Dysfunctional Families in Literature

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.

Yeah, right.

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?

(The box for submitting comments is below already-posted comments, but your new comment will appear at the top of the comments area — unless you’re replying to someone else.)

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 dastor@earthlink.net 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.

105 thoughts on “Dysfunctional Families in Literature

  1. Literature is so amazing. I’ve just finished re-reading “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and while it wasn’t as great as I remember, Wilde is so sharp that you can find a one line quote on pretty much every page. There is so much style and elegance. It obviously overdoses on beauty. The characters are intelligent and witty and even though I knew what was going to happen, I found it compelling. I’m also half way through “The Grapes of Wrath” which could not be further from “Dorian Gray”, and yet it’s still so great. It’s hard to believe that two collections of nothing but some pages with words on them can be so different, and so enjoyable. Just my random thought for the day…

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    • Very well said, Susan! It IS interesting how two authors or two novels can be so different yet both be excellent. Oscar Wilde and John Steinbeck, and “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Grapes of Wrath,” are two great examples of that. It’s almost like those books and writers are from different planets. “Grapes” is one of my very favorite novels; I’ve reread it enough that my paperback copy (dating back to high school) is crumbling.

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      • From the little that I’ve read, I understand why you called “Mockingjay” depressing. But it’s not NOTHING on “Grapes of Wrath”. Fortunately the Joads have talked about their plans in explicit detail, so I know that they’ll reach California just as the sun is rising and have a little white house built by sundown. They’ll feast on grapes and oranges and live happily ever after. They will, they will, they will!

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  2. ” we are formed by what we desire” says Billy Dean in ” in One Person ” by John Irving. The book is wriien as Billy Dean an adult and well known author in hs 70s grew up as a bisexual man in a totally disfunctional family. Grandpa always loved to dress as as woman but had no desire to be with a man was honest to be Billy’s role model. His mother was a drama queen had little love for her son, aunt is another character as so on….

    Happy Thanksgiving Dave and family and it was wonderful nto see you in another place.

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  3. Happy Thanksgiving to Dave and his merry family of followers, great topic for the week I hope all survive the day’s festivities unscathed by the inevitable crazy Aunt or Uncle that after too many wines or cans of beer extols the virtues of Ben Carson & Donald Trump after the turkey is done. A theme truly as old as story telling with such luminaries as Cain & Able or my favorite the House of Atreus as presented by Sophocles whom I believe JH already referenced. Hope to pop back in and discuss a rare gem, The Family Golovlyou by Mikhail Saltykov-Schebrin ,a 19th century Russian masterpiece that is criminally unread.

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    • Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, Donny!

      I’m thinking mashed potatoes would be as good as “White-Out” for erasing the cruel/outrageous Donald Trump and Ben Carson quotes Thanksgiving guests might repeat. 🙂

      Yes, the dysfunctional family in stories is as old as stories themselves.

      I look forward to hearing more about that underappreciated 19th-century Russian novel!

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  4. Seems a bit odd to make use of a word like ‘dysfunction’ to measure folks who lived as well as they were able before the word came to be. But heck, let’s!

    There’s your Hamlet and his kin, living and unquietly dead, and crooked Richard III who introduced an overabundance of wine to his cousins in their tender years, and what about Willie Winky-like Oedipus? Troubled family members, all.

    ps Happy Thanksgiving, Dave! And Happy Thanksgiving to all who read and write here!

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    • Well said, and drolly said! Yes, plenty of dysfunction in Shakespeare’s plays, even if the “d” word might not have been coined yet.

      A very Happy Thanksgiving to you, too, jhNY, and to all the commenters here! I’ll still be visiting this blog tomorrow, but perhaps not quite as much as usual. 🙂

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  5. Hi Dave, there have been a few comments over the past couple of days that I wanted to reply to, but somehow I didn’t get the chance. I hope you don’t mind me combining them all here in a rambly kind of way?

    I completely agree with your comments on “Harry Potter”. Was the first your favourite? I think mine would be one of the middle ones, probably “Order of the Phoenix”. Or maybe “Goblet of Fire”. Radcliffe, Watson and Grint were amazing. But I must add Tom Felton to the list. I know he gets overlooked because he’s the bad guy, but I think the character of Draco Malfoy was just as important, and just as expertly handled as the three heroes.

