Fiction’s Great and Grating Parental Expectations

You want drama in literature? How about story lines that focus on parents’ expectations for children, and the success or failure of their kids to meet those expectations. Also, does what the parents want match what their daughters or sons want? Often not.

Expectations are a big issue in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child — the J.K. Rowling/Jack Thorne/John Tiffany play of which I’m currently reading the script in book form. The action takes place about 20 years after the amazing events in the seven Harry Potter novels, and Harry’s son Albus is having a heckuva time living up to his heroic, ultra-famous father.

In L.M. Montgomery’s The Blue Castle (which features a different “castle” than Hogwarts), the narrow-minded mother has little confidence in the social and intellectual abilities of her bright daughter Valancy Stirling. Valancy proves her wrong by showing she’s an absolutely amazing person after leaving her oppressive childhood home.

Did the mother expect less of Valancy because of Valancy being a daughter rather than son? That reminds me of how the Tulliver parents in George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss give their son Tom more respect, education, and responsibility than their much smarter, much nicer, stifled-in-her-ambition daughter Maggie. Patriarchy, sexism, and all that in what is probably Eliot’s most autobiographical novel.

On the more positive side, the man (not her biological father) who raises the title character in Fanny Burney’s 18th-century novel Evelina is a really nice guy who thinks the world of Evelina. While having some trepidation about her going to the big city (London), he believes she will do well in life. Evelina proves him correct.

The father-daughter dynamic is not as pleasant in Henry James’ Washington Square, in which Dr. Sloper is mean and controlling with his rather dull, dutiful daughter Catherine. Obviously, the dad doesn’t have high expectations for Catherine, who, while ending up having a mostly unhappy life, does become a more independent person who stands up for herself.

Another example of the father-son dynamic (besides Harry Potter and Albus) involves Gabriel Grimes and his stepson John in James Baldwin’s Go Tell It On the Mountain. Gabriel is a religious hypocrite who expects John (a semi-autobiographical teen version of Baldwin) to be obedient and religious. The conflicted John sees Gabriel for the nasty man he is, but does have sort of a religious conversion that the reader figures will not last long.

Then there’s the obnoxiously “manly” dad (Henry Stamper) who expects little of his weak-ish younger son (Leland) in Ken Kesey’s Sometimes a Great Notion. Leland subverts that expectation, but only a little.

What have been some of the memorable novels for you that touch on this topic?

My 2017 literary-trivia book is described and can be purchased here: Fascinating Facts About Famous Fiction Authors and the Greatest Novels of All Time.

In addition to this weekly blog, I write the award-winning “Montclairvoyant” topical-humor column for Baristanet.com. The latest weekly piece, about both overdevelopment and a curriculum that downplays novels, is here.

41 thoughts on “Fiction’s Great and Grating Parental Expectations

  1. After some thought, I feel the ultimate example of books on this topic remains to be seen, unless and until my own biographically-based fiction is written and published. Tentative title: “How to Turn A Million Dollars of Potential into a Superfluous Shoestring.” Alt title: “White Loafer”.

    Liked by 1 person

    • If you’re being self-deprecating there, jhNY, your reading knowledge and music experience and other things you’ve done with your life are impressive. Funny alternate book title, but, seriously, from the stellar quality of writing I’ve seen in your comments, there might be a great book in you. Of course, those darn things can be agonizing to write and market (as you undoubtedly know and have also heard from your author spouse).

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      • I was but trying for laffs.

        If I ever write a novel, I hope to disinclude as much biographical material as possible, preferring my fiction fictional. As for marketing, I wouldn’t aspire to much past ‘books on a blanket’, and even there, the blanket is optional, so long as I’m selling someplace before the sidewalk ends.

        But your kind words, as always, are much appreciated.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Thanks, jhNY — and you’re welcome! Sometimes it’s hard for me to interpret whether people are being lighthearted or not when I’m not seeing facial expressions or hearing tone of voice. 🙂

          I greatly admire novels with little or no autobiographical elements — they must be harder to write in certain ways.

          As for your wry words about marketing, well, Amazon is sort of a virtual blanket to put books on. A VERY LARGE virtual blanket…

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  2. Howdy, Dave!

