Themes in Literature

Literary Family


Much has been written on the institution of family in the fields of sociology, psychology, and anthropology, but one of the most famous comments on the family comes from literature. Leo Tolstoy wrote, in Anna Karenina, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” This comment underscores the importance of family happiness in our lives as human beings. From our family, we get our beliefs and values—religious, political, social. From our family, we learn to function in the real world as adults. We spend an average of 18 years in this environment, and its atmosphere, positive and negative, cannot help but deeply affect us for life. Furthermore, it is not just the families in which we are raised that shape our worldview, but also the families in which we function as adults. As parents and spouses, we tend to prioritize our families over all other aspects of life, and also to see our families as coherent units, united in solidarity against the outside world.

These family ties can be a soothing, strengthening force, helping us to battle life’s trials. However, these ties, always complicated, can also work to destroy us, rob us of the emotional tools we need to survive, and provide us with no defenses when trouble sets in. The families into which we are born and the families we create as we get older hold such importance for us because they are our primary sources of identification. The answer to the question “Who am I?” lies, in large part, in who our families are. The sociologist Jerome Kagan notes that children identify most readily with their parents, and that before adolescence they believe they share the same basic qualities and values with their “parental models” (Kagan et al. 40). In Chaim Potok’s The Chosen, David struggles with his father’s identity as a rabbi and Reuven struggles with his father’s identity as an academic. Neither boy feels the chosen path is necessarily the right one for him, but because they identify so strongly with their fathers, they are confused about who they are and who they are supposed to be. Ultimately, although they will, in a sense, trade paths, with Reuven entering the rabbinate and David going to graduate school, the bonds they formed with their families in childhood will serve them well. Not all family identifications are positive, of course. In Eugene O’Neill’s Long Day’s Journey into Night, the Tyrones all feel that they are doomed to never achieve their dreams and goals precisely because they are Tyrones. Brothers Edmund and Jamie, one a tubercular alcoholic and sometime merchant mariner and the other a failed alcoholic actor, are both trapped in a family system that will not allow them happiness, only dreams of happiness.

Their father is a cheap, belittling alcoholic whose own dreams of vaudeville success died, and their mother is a morphine addict constantly in mourning for the son she lost as an infant and the “normal” life she gave up to marry Tyrone. For each of the Tyrones, “who they are” seems sadly predetermined. In addition to helping to identify us, family also provides us with a haven in times of adversity. Especially in the modern Western world, according to Edmund Shorter, there is a “special sense of solidarity that separates the domestic union from the surrounding community” (205). Families have a tendency to protect their own and to shut out the outside world if need be. Even families who participate heavily in the community, such as the March family in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women, put family before others. For instance, when they receive a telegram that Mr. March is ill, Marmee goes off to Washington, D.C., to be with him, while Jo sells her hair to finance the trip.

The entire family worries over Beth when she is ill and mourns her deeply when she dies, with Jo and Amy putting aside their differences for the sake of their beloved sister. In Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie, the “safe” haven of family actually becomes a handicap to both Laura and Tom Wingfield. Because Laura has the security of knowing she can cocoon herself away from the outside world that terrifies her so much, she never overcomes her painful shyness and cannot function outside her family’s apartment. For Tom, because his mother expects him to take care of the two of them, the “haven” becomes a prison, and he can think of nothing but escape, first the metaphorical escape of alcohol and movies and finally the literal escape of a job that will take him far away. The Wingfield family are able to keep their troubles locked up in an apartment because that is how families work. If they so choose, they may stay behind closed doors. This domestic sphere, as it is sometimes called, is not subject to what society might want, but only what the family itself desires. The ancient Greek philosopher Plato spoke of this separation between the “public sphere” and the “private sphere,” saying that public people must be responsible and rational at all times because they participate wholly in both private life and the life of the community around them. Therefore, they must have the highest moral standards and the most exacting sense of justice (Elshtain 53). Private people, on the other hand, need not live up to high ideals; they need only possess a “limited goodness” as it applies to the sphere in which they dwell (54). The family, then, as the nexus of the “private sphere” is important, but only because it provides a sanctuary from public life. Those most closely associated with the family, women and children, need only aspire to this “limited goodness.” This view, unfortunately, persisted well into the 20th century. In Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Nathan Price drags his wife and four daughters to Africa, bent on converting the Africans to Christianity but uncaring and unmindful of how his family will survive there.