    Like you, I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies, but I was really intrigued by “the Hunger Games”. I’m sure there’s a technical term for the way that Suzanne Collins writes, but as I’m not a technical person, I’m just going to call it Really Present Tensey. There’s something about it that makes it read almost like a diary, and I found it kind of off putting. Knowing that there have been some pretty good Young Adult adaptations lately, I decided to give this one a go. Interesting movie. It wasn’t what I was expecting, which was an enjoyable surprise. But it also seemed to scream adaptation. I could almost hear a narrator’s voice saying “This makes more sense in the book”. Not that the movie didn’t make sense, but it was clear that a lot of things had been chopped out, even though I couldn’t tell what those things were. The second movie wasn’t as enjoyable, and didn’t have that adaptation feel to it, but I was shocked at the ending, and HAVE to know what happens, so I’m now a few chapters into “Mockingjay” even though I already had three books on the go. I think I’m going through a “Crime and Punishment” withdrawal and am having trouble settling.

    If you enjoyed “The Witching Hour” I think you’d enjoy the rest of the series. And for good or bad, the next two novels are much more ‘normal’. While that means that they don’t have quite the same beauty as “TWH” it also means that they don’t have the same ridiculous amount of detail, or the same length. You might need to buy some weights to make up for it 🙂 Oh, and talking about the Mayfairs and Lasher, and the weirdness that comes after, man are THEY dysfunctional. So I’m even kind of on topic 🙂

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    • Thanks, Susan! Combining things in a rambly kind of way is fine by me. 🙂

      The first “Harry Potter” book was my favorite in the sense of being first introduced to the amazing world J.K. Rowling created. But I agree that the middle installments of the series were better novels. To the two you mentioned I’d also add “The Prisoner of Azkaban.”

      Yes, Tom Felton was excellent! Actors and actresses who play villains do sometimes get overlooked. As you know, the movies also featured great performances in adult villain roles such as Draco’s father, Dolores Umbridge, Bellatrix Lestrange, and of course Voldemort.

      “Really Present Tensey” — love that phrase! And thanks for the interesting thoughts on “The Hunger Games” books vs. the movies. Wish I had seen the films so I could respond!

      After reading “Crime and Punishment,” a lot of novels seem…well…insubstantial.

      Great paragraph on “The Witching Hour” and its two sequels! “TWH” is indeed fantastic yet so long and over-detailed. Good to hear that the next two books are perhaps a little easier. Maybe I’ll at least try “Lasher” at some point. After all, Lasher did “try” (the patience) of many Mayfair women for three centuries! Yes, a VERY dysfunctional family. As for the weights — ha! — I’ve had a number of them to lift for years. So, returning “TWH” to the person who kindly lent it to me didn’t hurt any exercise regimen. And luckily the walk to the lendee’s house was downhill… 🙂

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  6. One of my favorite novels that falls into this category is William Faulkner’s “Absalom, Absalom!”. The Stupen family is a mess, with the daughter falling in love with, unknown to her, her half-brother. Even after realizing this, her full brother is eager for the two half-siblings to marry, perhaps as a reaction to his own incestuous feelings for his sister and romantic feelings for his half-brother. However, when he discovers that his half-brother is one-eighth black, the relationships must come to an end. (I guess incest was tolerable, but inter-racial relationships are unfathomable).

    Many of Faulkner’s books center on dysfunctional families, and I guess it is a prevailing theme in the Southern Gothic genre. In Erskine Caldwell’s “Tobacco Road”, the Lester family is so dysfunctional that it is comic (or at least tragically laughable).

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    • Great mentions of Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell, drb! “Southern Gothic” does indeed have many troubled families.

      I agree that “Tobacco Road” is “tragically laughable” (nice phrase!) — a hilarious novel amid the sadness. And that’s a superb description of “Absalom, Absalom!” — its family sounds about as dysfunctional as can be. There’s also incest in such novels as Anne Rice’s “The Witching Hour,” Jeffrey Eugenides’ “Middlesex,” and Cormac McCarthy’s “Outer Dark.” When that’s considered more tolerable than interracial relationships, well, how sick is that? 😦

      I’ll be reading a Faulkner novel soon — “As I Lay Dying.”

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      • I will say this about Faulkner. Every family in his fiction: Sartoris’s in ‘Flags in the Dust’, Compson’s in ‘Sound and the Fury’, Bundren’s in ‘As I Lay Dying’, Sutpen’s in ‘Absalom! Absalom!’ and the Snopes family in the Snopes trilogy (‘The Hamlet/The Town/The Mansion’) are highly dysfunctional. And because the characters reappear in so many of his books, we get to encounter it in many of them. Even with the ones that don’t focus on a family, you know that the solitary characters sprang out of one of them.