    — What have been some of the memorable novels for you that touch on this topic? —

    “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way”: Leo Tolstoy’s absolutely memorable, definitely hyperbolic and positively debatable beginning of his awesome “Anna Karenina” should have opened a book I could cite as my reasonable answer to your reasonable question, but the novel actually focuses more on parent-parent relationships (e.g., Anna-Alexey Alexandrovitch Karenin, Anna-Alexey Kirillovitch Vronsky) and less on parent-child relationships (e.g., Anna-Seryozha, Anna-Annie, Karenin-Seryozha, Vronsky-Annie).

    So I instead will go with Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon,” which hits all the right notes in tune with your topic, given its lyrical accounts of plenty of father-daughter, mother-son, father-son and mother-daughter relationships among the living — and nonliving — Dead, grateful or otherwise. And the same author’s “Sula” is no slouch in terms of its attention to parent-child relationships, either.

    (The Milkman Cometh.)

    J.J. (Alias MugRuith1)

    Liked by 1 person

    • J.J., great/eloquent thoughts on two great/relevant-to-this-topic novels!

      “Sula,” which I read a couple of years ago, is an underrated early Toni Morrison book that could also fit well with a “complicated friendship” blog post.

      And, yes, Tolstoy’s memorable “Anna Karenina” line is indeed extremely debatable — aka, WRONG. 🙂

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      • — “Sula,” which I read a couple of years ago, is an underrated early Toni Morrison book that could also fit well with a “complicated friendship” blog post. —

        I’ll say.

        — And, yes, Tolstoy’s memorable “Anna Karenina” line is indeed extremely debatable — aka, WRONG. —

        But it sounds so good . . .

        Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, debrarussellblogsfromdownunder! I read “David Copperfield” so long ago that I forget the details, but, from what you write, it sounds like a great example of a novel that fit this theme! (BTW, as you probably know, Charles Dickens gave that semi-autobiographical book’s title character the same initials as himself, only reversed. 🙂 )

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Amy Tan’s novels all seem to center on parental expectations/shortcomings. The girls always seem to have a good ending, despite frequent issues they have to overcome.
    The Secret Life of Bees is another example. The girl leaves her abusive father and finds loving mother figures in the beekeepers.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Excellent examples, energywriter! I haven’t read “The Secret Life of Bees” yet, but the two Amy Tan novels I’ve gotten to (“The Joy Luck Club” and “The Kitchen God’s Wife”) definitely have “parental expectations/shortcomings” themes, as you phrased so well — of course with an Asian/Asian-American focus. Parent-child dynamics can play out somewhat differently with different ethnicities, though of course there are more universals than not.

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      • I agree with energywriter about “The Secret Life of Bees,” and though I had such great parents and siblings, I really wanted to go live with the beekeepers. I also have been on the lookout for a Black Madonna, even though I’m not at all religious myself. I even went to St. Jude stores, but on reflection the idea that they might have a black any religious saint, or Mary, or even Jesus, was laughable now looking back!

        Liked by 1 person

          • Yes, well as Megyn Kelly on Fox News so inelegantly put it, and I’m paraphrasing it because I don’t feel compelled to look it up, she said that Santa is white, just like Jesus. Two lies in just one short sentence — amazing! Dave, I’ve studied a lot about religious history, and I agree that some are doubtful that Jesus even existed, but if he did, he’s certainly middle-eastern in appearance.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Thanks, Kat Lib! It’s funny how Megyn Kelly is not considered as right-wing as she really is. I guess because she left Fox News, and because she has been somewhat outspoken about the VERY legitimate issue of sexual harassment. But I’m still not a fan.

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              • Yes, the floodgates about sexual harassment have opened, and I’d say it’s about time. I’m lucky in that the closest I’ve gotten to that was a much older man I worked with called me “Babycakes.” Fortunately, I was strong enough to say to him, “Don’t ever call me that again!” and he never did. Of course it helped that he had no power over me, but I’d like to think I would have said the same thing even he were a boss.

                Liked by 1 person

                • DEFINITELY about time, Kat Lib. Of course, actually long past time. Glad that you haven’t had to deal with sexual harassment as much as many other women have, and that you were firm with that jerk that one time. Unfortunately, as we all know, creeps — especially powerful creeps a la Weinstein, Trump, O’Reilly, Ailes, etc. — often ignore the pushback from women they harass.

