Why is it so easy to love our family, but so hard to like them?—–Daphne Moon (Frasier)
On my bookshelf, I have devoted an entire section to books I haven’t read. Unfortunately, I am one of those bibliophiles who compulsively buys 3 books for every 1 finished, so the section simply grows and grows as time passes. When choosing what to read, I have a tendency to base my choice on the amount of free time I have, so the bigger, longer books ends up sitting in this To-Read section for endless months. Intending to break that trend, I challenged myself to pick up Thomas Wolfe’s “Look Homeward, Angel,” despite its hefty size.
Slogging my way through this coming-of-age novel, set in the early 20th century, I became intrigued at its intricate portrait of the Gant family, with all of its trauma and affection, its personality and its pain. Unsurprisingly, it is not a particularly happy story. Then again, the number of us who could claim to have enjoyed a “happy” childhood is undoubtedly small. The children of such families may spend the rest of their life burdened by the mystery of their early life’s unhappiness.
Don’t get me wrong. After many years of hard work and the help of good friends, I’ve made my peace with the struggles of my childhood. I place myself thoroughly in the camp of individual responsibility when it comes to an adult’s quality of life. I am not the “but my childhood was bad, so I’m excused of my destructive behavior” kind of person. Still, present-day events can easily trigger deep, hidden emotions in me that I thought I had already worked through. And, once again, I’m obsessed with the same questions. What went wrong? Why? How can the people you depend on to care for you hurt you so deeply? Is love still possible, even after the horrible has happened?
“Look Homeward, Angel” explores those questions. With the Gant family, Wolfe introduces us to a husband and wife, their two daughters, and their five sons, including the main protagonist Eugene and his favorite brother, Ben. The Gant patriarch thunders across the page with his devastating alcoholism and regular rage attacks. The mother nurtures an fixation on accumulating money, land, and buildings. To cope, most of the children take refuge in perpetuating the dysfunction, by either imitating the drunkenness or resorting to martyrdom for the family.
Benjamin and Eugene Gant seem to be the only children who long to rise above it. The youngest son, Eugene, is the primary focus (he is a loose depiction of his author). His self-satisfied bookish personality quickly earned my irritation, but that’s probably because I identified so closely with him. It soon became obvious that education and literature saved him from his environment, as it had saved me. Yet, it was Ben Gant who slowly won the status of my favorite character. I enjoyed his proud dignity, his sardonic silence in the face of his outrageous family. Being an older child, he could not benefit from the education opportunities his youngest brother enjoyed, but he still possessed an “aristocratic” nature that hid his lone suffering.
Interestingly, the only time Ben spoke up about his parents’ failings was to defend Eugene’s life prospects, not his own. Their mother’s penny-pinching led to both physical and emotional neglect, but Ben could not suffer this in silence. Of course, the good-natured woman never does anything explicit to harm her children. Yet, her life’s preoccupation with money subtly hinted to them that she cared more about it than their well-being.
Unfortunately, when people close to you don’t take care of you, you often don’t take good care of yourself. One of the most harrowing moments in the novel occurs when Ben’s contracts an illness that is exacerbated by how poorly he had been watching his health. Tellingly, he refuses to see his mother during the worse period of his sickness. Her concern, her finally understanding him as a person, comes too late, and she’s shattered by his rigid rejection of her belated care.
Eugene clearly sees his mother’s failings, too. Despite his special place as the youngest, by the end of the novel he has seen his share of domestic brawls, unnecessary monetary deprivation, the shame of his boarder-house living. Still, realizing how deeply she’s failed Ben, their mother almost pleads with her youngest son, “We must try to love one another.” Despite his strong attachment to Ben, Eugene pities his mother’s position. He takes on the role of a maturing adult by trying to reconcile his love for his parents with the blatant fact that they failed him and his siblings so completely, so fundamentally.
Perhaps this is the task of all maturing individuals. Far beyond the normal struggles between children and parents, sometimes a mother or a father raises their children in environments detrimental to their well-being, whether physical or emotional. Distress can linger far into the future. Later, when forgiveness, assistance, or even renewed relationships with parents present themselves, adult children may feel tempted to respond with anger, outrage, and resistance. Eugene Gant’s mother suggests a merciful alternative: love and understanding, even when the child may rightly feel betrayed by the people who should’ve love them the most.
Parents are human, so it’s tempting to blame them for all of the evils we face. On the other end, it would be naive to claim that any indifference, neglect, substance abuse, or even physical abuse has no effect at all. Somewhere in the middle lies another solution. Understanding our parents as people, with the same limitations, scars, and faulty societal education that we’ve all undergone, helps us to begin to make sense of our past. And maybe even choose love and forgiveness in the future.
How have you reconciled your childhood with your present relationship with your parents? Do you have any favorite fictional families that reminds you of the joys and troubles of your own family?