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          • I wouldn’t have known as much about Faulkner if I hadn’t taken a course on him in college. We read ‘Flags in the Dust’, ‘Sound and the Fury’, ‘As I Lay Dying’, ‘Sanctuary’, ‘Light in August’, ‘Absalom! Absalom!’, ‘Go Down, Moses’ and ‘The Hamlet’. We were on a quarter system back in the 70’s, so we’re talking reading all of those within a three-month time period. Plus, I took two other courses: a Philosophy course and one on Speech Communication (I believe that was the title of it; it was about public speaking). I remember finishing ‘The Hamlet’ about two in the morning about two days before the final exam. Coming out of that class I couldn’t help but see the world through Billy’s eyes and that’s a strange place to be.

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            • That sounds like quite a course, bobess48! I can see how you would have Faulkner and his characters on your brain!

              I took a lot of literature classes in college, but the only one that focused on a single author focused on Charles Dickens. I loved reading at least a half dozen of his novels in a three-month time period. 🙂

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              • One of my deficiencies in my undergraduate years was that I never got around to taking an English Novel course, I took a Shakespeare course on that same quarter system where I read six plays in three months, but never got to the English novels, which means that I missed out on Dickens, George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, D.H. Lawrence, and so many others. I read those authors by choice later, although I did squeeze in ‘Oliver Twist’ between one of those quarters, so I got one read by him before I graduated. I was also grateful that there was a Russian Masterpieces in English Translation course that exposed me to Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy and Chekhov. We read ‘Crime and Punishment’ but didn’t tackle either of Tolstoy’s big ones, reading the mediocre ‘Sebastopol Sketches’ instead. I also read French authors and other nationalities after graduation as well. It was a very Ameri-Anglo-centric curriculum in those days.

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                • I majored in English, so, unlike you, I focused too much on British novels — to the detriment of geographic reading diversity. But some of those British novels (by Austen, the Brontes, etc.) are so good. 🙂 I eventually read more authors from other countries (including the U.S.) in my leisure time.

                  Great that you took a Russian masterpieces course! It doesn’t get much better than Gogol, Dostoevsky, Tolstoy, and Chekhov.

                  Yes, it was a very Ameri-Anglo-centric curriculum back then.

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  7. What some people may consider a dysfunctional family may be fully functional from the point of view of individual families. I’m sure many of the people of Maycomb thought Atticus Finch’s single parent family was dysfunctional since he seemed to let those kids run wild and read just about anything they wanted. So there are varieties of functional and dysfunctional.

    However, your blog has motivated me, at least for now, to tackle a novel that has intrigued/repelled me for several years–Christina Stead’s ‘The Man Who Loved Children’ which, from everything I’ve read about it, concerns the ultimate dysfunctional family, The Pollits of Georgetown in the late 1930’s. The father, Sam Pollit (his full name is Samuel Clemens Pollit–I’ll see if that literary reference in his name has any significance later), is a supreme narcisssist, with a daughter from a first, deceased wife and five or six from his current wife. He literally calls himself the sun and says that when he looks at his kids they should shine. He alternately praises and humiliates his children and there’s no way anyone could see his treatment of his childen as anything other than abusive although I think it shops short of sexual molestation. His wife, Henny, is just as vile, a sour, bitter woman from a prosperous family who feels she’s been punished by the burden of this tyrant and his brood. The parents are in a war fought through the emissaries of their children. Makes me wonder who Henny could have even ‘accidentally’ gotten pregnant, but five times???? Sheesh! The first daughter, Louisa, an overweight, clumsy bookworm, is the only character that expresses a desire to be independent and break away from this family. It sounds like Sam Pollit makes Allie Fox of ‘The Mosquito Coast’ seem like a compassionate father. I know how you felt about that guy, Dave, so I won’t urge you to rush out and read this novel, even if I think it’s fantastic. My jury is still out and will be out for a while (I’m only on the third chapter and it’s a long novel) but from what I’ve read it has comic (if you look through the glass darkly) moments in it. I haven’t cracked a smile yet so we shall see what we shall laugh at. Anyway, thanks to your topic, THAT is my Thanksgiving holiday reading.

    It’s also supposedly pretty autobiographical, although Christina Stead, an Australian, transferred the family to the Washington D.C. suburbs. So I guess we get a good indication of what her holidays were like.

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    • Great point, Brian, that dysfunctional or functional can be in the eye of the beholder. The Finches were a loving, “together” family (with some sibling rivalry). But I can see — especially during a time (1930s) when there were stricter parenting practices and fewer “untraditional” families — that the Finch household would have seemed “strange” to some observers.