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        • Black Catholic saint: St. Martin de Porres. There are others, but this is one I know.

          I think I remember a Black Madonna in the Russian Orthodox Church– an icon with supposedly miraculous powers, but from what I can recall, She wasn’t really a Black, but darkly olive-complected, and the overall color scheme of the painting was dark.

          Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Dave,
    I also thought of “Harry Potter” this week, though not so much the play (which I’ve read and loved). There is a heavy influence on family in the series, even if it’s not necessarily parental expectation. It seems that most of the characters have parents and / or families who are very important to the story, or to the development of the character. Harry’s entrance into the wizarding worlds is very much shaped by how his parents die. Poor Ron has so much family around him that he struggles to have any individuality. Hermione’s ‘mixed blood’ is a source of agitation for her on more than one occasion. There is a lot of pressure on Draco because of who his parents are, Neville struggles with not being a very good wizard, despite being from one of the strongest wizarding families, and even You-Know-Who struggles with his parentage. One of the things that I love about the Potterverse is the feeling that both the wizarding and muggle worlds have been around for a really long time. There is a history before Harry arrives at Hogwarts, and a future once he’s gone. Which is one of the things that made “The Cursed Child” a real pleasure to read.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi Sue! Fantastic take on “the Potterverse”! J.K. Rowling’s amazing creation really does have a huge family component, and part of a family component obviously involves parental expectations.

      Much of “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” is excellent, and I love unexpected elements such as Harry’s son Albus being sorted into Slytherin, Draco’s son Scorpius being such a good guy, etc. Still, I’m not loving the play (which I’m about 80% through) quite as much as the seven novels. Maybe that’s partly because I’m reading it in book form rather than seeing it live on stage; plays are obviously at their best when performed.

      But I’m looking forward to seeing how “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” ends!

      Liked by 1 person

        • Thank you, energywriter! I just finished the play about a half hour ago, and I agree that the ending was pretty good. And I also agree that the novels were much more compelling — not only because plays are designed to be watched (as I mentioned before) but because J.K. Rowling was the sole author of the novels while the play, though based on a Rowling idea, was written by Jack Thorne. He’s good, but no J.K.! 🙂

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          • It took me a while to get into the format of the play, but once I did, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed it. Of course there was the surprise of Harry’s son not being Harry-like, and eek! I liked a Malfoy! I think what really got me though was the heartache of the alternate story lines. Even though I knew they’d have to work out ok, I found them really moving.

            Liked by 1 person

            • Yes, Sue, the alternate timelines were really intense and interesting!

              Overall, I did like “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” a lot. But J.K. Rowling’s seven Potter novels set a very high bar that couldn’t be matched.

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  5. New comment, Word Press!

    Dave, once again (I think) Shallow Reflections beat me to the “Pride and Prejudice” reference of Mrs. Bennet. So I’ll go with “Persuasion” and the expectations that her father, Sir Walter Elliot and her mother’s good friend, Lady Russell (who became a mother figure for Anne) that persuaded her not to marry her true love, Wentworth, when he hadn’t the money or Navy rank to do so. Things changed, of course, once he arrived back in Somerset seven or so years later, as a man of some wealth and had attained the rank of Captain after the war. Towards the end of the novel, Sir Walter chastised Anne for refusing to meet with their noble relatives in Bath, because she had already an engagement to go see her invalid friend, Mrs. Smith.

    Again, in “Mansfield Park,” it was one of Fanny Price’s aunts (Aunt Norris), who had the expectation that Fanny when she came to live with them was treated as a servant, because her own mother lived in poverty and was happy to send her off to Mansfield Park.

    Finally, for now at least 🙂 I go back to one of my favorite modern novels, “Where’d You Go Bernadette,” that featured a 15 year-old (Bee), her father who worked for Microsoft, and her mother, a former well-known architect, who had developed a crippling case of agoraphobia. Bernadette relies on a personal assistant in India to do the most mundane tasks, even ordering take-out pizza. When Bee aced her report card, she asked her parents, who had agreed to take her on a trip anywhere in the world if she did that, she selects Antartica, of all places. Bernadette orders appropriate clothing for such a trip from her personal assistant, then suddenly disappears. Where Did She Go? This was a very funny, yet moving novel, especially the relationship of Bee between her and both parents.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Two more excellent parental-expectation examples from Jane Austen’s work! Thanks, Kat Lib! What Anne’s father put her through in “Persuasion” — sheesh. He’s definitely an unsympathetic character (like Mrs. Norris in “Mansfield Park”) who looks even worse compared to Ms. Elliot — my favorite Austen “heroine,” and I’m sure the favorite of many other fans of that author. (This is the 200th-anniversary publishing year of “Persuasion”!)

