Thanksgiving is a time when families, for better or worse, come together. This holiday prompted me to consider how important families are in the stories we write and read. The relationship of family members to protagonists may be the heart of a narrative, the catalyst for the plot, and/or a key motivator for a character’s behavior, even while those members stay largely in the background.
Parents, in particular, function in these critical and not always complimentary roles. Below are some common parental (or parent substitute) archetypes found in novels, along with my imaginings about how each might operate at the family Thanksgiving dinner.
The cruel parent, who is abusive and thwarts the protagonist at every step (e.g., the step-mother in Cinderella). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A father criticizes each course of the Thanksgiving meal that his daughter has prepared, ending with. “No man will ever want to marry such a terrible cook.”
The traditionalist parent, who is determined that everything stay as it always was (e.g, the uncle in Re Jane by Patricia Park). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A mother chides her son for making a kale and cranberry slaw instead of the traditional bean and mushroom soup casserole.
The neglectful parent, who perhaps because of some family tragedy pays no attention to the protagonist (e.g., the parents in Ordinary People by Judith Guest). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: The parents neglect to tell their adult daughter, who has traveled cross-country to see them, that they will be away for the Thanksgiving holiday weekend.
The overly-ambitious parent, who wants their child to succeed according to the parent’s dreams, regardless of the needs or wishes of the child (e.g., Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austin). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A mother attempts to pair her already engaged daughter to a successful single, male banker she has invited to share their meal and repeatedly makes embarrassing comments about the daughter’s physical assets.
The in-your-face parent, who constantly interferes in all aspects of their adult child’s life (e.g, the mother in Portnoy’s Complaint by Philip Roth). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A mother hovers over her son, who is a professional chef, as he prepares the stuffing, and offers him needling advice on how small to dice the celery, how much butter to use, and whether or not to add raisins.
The admirable parent, whose behavior serves as a role model, a source of pride, and a comfort (e.g., Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee or Marmee in Little Women by Louisa May Alcott). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A widowed father takes his children with him to serve food to the homeless.
The bumbling parent, who may or may not mean well, but lacks the confidence or skills to parent well (often becoming another kind of parent): Rabbit Angstrom in Rabbit, Run (John Updike). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: Mom, worried that her son spends too much time by himself, invites the neighbors to Thanksgiving dinner, including their loud-mouth boy, who, in the previous week, stomped on the son’s science project.
The alternative life-style parent, whose practices may raise eyebrows (e.g., the aunt in Housekeeping by Marilynne Robinson). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: When each child is allowed to choose whichever food they want to contribute to the dinner, the family ends up with all desserts, which they take to a park and eat on a checkered tablecloth, even though its cold out.
The manipulative parent, who uses their child as a pawn to satisfy their own needs (e.g., any number of Charles Dickens’ parents or parent substitutes.) How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A father capitalizes on his son’s worship of him to distract store clerks during their robbing spree of stores open during Thanksgiving day.
The dysfunctional parent, who like the bumbling parent, may be well-meaning but whose personal issues, such as addiction or mental illness, create a rocky road for others. (e.g., the mother in About a Boy by Nick Hornby). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: A drunken mother slumps into her pumpkin pie in front of her son’s in-laws-to be.
The warm and loving parent, to whom the protagonist longs to be with (e.g., Aunt Em in
The Wonderful Wizard of Oz). How it might play out at Thanksgiving dinner: An uncommunicative, prodigal daughter along with her newborn son returns for Thanksgiving unexpectedly and is received with welcome arms, no questions asked.
Let’s give thanks to all for making us laugh, cry, melt, or cringe and for making our reading lives richer!
Wishing you a happy, or at least peaceful, Thanksgiving whatever kind of family you come from or have created for yourself.
What are your favorite parental archetypes from books or movies?
(painting by Georges Braque that hung in the family dining room when I was growing up)