      “The Man Who Loved Children” sounds both fascinating and harrowing — and it’s not easy for anyone to make Allie Fox of “The Mosquito Coast” seem compassionate in comparison. 🙂 Thanks for the terrific summary of Christina Stead’s book! Glad my column led to your reading it, but I hope it doesn’t ruin your Thanksgiving. 🙂

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      • I’ve read a little bit more of it and Sam does have a creative way with words. He has his own language, especially when interacting with his kids–nicknames for each of them, mythological terms applied to mundane elements, etc. So I can see how that could be entertaining to a certain extent. Yet at the same time, you know there’s somethign disturbing about this picture.

        FYI; Here are a couple of pieces about the novel by Jonathan Franzen (who has been mentioned here) and Jane Smiley. I believe they have both specialized in dysfunctional families:

        Franzen’s article:

        http://www.nytimes.com/2010/06/06/books/review/Franzen-t.html?_r=0

        Smiley’s article:

        http://www.theguardian.com/books/2006/jun/10/featuresreviews.guardianreview29

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        • Thanks for your comment, bobess48, and for those two links. Christina Stead sounds like she was quite an interesting personality. And her novel sounds complex and original novel but not very marketable in its day.

          What do you think of famous authors (like Jonathan Franzen and Jane Smiley) writing book reviews? Obviously, they have “inside” expertise, but it means fewer paid book-reviewing opportunities for not-famous writers who know a heckuva lot about literature.

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          • I think the Jane Smiley piece on ‘Man Who Loved Children’ is actually an excerpt from her book, ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Novel’. I think Franzen at this point knows he can get away with writing just about anything because people read it and expect him to be either controversial or confrontational or deliberately provocative. I read ‘The Corrections’ and, while it was a well-written novel that held my interest I don’t see how he’s doing anything to warrant all the hype that’s been heaped on him (and which I’m pretty sure he’s pleased at getting; he seems to like attracting attention). That practice of well-known writers writing reviews has gone on for years. I suspect that editors and publishers think more people will read an article by the well-known writer Jonathan Franzen than they would the obscure, unknown Brian Bess.

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            • Yes, famous authors and other celebrities (none of whom need the money) are hired for book-review gigs to draw more readers. But it still irks me. 😦 Your reviews are superior to almost every review I see in The New York Times.

              All I’ve read of Jonathan Franzen’s is “Freedom,” which I thought was mostly excellent. But I think there are a number of living writers who are as good or better who don’t get quite the literary/”Great American Novelist” hype. Maybe it’s the hipster glasses… 🙂

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    • I also have “The Man Who Loved Children” on my to read list, however I read another Christina Stead “For Love Alone” a year or two ago and pretty much hated it. I will eventually get to “TMWLC” but with VERY low expectations. Would be interested to hear what you think when you’re finished.

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    • You’re right, Michele, that every family has a certain amount of dysfunction. But as we all know, some families are more off-the-charts than others. 🙂

      “Makes for an interesting picnic!” — love that line!

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  8. I must say the most entertaining dysfunctional family I’ve read is in “The Mysterious Affair at Styles” by Agatha Christie. The troubles found in rich families serve her well over the years after that with other families creating the mysteries she was good at writing.

    I also would put “Huckleberry Finn” on the list as Huck has a very broken family.

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    • Coincidentally, GL, I mentioned Huck Finn in a reply to Ana just before seeing your comment. 🙂

      I haven’t read “The Mysterious Affair at Styles,” but Agatha Christie was definitely skillful at depicting the dysfunctional rich. Great wealth can certainly help make families troubled, with all that jealousy, entitlement, etc.

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  9. Tom Canty in The Prince & The Pauper did not have an ideal family life. His father and grandmother drank and fought with everyone in the family as well as complete strangers. They used vile language in front of the children, and this was done during their drunk and sober states.

    In addition to being a drunkard who half-worked, Tom’s father was a thief. He taught his children how to beg, but they never stole. There was never enough food in the house, so many nights, Tom went to bed (his bed was actually a collection of hay and piled up rags) hungry.

    Tom really didn’t become a product of his environment. There was a local priest who taught him Latin and how to read and write. Tom also used day-dreaming as a form of escapism. The daydreams were based on stories of British nobility the priest told him. As you know, he went on to meet and exchange places with the prince, but for a awhile, the real Tom lived vicariously through the Prince of Wales based on these stories.

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    • Glad you got Mark Twain into the discussion, Ana! Family life was often absent or on the periphery of his novels, but it was there in “The Prince and the Pauper.” Very well described!

      In the Twain canon, Huck’s ne’er-do-well father made for another dysfunctional family, but Huck basically seemed to live on his own.