      And a great, intriguing description of Maria Semple’s “Where’d You Go, Bernadette” — still prominently on my to-read list if my local library ever has it the same day I’m there. Where’d you go, “Where’d You Go, Bernadette”? 🙂

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      • This a new post:
        Ha! Dave, I hope one day you finally find this novel about Bernadette in your library, because I think it well worth the wait! On a more serious note, I keep thinking of my parents while reading this blog, as well as many of the books mentioned. So once again I’ll go off on a personal note about my own parents, who were truly wonderful. They shared a love of gardening, birds and golf. They wanted all of their kids to get a college degree. My mom was a great cook and baker, and my dad could actually make sundials using a slide rule. They both passed on to their six kids a love of reading and music, and my mom of art and other creative pursuits. After my mom died, we had her and dad’s ashes mixed together and per their instructions, had their joint memorial service on a pontoon boat in a bay off of Lake Vermilion in Northern Minnesota, near where they grew up and had spent their honeymoon. As part of the service, my sister read the poem below as I strew their ashes, and my sister-in-law threw two white roses after them. As this was happening, a bald eagle flew overhead across the bay.

        Poem “I Saw Two Clouds at Morning”

        I saw two clouds at morning,
        Tinged with the rising sun,
        And in the dawn they floated on,
        And mingled into one:
        I thought that morning cloud was blest,
        It moved as sweetly to the west.

        I saw two summer currents
        Flow smoothly to their to their meeting,
        And join their course, with silent force,
        In peace each other greeting:
        Calm was their course through banks of green,
        While dimpling eddies played between.

        Such be your gentle motion,
        Till life’s last pulse shall beat;
        Like summer’s beam, and summer’s stream,
        Float on, in joy to meet
        A calmer sea, where storms shall cease–
        A purer sky, where all is peace.

        JOHN GARDINER BRAINERD

        Liked by 1 person

        • What a poignant, beautiful poem, Kat Lib. As was the memorial service you described so well — sad, yet inspiring. Wonderful that you had such great parents with so many appealing interests.

          Yes, novels with parental-expectation themes can definitely make us think of our own parents — for better (as with your mom and dad) or for worse (as with some not-as-good parents).

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  6. Pride and Prejudice comes to mind, Dave, with Mrs. Bennet determined to have her five daughters marry well. And her high expectations were to have them financially secure, not necessarily in a love match, something Elizabeth was not willing to settle for. One of my favorite books!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, Shallow Reflections! A novel perfect for this theme! Thanks for mentioning it.

      I also love “Pride and Prejudice,” but, as I might have written before, I like Jane Austen’s “Persuasion” a bit better. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Kira! I’ve read the first two titles you listed — and they are terrific examples of novels that include parental-expectation themes.

      I realize that “Sons and Lovers” is most known for its somewhat risqué elements (for its time), but to me the most compelling parts of that book were the mother-son conversations/interactions (and occasionally the father-son dynamic).

      And “Middlesex” of course is fascinating in its depiction of the gender-confused protagonist, and that protagonist’s dealings with family and others. Also the case in Abigail Tarttelin’s “Golden Boy,” with its intersex main character.

      Liked by 1 person

    • True, Bill. Huck was not exactly into education and being “civilized.” But he did act rather maturely in a good chunk of “Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” especially in his interactions with Jim.

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      • But you might also say that Huck exceeded Pap’s expectations, by adopting, though in only small ways, the manners of the respectable community (such as Aunt Polly was able to penetrate his natural resistance), and beyond, by arriving, through his own wits and observations, at the conclusion of those (mostly Northerners) who believed that slavery was immoral.

        Jim was not the only occupant of that raft who felt most free when away from society on shore.

        Liked by 1 person

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