Reverend Price, as a public figure, believes that only he has the answers to how life should be lived. However, it becomes clear that it is the domestic sphere that will prove to be the most important prong of life in the Congo. Providing food and shelter and avoiding deadly animals is the immediate necessity for the Price family, and Price cannot do those things. In contrast to Nathan Price, the characters in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town celebrate the domestic sphere and the importance of family in our lives. The Stage Manager does not exalt the work of Dr. Gibbs, providing medical care to the town, over the cleaning, cooking, and child-care duties of Mrs. Gibbs, his wife. In fact, he explicitly points out how important these day-to-day tasks are in the life of a human being. Emily Webb’s final speech in the graveyard emphasizes the beauty of these mundane elements of life, demonstrating that when we underappreciate the private in favor of the more flashy public, we miss out on the wonder of life. Not all families provide sanctuary or comfort, however; many make life harder for their members. In fact, it is common in Western society to blame the problems of adults on unhappiness in their families when they were growing up, whether there is good evidence of this causal relationship or not (Kagan et al. 41). Bigger Thomas, the protagonist of Richard Wright’s Native Son, would like nothing more than to get away from his nagging mother and his annoying sister, who, he feels (with good reason), are unsupportive of him. Bigger’s frustration and anger, of course, have more to do with being poor and black in Chicago in the 1930s than they do with his mother, but it is significant that he would allow himself to blame her at all for the way he feels. Despite evidence to the contrary, many children look to their parents as the source of their travails. Bigger finds himself an alternative “family,” albeit not a very functional one, in the form of a small gang of friends. This impulse, too, is common.

When family, for whatever reason, disappoints us, we turn to others to provide identification, support, comfort, and sanctuary. While some social commentators might worry that this is a product of the modern era, history shows otherwise. Families have always had to compete with “others” and family members have always sought time with same-sex peers (Shorter, quoted 15). In fact, because the community no longer actively participates in private ceremonies surrounding birth, marriage, and death, it can be argued that families are more stable in the 21st century than they were before the industrial age. The family, far from being weakened by the changes and problems that come with the modern world, has instead adapted to it, remaining a source of inspiration in our lives and our literature.

See also Albee, Edward: Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?; Anaya, Rudolfo: Bless Me, Ultima; Anderson, Sherwood: Winesburg, Ohio; Baldwin, James: Go Tell It on the Mountain; Cao Xuequin: Dream of the Red Chamber; Erdrich, Louise; Tracks; Franklin, Benjamin: Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, The; Hansberry, Lorraine: Raisin in the Sun, A; Homer: Odyssey, The; Houston, Jean Wakatsuki: Farewell to Manzanar; Joyce, James: Dubliners; Kafka, Franz: “Metamorphosis, The”; Lewis, Sinclair: Main Street; Lowry, Lois: Giver, The; Molière: Tartuff e; O’Connor, Flannery: “Good Man Is Hard to Find, A”; Paton, Alan: Cry, the Beloved Country; Sophocles: Antigone; Steinbeck, John: Grapes of Wrath, The; Red Pony, The; Stowe, Harriet Beecher: Uncle Tom’s Cabin; Welty, Eudora: Optimist’s Daughter, The; Wordsworth, William: “Lines Composed a Few Miles above Tintern Abbey.”

4 thoughts on “Literary Family

  1. Faulkner noted that the purpose of literature was ‘to understand the problems of the human heart’ – we agree!

  2. everything from 19th C gothic literature to Donna Tartt & photography. Feel a bit Like I’m from Mars sometimes. Not

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.