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      • I think you’re right about Mark Twain. The only work I can think of with some semblance of family life is Goldsmith’s Friend Abroad Again, a short story about a Chinese immigrant’s naïve beliefs on American tolerance during the 19th century. But even then, the wife and children are background characters and easily forgotten. They were mentioned once, maybe twice, and that was it.

        His earlier writings like The Celebrated Jumping Frog of Calaveras County were sort of light-hearted, but later on they became more serious. Maybe he became more cynical and didn’t want to include any aspects of family life in his novels and short stories….?

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        • Ana, I guess some authors weren’t/aren’t that much into depicting families — or romances, for that matter. Twain certainly found tons of other meaty things to focus on in his fiction: boyhood, adventure, racism, class differences, militarism, travel, etc.

          And Twain did indeed become more cynical, and “political,” as he got older. I read in a Twain biography that his wife’s influence kept his books from being even more cynical than they were. Still, “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court” was very strongly antiwar and despairing of humankind’s violence (though the Bing Crosby movie version sanitized a lot of that).

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              • You know what?? For some unexplainable reason, I’d like to see this. Connecticut Yankee is one of my top favs by Twain, right up there with Innocents Abroad. I’m curious to see how Bing Crosby pulled it off. Just ordered it from Amazon.

                I’ll go into it with no judgment. If I survived the 1951 and 1987 film versions for Native Son (I’ve stated multiple times how horrible those films were), I’m sure I can get through this one. But if this Bing Crosby movie leaves me catatonic, I reserve the right to totally place the blame on you for telling me about it in the first place:)

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                • Worth a try, Ana! The movie is kind of fun in its way — and I think it’s actually a musical. 🙂 Bing is certainly a more genial presence than the Twain character he plays — which means he’s not right for the part yet kind of right for the part given that the film took a lot of the darkness out of the book. (Well, except for that eclipse. 🙂 )

                  You can blame me for “Connecticut Yankee,” but you have to “blame” Rush for “Tom Sawyer”… 🙂

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                  • Musicals are nice. So far, I’ve seen a handful of local productions, Jesus Christ Superstar, Anne of Green Gables, Grease, and The Lion King. I think it’s the theatrical value and music scores that I like the best. AoGG was my favourite. The guy who played the fiddle was seriously into it. It’s like he was having a rock and roll moment, lol. So I’ll give Connecticut Yankee a try.

                    And don’t try to get on my own good side by mentioning Rush. If CY does not deliver, you’re STILL getting the blame:)

                    Almost time to begin my holiday travels. Enjoy your Thanksgiving, Dave.

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                    • Ana – I read Anne of Green Gables, based on your recommendation, prior to my trip to PEI. One of my biggest regrets of this enjoyable trip was that I did not get to see the Anne of Green Gables musical. It was not playing on the nights I was there. Speaking of musicals, there are several great shows based on some of my favorite literary novels, including “Les Miserables” and “Man of La Mancha” (Don Quixote). Both great shows if you get a change to see them.

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                    • Yes, Ana, musicals can be fun — once one gets past the suspension of belief when characters burst into song in the middle of a conversation. 🙂 Imagine how that would seem in real life!

                      That fiddle player sounds amazing — showing once again that there can be wonderful surprises on the stage. I think my favorite musical based on a novel might be “The Wizard of Oz.”

                      Was Rush’s original drummer Bing Crosby or John Rutsey? 🙂

                      Have a great Thanksgiving, too — and safe travels!

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            • Ha, Ana, I once won the first prize in a raffle for a Christmas basket at work probably 7 years ago, and in it was a DVD of “White Christmas” starring Bing Crosby, Danny Kaye, Rosemary Clooney and Vera-Ellen. It was as corny as most musicals were back then.

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              • Never saw that film, but I absolutely remember Ms. Clooney from the Rosemary Clooney show. I’m sure the powers-that-be have taken this website down, but I used to watch variety shows on a website dedicated to classic TV. Her show, the Jimmy Durante Show, Candid Camera, Lawrence Welk, Gene Kelly. Those shows sort of gave me some insight on 50s/60s era pop culture. I enjoyed them.

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      • The travails of poverty are alleviated, sometimes altogether, by the addition of a vital ingredient: money.

        Pap claimed he had rights to property; but judgments went against him. Had he prevailed in court, perhaps his manic bitterness might have been dissipated, and his great thirst at least tempered, if not to point of temperance. Then he might have made himself a better father to his son Huck.

        Then again, had young Hitler been accepted into an art academy….

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        • Thanks for the interesting thoughts on Huck Finn’s dad, jhNY.

