As Thanksgiving Day nears, thoughts turn to tender family bonds. People will gather with those dear to them, and be bathed in the love emanating from their parents, siblings, children, and various relatives.
Ideal, heartwarming, Norman Rockwell-ish Thanksgiving gatherings do exist — and it’s wonderful when they happen. But many a family resides in the dysfunctional spectrum, so I’ll perversely mark Turkey Day 2015 by discussing fictional kin that put the flaw in flawed — and not just on the fourth Thursday of November.
Dysfunctional families in literature are hard to resist for several reasons. Reading about negative dynamics is often more interesting and dramatic than reading about positive stuff. Leo Tolstoy kind of addressed that when he opened Anna Karenina with this line: “All happy families are like one another; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I don’t agree with the first part of that sentiment, but…
Also, we might have a satisfying feeling of superiority if our real-life families are (allegedly) more together than the train-wreck households we see in some novels. And we might learn something from literature about how to avoid or reduce dysfunction in our own clans.
What causes real or fictional families to live lives of not-so-quiet disapprobation? The reasons can include financial stress, mental issues, medical problems, drunkenness, drug addiction, infidelity, tragic events, sibling rivalry/jealousy, couples being mismatched, parents raised by problematic parents who repeat the pattern by problematically raising their own progeny, parents who want their children to be like them rather than let them be themselves, parents who are too strict, parents who play favorites with their kids (perhaps for sexist reasons), and so on.
Families that range from troubled to totally cray-cray abound in quite a few older novels now considered classics. Among those books are Honore de Balzac’s Eugenie Grandet, Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights, Anne Bronte’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, Herman Melville’s Pierre, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, Emile Zola’s The Drinking Den, Henry James’ Washington Square, Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Edith Wharton’s Ethan Frome, John Steinbeck’s East of Eden, and James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain.
Dysfunctional families also frequent a number of more recent novels, including Paul Theroux’s The Mosquito Coast, Isabel Allende’s The House of the Spirits, Nadine Gordimer’s My Son’s Story, Anne Rice’s The Witching Hour, Anne Tyler’s Ladder of Years, Margaret Drabble’s The Witch of Exmoor, Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things, Barbara Kingsolver’s The Poisonwood Bible, Margaret Atwood’s The Blind Assassin, Ian McEwan’s Atonement, Zadie Smith’s On Beauty, Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom, J.K. Rowling’s The Casual Vacancy, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s The Lowland.
With the rise of modern psychology, novelists these days have even more tools to depict and dissect troubled relationships and try to address the Rodney King-like plea of why we can’t just get along.
Heck, some households this week might even spar about roast turkeys vs. Tofurky vegetarian roasts. 🙂
Which of literature’s dysfunctional families have you found memorable?
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I’m writing a literature-related book, but still selling Comic (and Column) Confessional — my often-funny memoir that recalls 25 years of covering and meeting cartoonists such as Charles Schulz (“Peanuts”) and Bill Watterson (“Calvin and Hobbes”), columnists such as Ann Landers and “Dear Abby,” and other notables such as Hillary Clinton, Coretta Scott King, Walter Cronkite, and various authors. The book also talks about the malpractice death of my first daughter, my remarriage, and life in Montclair, N.J. — where I write the award-winning weekly “Montclairvoyant” humor column for The Montclair Times. You can email me at firstname.lastname@example.org to buy a discounted, inscribed copy of the book, which contains a preface by “Hints” columnist Heloise and back-cover blurbs by people such as “The Far Side” cartoonist Gary Larson.