Academic journal article Style

Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study

Academic journal article Style

Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study

Article excerpt

John V. Knapp and Kenneth Womack, eds. Reading the Family Dance: Family Systems Therapy and Literary Study. Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2003. 333 pp. $55.00 cloth.

As the volume under review demonstrates, Family Systems Therapy (FST) offers a welcome and refreshing alternative in psychologically oriented literary criticism, still dominated by the speculative and outdated Freudian psychoanalysis on the one hand and by the even more speculative and for the most part unintelligible Lacanian theory on the other. In contrast to traditional psychoanalysis, preoccupied with the intrapsychic, unconscious processes of the individual, FST examines the growth and differentiation of personal identity within the interactive context of the family, universally the most important, formative, and primary social environment.

FST may be "the new kid on the literary criticism block" (13), but as John Knapp explains in his comprehensive if rather sketchy introduction, the approach draws on the already established methodology in family-oriented psychotherapy, notably the Milan School of the 1980s. FST also incorporates the formal language of systems theory by viewing families as self-regulating, interactive systems whose members keep exchanging information and energy, both to maintain homeostatic balance within the family and to develop and protect their individual identities. Given the novelty of the FST approach to literature, Knapp's informative and compact introduction (only thirteen pages) should in my view be more extensive, even at the cost of eliminating one of the essays in the volume, to treat the subject more comprehensively for the sake of readers unfamiliar with FST. Also, both in the introduction and in most of the essays, quite important theoretical discussions are often relegated to the notes rather than addressed in the main text. Perhaps a more exhaustive introduction containing all the needed theory would be a better solution than having the theoretical debates scattered throughout the book in between the textual analyses and in the endnotes.

The volume is logically divided into three parts, which focus on literary representations of family dynamics starting with the individual and his or her search for identity while still entangled in family life (Part I), then moving to the wider context of the community and its pressures upon the family (Part II), to the even broader exploration of the ways in which culture manifests itself in family systems (Part III).

Part I thus starts with an engaging essay by Kenneth Womack on the coming of age of the heroine of Forster's A Room with a View. The critic emphasizes on the one hand the importance of art, literature, and music in the formation of Lucy's adult persona and on the other hand the predominantly patriarchal nature of the Edwardian social environment in which Lucy strives to individuate her maturing personality. Womack concludes that Lucy ultimately fails or at best achieves only a qualified psychological differentiation from the family and the extrafamilial systems in which she was reared, largely because of her female status and the social pressure to conform to men's image and approval of a young woman in the Edwardian era. Rosemary Babcock's essay on Jane Eyre successfully challenges the feminist assertion that marriage in general and the Victorian marriage in particular was by definition oppressive to women, by emphasizing the degree of psychological independence, equality, and genuine companionship that Jane and Rochester, despite their initial social inequality, find in their relationship and eventual marriage. Gary Storhoff s essay in turn applies the FST methodology to the multicultural texts of Maxine Hong Kingston's The Woman Warrior ana to the film Dim Sum (dir. Wayne Wang, 1987), to stress how family conflicts transcend restrictive racial (here Chinese) boundaries and reveal crosscultural, universal themes: battles for power and dominance, the pains of individuation, family fragmentation, the desire to reconcile the generations, and so on. …

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