          Yes, those “what ifs” really make a person think. If Lenin had lived longer, would Stalin have taken power? Would JFK really have ended his Vietnam War buildup if he had lived long enough to be reelected? (I doubt it.) Would RFK have made a better president than Nixon? (Yes, but he wouldn’t have been as good as some people fantasized.) If Bill Buckner had snagged that Mookie Wilson ground ball in the 1986 World Series, would he have been renamed B.B.: King? But I digress…

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  10. Dave, I immediately thought of plays instead of novels:
    “Long Day’s Journey Into Night” by Eugene O’Neill;
    “The Glass Menagerie” by Tennessee Williams;
    “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof” by Tennessee Williams; and
    “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” by Edward Albee.

    The causes of dysfunction in all of these families are unique – addiction, guilt, mental illness, jealousy, disappointment. It is emotionally painful to follow along.

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    • Yes, lulabelle — plays, too, and you mentioned some dysfunction classics! “Death of a Salesman” would be another of many examples.

      “It is emotionally painful to follow along” — great line. Yet if the writing is good enough, we almost HAVE to follow along. And your causes of dysfunction are exactly right. When someone is feeling guilt, jealousy, disappointment, etc., that person often consciously or subconsciously lashes out at and tries to pull down those close to her or him.

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  11. I mentioned V.C. Andrews in the last topic, but I’ll mention her again. “Flowers in the Attic” was book # 1 in the Dollanganger series. It started off normal enough: husband with a high-income career, a stay-at-home wife, a dog, and four children (older son, middle daughter, and a set of toddler twins). They had a nice home and cars, a vacation home, jewels, etc. The parents and children were all blond, attractive, and the family was the envy of the community. Picture perfect family life.

    The husband was killed in a car accident. Since the wife never worked outside the home and lived a sheltered life throughout childhood and adulthood, she had no clue on how to handle the financial responsibilities of home ownership. She didn’t know how to pay bills, how to deal with the various insurance policies, negotiating the mortgage, things of that nature. She reached out to her mother to help get her life back on track.

    You might think the rest of the book and series would focus on how the mother rebounded and got her life together; how the children progressed throughout this ordeal, what their feelings were, the support they showed their mother, and how their faith and courage got the family through their crisis. If you thought that, you would be wrong. The grandmother’s intervention was the worse thing that could have happened to the Dollanganger family. What happened afterwards was a series of disturbing events, including starvation, physical/mental/emotional abuse, incest, death of one of the children, and the revelation of dark and twisted family secrets.

    At the center of this dysfunction was their grandmother. She was very religious, very controlling. This is the type of grandma that you wish would get run over by a reindeer. If she was the grandmother from the Little Red Riding Hood story, you would root for the wolf to win. I can’t properly put into words how evil this woman was.

    This entire family unit was based on a lie. For decades, the grandmother put her family through pure hell just so she could put on the appearance of having a happy, successful, well-adjusted family. “Flowers in the Attic” is one of the most twisted tales I ever read…yet I was a member of the V.C. Andrews fan club for years. I can’t explain how her novels just draw you in.

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    • Wow, Ana — what a riveting/colorful description of that book and series! Thanks! The grandmother makes Cathy Trask of “East of Eden” sound like an angel in comparison. Now I want to read/am terrified of reading “Flowers in the Attic.” 🙂

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      • Cathy Trask was June Cleaver compared to Grandma Dollanganger. Forget ice, that woman had acid running through her veins.

        I should also mention that the attic in the title plays a significant role. Here’s a clue: good things didn’t happen in the attic.

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        • June Cleaver! Ana, you know almost everything about pop culture and culture/culture. Perhaps this blog’s first reference to the long-ago “Leave It to Beaver” sitcom. 🙂 And that “acid running through her veins” line was great.

          Sounds like an even creepier attic than the one in “Jane Eyre”…

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          • Well…Leave It to Beaver was before my time, but I’m aware how that show represents the idyllic time period that Americans cherish. June Cleaver was the standard of what American women should be, or at least model their lives after. The women we’ve mentioned are the complete opposite in every way imaginable, so…there you go:)

            Be careful with V.C. Andrews, Dave. Don’t get drawn in. You’ll never think about an attic the same way ever again.

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            • Yes, Ana, June Cleaver is not only a TV character but a symbol of a “white bread”/stay-at-home-mom America. Inside, June was probably chomping at the bit to get a paying job and to stop cleaning the house while wearing a dress and pearls. 🙂 I have a vague memory of actress Barbara Billingsley spoofing her June character a bit on a 1990s episode of “Roseanne.”

