93 pages 3 hours read

Joyce Carol Oates

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2002

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Summary and Study Guide


Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is a young adult novel written by Joyce Carol Oates. Published in 2002 after the high-profile Columbine High School shooting and attempted bombing in Columbine, Colorado, Big Mouth & Ugly Girl recounts three months in the lives of two 16-year-old high school juniors, Matt “Big Mouth” Donaghy and Ursula “Ugly Girl” Riggs.

Plot Summary

The first protagonist introduced is Matt Donaghy, a high school junior accused of threatening to blow up the school. Matt is a budding writer who, like many teens, is plagued by insecurity; he uses his loud, joking Big Mouth persona to garner the attention and affection of his peers. After a few students overhear him joking about blowing up the school with friends and report him, Matt is questioned by the police, which substantiates the rumor that Matt intended to commit arson. As the rumor spreads throughout the school, Matt becomes the object of much fear and trepidation. Matt and Ursula’s paths collide here.

Ursula Riggs, also a high school student, is above average height. While she is not the typical model of a teenage girl—petite, charismatic, or charming—Ursula has made peace with her seemingly abnormal body. An ideal student, she portrays herself as the “Ugly Girl” in school, becoming foul-mouthed and wearing rough clothing. She pays no attention to what her teachers or classmates think about her persona, and she excels at sports, specifically basketball. While Matt’s chapters are narrated in the third person, Ursula tells her story from her own perspective, in first person.

Ursula, who overheard Matt’s conversation about what would happen if his play isn’t accepted for the Spring Arts Festival, knows he was joking. She defends Matt, helping him undo his tarnished reputation. Eventually, Matt is cleared of any wrongdoing, the situation deemed a misunderstanding.

The author uses the unfortunate situation with Matt to illustrate how narrow-minded and susceptible people often are to gossip. Even though Matt is cleared, the hoopla created by school officials and the media leaves Matt to wonder if he will ever be free of the harm done to him in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, the damage is already done, and these events leave Matt feeling isolated. His friends abandon him, and even the teachers perpetuate his ill-treatment, failing to address his overwhelming loneliness. Once the parents of his peers hear what happened, they forbid their kids from interacting with him. He also loses his place in the extracurricular activities he once found joy in. He is effectively ostracized due to untrue rumors.

Of all his classmates, only Ursula stands by Matt and tries to convince their peers that he does not deserve this treatment. The author juxtaposes Ursula’s experience with Matt’s. Since Ursula is seen as an oddball, it stands to reason that she is the one most empathetic to Matt’s predicament. She has a principled moral center her classmates do not share, understanding what it feels like to be ostracized from an unforgiving social circle. Ursula’s mother is concerned that her friendship with Matt will hurt her chances of getting into a good college, but Ursula is determined to do what’s right.

Lonely and isolated, Matt gravitates toward Ursula, and they navigate adolescent life together. Even when Matt’s mental health declines, resulting in a suicide attempt, and when Matt’s dog is abducted, Ursula is there as a supportive and assertive presence. Likewise, Matt’s admiration of Ursula for who she truly is helps her accept and appreciate others more easily. From their mutual pain, a friendship is born.

Together, these social misfits embark on a journey of emotional discovery marked by the abuse of their peers, the failures of their parents, and their own inabilities to express themselves. Together, they also learn to accept their identities and ignore the perceptions of others, becoming positive versions of a “big mouth” and “ugly girl” that indicate their future success in society. By the time of their first kiss three months after the joke, Matt is a budding writer published by the New York Times, and Ursula is a rebellious but courageous and intelligent feminist who sees Ugly Girl as only part of who she is.

Big Mouth & Ugly Girl is a cautionary tale. Through the eyes of teenagers, Oates highlights the critical importance of instilling a moral compass into the next generation. The author directs parents to model good principles to their children and to treat their problems and concerns with care and respect, while encouraging young people to set an example and stand up for the downtrodden.