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Do We Put the Domestic on a Pedestal?

by BLH on January 7th, 2013


 Do we celebrate the family
as an unquestionable good?

Books these days are products of the society in which they’re written, just as all books have been since books started getting written. The thing I notice increasingly about books of our time is how they value the domestic and domestic values as the highest good. By the domestic, I’m referring to the values that place the family, the home, and their harmony as the highest good.

Let me give you an example. A contemporary novel might follow a troubled family with truly toxic relationships. Maybe one sibling has a terrible influence on another; he lies, manipulates, withholds love in exchange for money or support, etc. Maybe he does this relentlessly, and we learn throughout the story that this character is unlikely to change. And yet — by the end of the story, we’re almost certain to see the main character still trying to make peace with this character, even indulging his behavior yet again, in some way tolerating the abuse for the sake of family. Whether this is successful or not, this is going to be portrayed as the desirable outcome in a contemporary novel. Have you seen this trend?

And how many recent novels have you read that show our hero breaking away from his family and cutting ties, and showing this as a liberating choice? I’m sure there are stories out there, but they’re few and far between. The clarion call of family as good has stamped out the possibility of other voices, other stories. In some ways, the values I’m seeing in many contemporary stories take the family=good thesis as whole-heartedly as do the novels of the 1950’s and earlier. We’re seeing a backlash against the devil-may-care abandonment or liberation of the sixties and seventies.

There’s something a little disheartening when writers feel afraid to show the rupture of a family as a good thing because it might make their characters less relatable. Is it now true in life as well as in fiction that it is better to tolerate abuse or endure agony than to break apart a family? We see this message hammered home in television and movies; this message has thoroughly invaded books as well. I saw this when watching the film Lincoln this weekend; it was a fascinating and well-made movie, but in places it seemed to imply that Lincoln was a great figure and deserving of awe not for all his great ideas, but because he was a kind and loving father (according to the movie).

Is there no more room for the truly transgressive novel, the one that puts liberation or disharmony at the heart of things? That’s the question I’m struggling to answer in my own novel, but it’s something you can be thinking about as well. Do you assume family to be a constant and unquestionable good in your writing? Do parents or siblings getting along seem to be most important, or the way that you show someone as a “good” or “bad” person? Maybe it’s time to be a little more transgressive, and to show that there just might be an alternative — a life in which family obligation is not the highest good, but just one more fraught thing we carry with us through life. Couldn’t family obligation sometimes be an obstacle, a burden? I might add that this burden is one that is unequally shared; the very onerous job of caring for ill parents, for example, has been shown in many surveys to fall disproportionately to female children. Is it only the men who are allowed to go On the Road, and the women who will be ashamed to leave family behind?

From → The Writing Life

4 Comments
  1. Thank you so much for calling attention to the rarity of this theme! Makes me feel slightly less dark and crazy for going with it. In my contemporary WIP, the protag finds information that forces her to challenge her rose-colored view of her father. After much sleuthing, guilt and turmoil, she eventually decides her loyalty was totally misplaced and that she won’t continue to excuse his behavior just to keep the family together. I hope it shows that it’s possible to be strong and move on when a person you love becomes too, too toxic. Breaking him apart from the rest of the family in the end is definitely a good thing. There are plenty of stories out there that with variations of “stand by your fam,” but sometimes enough is enough and then you gotta do what you gotta do, you know?

  2. mary brady permalink

    Hurray! Both for your blog, BLH, & for the comment from L above. I’ve bored readers of WL for some time now with the grim circumstances of my own childhood: incest, physical violence, & emotional blackmail all fueled by alcohol & mental instability.
    Once I escaped this torture camp, I blocked the memories for years with substances until I finally made it into therapy, where I stayed for 10 years. My decision was to divorce my family in order to stay sane. The slightest brush with them threw me into deep, long depressions.
    I finally decided I could not afford the ‘down time.’ When one hour of family equals one month of depression, the choice becomes obvious.
    Luckily, I have not noticed this great emphasis on ‘family over all’–I think my natural ‘antennae’ cause me to close any such book within the first few pages. Or else I see the characters as ‘fantastic aliens’–I never knew a family that was devoted to itself in any way. My siblings & I were five ‘only’ children; had we banded together, we might have fought back. Our parents knew it was wise to divide & conquer…
    Anyway, in my experience, strangers are MUCH kinder & more respectful than any family member is. This seems true for all people. Only your family can REALLY screw you over. Outsiders would never dare do what a family member does with no qualms whatsoever…
    So, yes, combat this saccharine unreality that family is sacrosanct. Instead, show that, in life, it’s far better to go to the wells that are full, not the wells that are empty. Choose the people who deserve your love–not the pack of hyenas you happened to be born into…

    L&K–MaryB

  3. Very thought-provoking post. I almost never explore family dynamics in my own writing—usually family is just there with variations of strain at work. This made me think of the famous quotation from Tolstoy that all unhappy families are different in their unhappiness, so naturally there’s endless fodder there. Also, since most people have families they keep in contact with (or don’t keep in contact with, even) it’s a low-hanging fruit. I haven’t read Anna Karenina (the source of Tolstoy’s quotation), but I saw the recent film. It seemed that the social burdens of familial duty are largely what drive the story—to your point about obligation above.

    I also wonder about like contemporary versions of fairy-tales with evil step-mothers (not evil mothers) or stories throughout history that feature orphans. One exception is Roald Dahl’s Matilda; her parents are positively awful. No one would ever say to her, “But Mr. and Mrs. Wormwood are your PARENTS, Matilda.” Even more interesting: it’s a children’s novel.

    My contemporary lit chops are pretty lacking and my opinions aren’t fully formed, but my antennae are definitely up for novels that elevate family-is-good when they shouldn’t. Thanks for the post!

  4. Growing up, I was always attracted to movies like Yours, Mine and Ours, Houseboat, With Six You Get Eggroll etc. because I came from a difficult family. While these may be cheery representations of families, my novels present family life more as I lived it because that’s reality. Most families have issues of some type. They aren’t perfect!

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