When one thinks of adults residing in the same household, the first people that come to mind are couples who are married or living together.
But there are other grown-up groupings: parents with adult children at home, parents with their parents in spare rooms, siblings sharing an abode, people taking care of ill relatives, unrelated adults renting an apartment together, servants or nannies residing on the premises, refugees clumped together during a war, and so on. Those kinds of household arrangements in literature are the subject of this blog post.
Why those arrangements? They’re done for reasons such as economics, love, neurosis, or tradition (for instance, in “the olden days” adult women often stayed home until they married). In real life, the situations of adults non-romantically living together can often be mundane; in the heightened world of literature, those arrangements are frequently depicted in more dramatic fashion.
Take Washington Square. In Henry James’ novel, things get rather interesting as rich, unkind Dr. Austin Sloper opposes his at-home daughter Catherine’s relationship with the not-very-solvent Morris Townsend because he suspects the charismatic Morris wants to marry the uncharismatic Catherine for her inheritance. (There’s a reason why the movie version of the book is called The Heiress.) Meanwhile, Dr. Sloper’s also-at-home sister Lavinia Penniman supports the possible marriage in her meddlesome, irritating way because she finds the whole scenario vicariously exciting.
James’ pal Edith Wharton offers another niece-aunt dynamic in The House of Mirth, which features the not-wealthy Lily Bart uneasily living with her wealthy but ungenerous Aunt Julia. When the aunt dies, Lily’s financial problems are seemingly over — until she learns that Julia mostly wrote her out of her will because of an alleged “scandal” for which Lily is not really to blame.
Adult daughters living with widowed fathers are memorably depicted in Jane Austen’s Persuasion and Emma. Anne Elliot is a together person from the start of Persuasion, with an unlikable dad. Emma Woodhouse grows as a person in Emma, with a likable but hypochondriacal dad.
Also in 19th-century Brit lit, George Eliot’s dramatic Daniel Deronda features various non-romantic living arrangements. After Daniel saves her, Mirah Lapidoth lives with the family of Daniel’s friend from school days. Meanwhile, Mirah’s brother Mordecai lives with a different family. Later, after Mirah and Mordecai find each other following years of separation, they share a household as siblings.
The Bronte sisters are part of this discussion, too. The title character in Charlotte’s Jane Eyre becomes the governess to Edward Rochester’s “ward” Adele at Thornfield Hall. (Though that situation eventually turns into a romance.) In Emily’s Wuthering Heights, servant Nelly Dean is the crucial narrator who lives with a number of the novel’s tempestuous and/or sickly adult characters.
Moving to 20th-century fiction, we have siblings Marilla and Matthew Cuthbert sharing a residence when they seek to adopt a boy to help on their farm. Instead, they end up with the delightful Anne Shirley in L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables.
Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird has the mysterious Radley family, including mentally challenged adult son Boo, in the same house. Then there’s the impoverished Ewell family dwelling — where the adult Mayella lives with her siblings and drunk, abusive father Bob. Boo and Bob “meet” during the novel’s famous conclusion.
In Elsa Morante’s History, Ida and her lovable son Giuseppe have to live in a shelter with many other adults and kids because of the ravages of war in 1940s Rome.
Cost-conscious college students and young adults sharing the same room or apartment appear in numerous fictional works, including Margaret Atwood’s debut novel The Edible Woman. Protagonist Marian shares a Toronto apartment with Ainsley — and the depiction of their interesting, at-times funny friendship is an early example of Atwood’s novel-writing skill.
What are your favorite literary works featuring adults (other than spouses/romantic partners) living together?
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