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 The latest weekly piece, about both overdevelopment and a curriculum that downplays novels, is here.