Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study

Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study

Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study

Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study


The development in recent years of the intersections between the family and literary study continues to emerge as one of the most productive and illuminating arenas of contemporary critique. In addition to addressing the family dynamic through which a given literary character develops a fully realized sense of self, family systems therapy allows readers to examine the patterns by which characters function in their larger intimate systems, whether those systems be social, institutional, or even global. As the intellectual foundation for the forms of therapy practiced by the majority of contemporary American and European psychotherapists, the study of family systems theory and its intersections with literary works affords readers with an illuminating glimpse into the terminology and processes involved in this dynamic form of critique. Perhaps most significantly, family systems therapy allows critics to consider the distinctly social interactions that characterise our pathways to interpersonal development and selfhood. John V. Knapp is Professor of English, with a joint appointment in modern literature and in teacher education, at Northern Illinois University. Kenneth Womack is Assist


John V. Knapp

As fast as thou shalt wane, so fast thou grow’st,
In one of thine, from that which thou departest,
And that fresh blood which youngly thou bestow’st
Thou mayst call thine, when thou from youth convertest.
Herein lives wisdom, beauty, and increase,
Without this, folly, age, and cold decay.

—Shakespeare, Sonnet 11

This could be the start of something big!

—Steve Allen

IN APRIL OF 1998, KENNETH WOMACK AND I EDITED A SPECIAL ISSUE OF Style (31.2) entitled “Family Systems Psychotherapy and Literature/Literary Criticism.” Although several individuals had published essays or book chapters developed, more or less, from what we now call a family systems therapy (or FST) perspective, this issue of Style was the first attempt at consolidating a number of divergent FST-oriented critical essays in a single volume. Perhaps more importantly, this issue demonstrated exactly how wide ranging the several FST models could be for literary study.

Our hope then was that the Style volume would tempt the critical appetites of other literary scholars into sampling the fascinating wares inside. The response has been gratifying. Many individuals—literary academics, critics, students of literature, and family therapists—have composed a variety of practical analyses of literary works from this social-psychological perspective. As the new kid on the literary criticism block, FST has also generated much interest, theoretically, in those scholars employing psychological literary theory—as may be seen in the diver-

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