Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Family Matters

family history--a chronicle of causal familial events that helped shape a character; the cultural environmental forces in which a character evolves; generational behavior and the attitudes in which such behavior is viewed from within the family and from external sources.

Family is such a splendid launching pad for the definition of a character, giving traditions to be applauded as well as traditions to be shunned. A character may become a victim of such tradition or a beneficiary, not to forget a martyr. If a character is informed, "All our family did their undergraduate work at Yale," and the character had hoped instead to attend The Rhode Island School of Design, might not there be a howl of conflict raised? And what about the implication that the family did undergraduate work at Yale, suggesting that graduate school venue may be an option, but graduate school itself was more a directive?

Families are social bands, dispensing tradition, learning, social and financial resources, all provided with varying degrees of love or complete lack of love. Characters may be assumed to have responded in some way--as actors in stage and film renditions respond continuously to one another--to their family origins, but also beyond their family influence in terms of wanting to break from family behavior and set out on a fresh set of responses.

Two widely differing examples of family effects on present-day characters are found in Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, and Jim Harrison's Returning to Earth. Each has as a pivotal issue the impending death of a patriarch and its effects on the survivors. Told from the point of view of the outsider, Charles Ryder, Brideshead is essentially the story of the Flyte family, who own the Brideshead estate, their Catholicism, its effects on them and Charles Ryder, who has a close friendship with his Oxford classmate, Sebastian, and a romantic relationship with Sebastian's sister, Julia. Returning to Earth focuses on the approaching death of Donald, a middle-aged man of mixed Finnish and Chippewa heritage, terminally ill with Lou Gherig's disease. The narrative begins with Donald, who is dictating his story to his wife, Cynthia. Reminiscing on his connection with his Indian heritage, Donald recalls the influence of his father's cousin, Flower, on him. "Flower shook my brain like one of her many rattles hanging from the rafters of her tar paper shack." Each of these authors is remarkable in a specific way, deft in the ability to describe the reverberations of family into the dance the individual members has with life.

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