Reconstructing the Family in Contemporary American Fiction

Reconstructing the Family in Contemporary American Fiction

Reconstructing the Family in Contemporary American Fiction

Reconstructing the Family in Contemporary American Fiction

Synopsis

"The prevalence of alternative families in contemporary American fiction is significant given the concern and confusion precipitated by the decline in traditional nuclear families in recent decades. John Irving's The World According to Garp, Alice Walker's The Color Purple, and E. L. Doctorow's Ragtime contain compelling utopian depictions of alternative families that are more egalitarian than traditional nuclear families. John Updike's Rabbit, Run and Rabbit Redux are interesting counterpoints to the optimistic novels of Irving, Walker, and Doctorow. Although Updike depicts the traditional nuclear family as the site of considerable ennui and unhappiness, attempts to flee or reconstruct the family in his novels are staggeringly destructive." Title Summary field provided by Blackwell North America, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Excerpt

Leo Tolstoy begins his epic novel, Anna Karenina, with a deceptively simple observation: "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." While my focus is contemporary American rather than nineteenth-century Russian fiction, Tolstoy's oft-quoted maxim is an interesting point of entry into a discussion of representations of the family in fiction. Unhappy indeed are those in Tolstoy's novel who yearn for freedoms or relationships that challenge societally imposed and enforced codes of conduct. and happy are those who accede to what Tolstoy depicts as self-evident, eternal laws governing human behavior and family life.

There is little about the social organization of the American family in the late twentieth century that appears to be self-evident. We live in an era that has witnessed the decline of the traditional nuclear family (a male "provider," his wife, and their biological children). the number of American households that can be defined as traditional nuclear families declined from 60 percent in 1955 to 7 percent in 1985. There is little disagreement among social historians that the accelerating loss in the last few decades of what we have idealized as a permanent and universal familial arrangement is a kind of "crisis." This widespread alarm is not surprising, given that even those who were not raised within traditional households have internalized the rigid, societally prevalent ideal of the monolithic family. We are convinced that the traditional nuclear family is a "happy" family; we suspect that deviations from or alternatives to this household arrangement are somewhat unfortunate, unhealthy, or even unnatural.

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