from their domestic life, as he spends most his time driving a taxi and having extra-marital affairs. The conspicuousness with which Shug carries on these affairs causes Agnes great shame in front of her parents. To escape these intolerable circumstances, Agnes takes to drinking. Her parents scold her for her habits, and even administer corporal punishment to her despite the fact that she is 39 years-old.

In an attempt to placate Agnes, Shug secures a home for the family to move into. As Agnes prepares to leave Sighthill, the circumstances surrounding her departure from her first marriage are described in detail. The new residence is located in Pithead, a housing scheme developed to house the families of workers at the nearby mine. When the family arrives, Agnes is disappointed by the dilapidation and general poverty of the neighborhood caused by the shutting down of the mine. Once the family settles in, Shug announces to Agnes that he will not be living there with her. He leaves Agnes to live with Joanie Micklewhite, the dispatcher for his taxi company.

In defiance of the blight around her, Agnes insists on dressing in expensive clothes and carrying herself with an affected dignity around her new neighborhood. This makes her an object of scorn among the other mothers of families in Pithead, who take offense to Agnes’ attempts to appear better than her neighbors. Agnes’ discontent with life in Pithead causes her to rely more heavily on alcohol.

Meanwhile, Shuggie is alienated from the other boys at school, which is due in large part to his mother’s influence on him. Her constant need of care on mornings after a night of drinking keep Shuggie out of school, and Agnes’ preference for refinement takes hold in Shuggie. This puts him at odds with the rough and insensitive character of the other children in Pithead.

Agnes descends further and further into alcoholism, as both of her parents pass away, and her oldest daughter, Catherine, moves to live in South Africa with her husband. Agnes becomes ever more desperate, as she lets men take advantage of her sexually in exchange for money and drinks. One night, returning to Pithead from a night of drinking, she is raped by her taxi driver.

At last Agnes takes a job as a gas station attendant, and she begins attending AA meetings. During this time, she meets a man named Eugene, and they begin a romantic relationship. Things appear to be going well for Agnes and her children during this period of sobriety. Agnes then falls into her old habits once again after Eugene persuades her to have a glass of wine at dinner. The low point of Agnes’ relapse occurs when she attempts to kill herself. After realizing the severity of Agnes’ drinking problem, Eugene leaves her.

Agnes continues to alienate herself from her children by drinking until she kicks Leek out of the house. Shuggie continues to devote himself to his mother, regardless of negative impact she has on his life. Agnes eventually arranges for her and Shuggie to move to a new neighborhood, at which time they promise each other to change. Agnes promises to stop drinking, and Shuggie promises to be a normal boy. The tensions between the two escalate, however, as neither is able to make any substantial change to their life despite living in a new place. The onset of Shuggie’s teenage years give added strain to their relationship, until one day she kicks Shuggie out as well, although she quickly invites him back home. Soon after, Agnes dies after choking on her own saliva while in a drunken stupor.

The closing chapter of the novel picks up where chapter one ends. Shuggie takes his can of fish to Moira Kelly, the mother of his friend Leanne. Moira is also an alcoholic, and her circumstances evoke sympathy for Shuggie as they would have likely been Agnes’ circumstances too had she lived.

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