Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Modern Parenthood and Orphan Literature

Terry Castle has written a brilliant essay in which she contrasts the relationships her students have with their own parents to the dismal appearance of parents in the eighteenth-century literature she teaches at Stanford. After reading that a third of students at Harvard speak to or message their parents daily, she asks her students how often they communicate with their own parents:
So how often do my students—mostly senior English majors, living in residential dorms—text or talk to their parents? Broad smiles all around. Embarrassed looks at one another. Whispers and some excited giggling. A lot. Well, how much exactly? A lot. But what's a lot? They can't believe I'm asking. Why do I want to know? I might as well be asking them how often they masturbate. And then it all comes tumbling out:

Oh, like, every day, sometimes more than once.

At least two or three times a day. (Group laughter.) 

My father e-mails me jokes and stuff every day.

My mother would worry if I didn't call her every day. (Nodding heads.) 

Well, we're always in touch—my parents live nearby so I go home weekends, too.

 Finally, one student—a delightful young woman whom I know to be smart and levelheaded—confesses that she talks to her mother on the cellphone at least five, maybe six, even seven times a day: We're like best friends, so I call her whenever I get out of class. She wants to know about my professors, what was the exam, so I tell her what's going on and give her, you know, updates. Sometimes my grandmother's there, and I talk to her too.

I'm stunned; I'm aghast; I'm going gaga. I must look fairly stricken too—Elektra keening over the corpse of Agamemnon—because now the whole class starts laughing at me, their strange unfathomable lady-professor, the one who doesn't own a television and obviously doesn't have any kids of her own. What a freak. "But when I was in school," I manage finally to gasp, "All we wanted to do was get away from our parents!" "We never called our parents!" "We despised our parents!" "In fact," I splutter—and this is the showstopper—"we only had one telephone in our whole dorm—in the hallway—for 50 people! If your parents called, you'd yell from your room, Tell them I'm not here!"

After this last outburst, the students too look aghast. Not to mention morally discomfited. No; these happy, busy, optimistic Stanford undergrads, so beautiful and good in their unisex T-shirts, hoodies, and J.Crew shorts; so smart, scrupulous, forward-looking, well-meaning, well-behaved, and utterly presentable—just the best and the nicest, really—simply cannot imagine the harsh and silent world I'm describing.
Contrast the world of the classic novel, in which the protagonist either has no parents, or has the kind that make you wish you had no parents:
For English speakers, it's in classic Anglo-American fiction . . . that the orphaned, or semi-orphaned, hero or heroine becomes a central, if not inescapable, fixture. Something about the new social and psychic world in which the realistic novel comes into being in the late 17th and early 18th centuries pushes the orphan to the foreground of the mix, makes of him or her a strikingly necessary figure, a kind of exemplary being. (By "orphan" I likewise include those characters—call them "pseudo-orphans"—who believe themselves to be orphans, but over the course of the narrative discover a mother or father or both.) So memorably have these "one of a kind" characters been drawn, we often know them by a single name or nickname: Moll, Tom, Fanny, Becky, Heathcliff, Jane, Pip, Oliver, Ishmael, Huck. . . . Alarmingly enough, orphaned protagonists appear regularly in stories written explicitly for children: Witness Little Goody Two-Shoes, Pollyanna, Heidi, Little Orphan Annie, Kim, Mowgli, Bilbo, Frodo, Anne (of Green Gables), Dorothy (she of Toto and Auntie Em), Peter (as in Pan), Harry (as in Potter). And needless to say, these parentless juveniles are usually the heroes or heroines of the books in which they appear. They may be wounded or fey or uncanny (what do we make of the vacant circles that Little Orphan Annie has for eyes?), yet they are also resilient, charismatic, oddly powerful.

Thus the first of two big lit-crit hypotheses I'll advance here: More than love, sex, courtship, and marriage; more than inheritance, ambition, rivalry, or disgrace; more than hatred, betrayal, revenge, or death, orphanhood—the absence of the parent, the frightening yet galvanizing solitude of the child—may be the defining fixation of the novel as a genre, what one might call its primordial motive or matrix, the conditioning psychic reality out of which the form itself develops.
She goes on to connect orphanhood, or rebellion against awful parents, with the enlightenment drive to reject old authority and think for ourselves, and thus to wonder if children so attached to their own parents can really do this:
For better or worse, the ferocious, liberating notion embedded in the early novel is that parents are there to be fooled and defied (especially in matters of love, sex, and erotic fulfillment); that even the most venerated traditions exist to be broken with; that creative power is rightly vested in the individual rather than groups, in the young rather than the old; that thought is free. The assertion of individual rights ineluctably begins, symbolically and every other way, with the primal rebellion of the child against parent.
But read it; it's great.

1 comment:

Meryem said...

I really liked your blog and enjoyed the story of Terry Castle. It is good that she asks her students how often they communicate with their own parents. She always communicates with their students to know more about them.