Signs of family: Images of family life in contemporary American literature

Nancy L Nester, University of Rhode Island


Family life in America is diverse and complex. Few families conform to the specifications of the prototypal, autonomous nuclear family. Yet so entrenched is this middle class ideal in the "American Dream" mythos, and so ubiquitous are cultural images and symbols which connote it that our willingness to mimic and reproduce the model is commonly believed to determine the felicity of American society.^ Such a position allows those aspects of our ideologies and institutions which threaten familial attachments to elude public censure and those which do bolster them to receive little or no recognition. Thus, much of what constitutes family for Americans remains peripheral; and much that is good or meaningful in terms of cooperative human relationships is overlooked.^ This study uses literary images to modify public and private opinion of what should be acknowledged as family and implicates a wider radius of institutions with the responsibility of propagating and sustaining supportive relationships. I posit that the family in contemporary society is intricately connected to and virtually inseparable from the workings of other institutions. It is far less distinguishable as an entity partitioned off from other spheres of social life, and much more an idea, mediated by a web of discourses.^ I proceed under the assumption that the stories we tell about family life and the ways we explicate those tales have political, economic, social, and emotional ballast. My critical approach is interdisciplinary but greatly influenced by materialist feminist theorists who contend that literary texts and critiques do have the power to preserve or transform the social structure.^ Using selected works of Ethan Canin, Fannie Flagg, Pam Houston, John Irving, Sue Miller, Marilynne Robinson, Anne Tyler, and Alice Walker, this study examines images and metaphors associated with the idealized family, replete with the attendant assumptions and expectations they connote; in the process, it sets into relief the institutions and ideologies involved either in maintaining the ideal or revising it. By attending to the dialectical process by which a text abandons, challenges, corrects, or transforms an image, this study renders family life as a more broadly defined and generally shared experience. ^

Subject Area

Women's Studies|Literature, American|Sociology, Individual and Family Studies

Recommended Citation

Nancy L Nester, "Signs of family: Images of family life in contemporary American literature" (1995). Dissertations and Master's Theses (Campus Access). Paper AAI9601861.