              As for spooky attics, luckily I’m now in an apartment rather than a house. The scariest thing about my former attic was bumping my head against the slanted ceiling. 🙂

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              • Dave, I well remember those sitcoms, who had these lovely women being nothing but the perfect wife and mother. I even think my own mother used to wear dresses and heels around the house, but not the pearls (at least in those days). But she managed to raise six kids, when our father traveled a lot for business. Of course, had he not been so successful, I don’t know how they could have raised six kids, but we all turned out reasonably well (and we’re all very much interested in books, music and art. But as someone who never married or had children, one of my earliest TV role models was Mary Tyler Moore, though Marlo Thomas preceded her as “That Girl,” but I don’t remember that series as much as MTM.

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                • “That Girl” and “The Mary Tyler Moore Show,” while tame in certain ways, were real TV breakthroughs in showing unmarried working women! And, as you say, the characters were real role models. Thanks, Kat Lib, for mentioning those shows — both of which I enjoyed, especially the latter series.

                  With a lot of kids (as was the case in your crowded household!), it can make sense for one parent to stay home if the other parent makes enough money. But of course back then it was the mother who stayed home 99.9% of the time. So things have improved in the 21st century. My wife is the “breadwinner” in the family while I’m the stay-at-home parent for my younger daughter as well as the cook, etc., and I’m fine with that. I suppose I would have been considered a freak during the “Leave It to Beaver” days. 🙂

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                  • Dave, I think it’s great that you are the stay-at-home dad for your daughter; we’ve come a long way from the days when I grew up, thank goodness! It was interesting that when I had my reunion with my childhood friends, most of them were divorced. The only one who’d never married was my childhood best friend. Most of my women friends today are single, never married or had children. Yet I’d like to think that we have just as fulfilled lives as those of who went the more traditional route.

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                    • Well said, Kat Lib! There are definitely all kinds of ways to have a fulfilling life. Being married and possibly having children is wonderful, but it can also take so much time and energy away from other things. It also requires a lot of compromising. And, as you note, so many people have been divorced. I think that’s a better alternative than staying in a bad marriage. I know it was for me!

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      • I wasn’t sure if I wanted to continue the series, but after the kids’ dramatic and heart-pounding escape from that attic, I had to proceed with book # 2.

        The children are grown up in “Petals on the Wind”, still emotionally and physically damaged from their childhood. Most of the plot is focused on their revenge. Their grandmother and mother suffer horribly. The oldest daughter’s payback was so vicious and unexpected, I was completely stunned.

        V.C. Andrews had a talent for captivating her readers.

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        • I wasn’t aware of “Petals on the Wind” until now. Thanks! Your description has definitely piqued my interest … whether I actually get around to reading it is another story altogether 🙂

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  12. Dave talking about dysfunctional family a small family yet unbelievably dysfunctional. “Low Land” by Jhumpa Lahiri.

    Two brothers when a college student in the late ’60s, Subhash’s younger, more daredevil brother, Udayan, becomes involved in the Maoist “Naxalite” political movement In 60`s India`a violent time in Bengal.
    Then there was Gouri , Udayan`s wife pregnant and widowed early on went to America to escape from all of that and unkind mother in law. She marries Subhash the other brother and later left five year old daughter Bela unattended at home when Subhash was at work and never looked behind , went on with her life for higher studies and other pleasures to suit herself.

    Then the story continues as Bela grows up knowing Subhash was her father until…

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    • Thanks, bebe, for the excellent summary of “The Lowland”! As you note, that novel was just full of family dysfunction — depicted so expertly by Jhumpa Lahiri. The scene near the end between the daughter and mother — wow! But it was nice that at least one good relationship eventually happened in Lahiri’s terrific book.

      I guess different political beliefs, or being political vs. apolitical, can also help cause family dysfunction.

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  13. Hi Dave, am once again emerging from a heavy load of work complicated by an ambulance ride to the ER… but I’m back once again, almost as good as new. 🙂
    You made me realize that perhaps I accept dysfunctional families as normal, because I could not think of many outstanding examples – only “The Forsythe Saga” came to mind because of its multi-generational family conflicts, some nastier than others. Then there’s Theodore Dreiser’s “Sister Carrie”, starting with her sister and brother-in-law who have a hard time accepting he life choices, and her home life with the men she lives with, especially the one she ends up marrying, is not exactly warm and fuzzy. I often wished I could see the world through Norman Rockwell’s eyes…

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    • Sorry about the medical emergency, Clairdelune. I hope you’re okay. And all that work once again, too. 😦

      There are so many dysfunctional families in literature and real life that they do indeed seem normal!

      Thanks for mentioning and expertly describing “The Forsythe Saga” and “Sister Carrie”! Dreiser did indeed give readers plenty of negative stuff to chew on, and did it so well. As we might have discussed before, he’s one of those novelists not as known and appreciated these days as he should be.

      I read a biography of Norman Rockwell a few years ago, and, as is often the case with creators like him, his personal life was hardly as sunny as his art. He did some some Civil Rights Era paintings that were less optimistic.

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      • Perhaps Rockwell’s sunny paintings were not a reflection of his reality but rather an expression of his heart’s desire… he tapped into that wishful part of our psyche that secretly wishes for a place resembling Lake Woebegon where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking – and vice versa! – most old people are wise, and all the children are above average or at least remarkably cute. 😉

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        • Eloquently said, Clairdelune! I think some novelists are/were like Norman Rockwell in that wishful respect. One example would be L.M. Montgomery, many of whose novels were at least partly sunny but who had a difficult life (including being married to a mentally ill man). Maybe Jane Austen also fits that category to some degree — her novels had happy endings, yet her life didn’t.

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          • Definitely correct about L.M. Montgomery and Jane Austen. I could not list any authors offhand, but am certain that there are several who wrote novels that did not reflect their personal reality, and not just in the case of a dark life ->sunny novels, but also in the reverse scenario of a sunny life->dark novels. It might be interesting to explore that topic!

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          • Dave, of course I had to reply to this since you mentioned Jane Austen. 🙂 I know that all of her main characters lived “happily ever after,” but many of her secondary characters did not. In “Sense and Sensibility,” Willoughby is plagued by having given up Marianne Dashwood to marry a rich heiress. He always felt disturbed by hearing about the beautiful Marianne, the wife of Colonel Brandon. In “Persuasion,” Sir Walter Elliot had only disdain for Capt. Wentworth when he and Anne fell in love. Yet things changed, once Capt. Wentworth came back from the wars with money and distinction. There was Mrs. Clay who was after Sir Walter, and his heir, William Elliot, was probably in love with Anne, yet ended up with Mrs. Clay so as to prevent Sir Walter from marrying again and saving his title and inheritance. In “Pride & Prejudice,” there is the awful romance between Lydia and Wickham, not to mention the very bad marriage of Mr. and Mrs. Bennet to begin with, nor the terrible marriage of Charlotte Lucas and the obsequious Mr. Collins. I will not be bringing up “Northanger Abbey” or “Emma,” but perhaps one of the best non-romantic ending came in “Mansfield Park,” when Mariah’s punishment for running away from her husband to be with Henry Crawford had to have her living with the odious “Aunt Norris” forever!

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            • Great points, Kat Lib, in a terrific comment! As you note, not all of Jane Austen’s characters ended up happy. And Austen did not shirk in depicting death, sadness, hypocrisy, materialism, etc., before the conclusions of her novels. You are an Austen expert!

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  14. Hi Dave, I think I mentioned just a few weeks ago the novel by Kevin Wilson, “The Family Fang.” The parents are performance artists, who use their two children as props in their performances (known as Child A – Annie, and Child B – Buster). When they are older, their parents disappear, but is this for real, or just another performance art stunt? This was turned into a movie this year, starring Nicole Kidman and Jason Bateman, who also directed the film. Another novel that came to mind was “We Were the Mulvaneys,” by Joyce Carol Oates. The family is a perfect rural family of three boys and one girl living on a perfect farm, until the daughter is raped by a family friend and the Mulvaneys’ perfect lives fall apart.

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    • I do remember you discussing “The Family Fang,” Kat Lib, and that novel sounds like a GREAT example of a dysfunctional (as well as very offbeat) family. Excellent description of it!

      Thanks, also, for the mention of that Joyce Carol Oates book. Sounds harrowing. One of these days I have to finally read an Oates novel; I can’t believe I haven’t yet. Which perhaps means my have-read list has some dysfunction… 🙂

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  15. Hi Dave … You can’t get more dysfunctional than the Ewells in “To Kill a Mockingbird”. I’ll try to think of some more. I’ve definitely read my share, as I’m drawn to books (and movies) about dysfunctional families … and that’s because everybody in my family is “crazy as bedbugs”, as my Aunt Bonnie used to say 🙂

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    • The Ewells in “To Kill a Mockingbird” — FANTASTIC example of a dysfunctional family, Pat. That racist/abusive dad — yikes!

      Funny description of your family, though of course the dysfunction is not funny. Like you, I know family dysfunction firsthand — when growing up and in my first marriage. 😦 I can see how reading about dysfunction in fiction can be perversely fascinating and maybe even therapeutic when one has experienced it in real life.

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