Cover Story

Family life: no stranger to Þction

But when fiction became a stranger to the biblical worldview, traditional morality and the "intact" family became either objects of derision or simply nonexistent

Issue: "Marriage and the family," May 20, 2000

Scan the titles and examine the book jackets for today's bestsellers, and some themes emerge: casual infidelity, risqué domestic arrangements, parents who are by definition beleaguered and are invariably poor decisionmakers; their children, young or grown, manifesting one identity crisis after another-and these are the least objectionable story components. Except at times in the literary ghetto of Christian bookstores, books that provide credible, honest, and redemptive treatments of mom, dad, and the kids are few and far between. Yet this hasn't always been the case. Before the end of the 19th century, one would have had to search long and hard to find a volume that deliberately undermined what we have come to call "family values," or boasted of its characters' sexual experiments. Somewhere along the way our literati left behind Emma for Lolita, migrated from Our Town to Peyton Place, and exchanged the Cratchits for the Cartmans of South Park. When and how did this happen? There is both an aesthetic and a theological answer to these questions. "All happy families resemble one another; but each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." So begins the rueful narrator of Leo Tolstoy's 1876 novel, Anna Karenina-who then depicts a most unhappy, treacherous, albeit aristocratic, Russian household. Tolstoy's words serve as a prophecy of the artistic sensibilities of succeeding generations of late 19th- and 20th-century European and American writers. Within 25 years, this epigram will translate into a credo explaining much about Western literature. We learn in modern books that stable, moral, loving, cohesive, "intact" families are boring-possibly happy and nurturing, but certainly narrow, uninteresting, mawkishly predictable, horribly bourgeois, and, however desirable, nearly extinct. After Tolstoy, it seems, the only credible center for fiction is the splintered marriage and the fractured family, with the opportunity for disaster and dissolution endless, and endlessly diverting. Ironically, 19th-century literature was not at first so misanthropic. The wry and talented Jane Austen was a leading light. In large measure, she rescued fiction from the excesses of the dark, unrealistic gothic romance by inventing the winsome family chronicle, focusing readers' attention on the variety and vitality of relationships extant within the home-a new thing under the sun. Her characters weather personal crises and ethical dilemmas galore, all resolved within the biblically informed moral universe that she inherited from literary forebears like Shakespeare and Samuel Johnson. For this reason, C.S. Lewis praised Austen for her moral "firmness." She had used, Lewis explained, "the great abstract nouns of the classical English moralists ... unblushingly and uncompromisingly ... good sense, courage, contentment, fortitude, impropriety, indelicacy, generous candour, blamable, distrust, just, humiliation, vanity, folly, ignorance, reason." They were "the concepts by which she grasped the world," and in her invigorating family narratives "all is hard, clear, definable." As a result, Lewis avers, Jane Austen's world is a decided contrast to the world of modern fiction, "at once less soft and less cruel." Austen made straight the pathway for later Victorians like Charles Dickens, George MacDonald, and Anthony Trollope to extend the genre, as well as to expand its coverage of family life beyond the upper middle class and onto the greater social realities of the poor and working class. But for every Dickens or MacDonald, who offered his readers the virtues of personal integrity and perseverance, a world in which rectitude and hard work pay off and the unscrupulous and wayward face just deserts for their evil deeds, there soon lurked a dozen more writers ready to embody (or embalm) a fissured family life, devoid of marital bliss or sibling affection, empty of fulfillment or sanctifying belief. Decline of the literature family: Maisie graceless
The trail was blazed in a book about a 5-year-old girl, Henry James's What Maisie Knew. Maisie herself isn't very far removed from that other notable waif, Dickens's Oliver Twist; both are sweet and helpless. The difference is in Maisie's parents. They're the original free thinkers and selfish scoundrels, who go through a horribly spiteful divorce. They each grudgingly agree to take the unwanted Maisie for six months out of the year. She's in the way of everything they are pursuing: sex, money, possessions, and social status. Eventually, both spouses marry new partners. The two step-parents each take a separate, personal interest in the little girl, and in so doing, in each other; soon they themselves are a coupling. Though this squalid tale sounds like the latest pre-production script from Miramax, Henry James's novel appeared in 1897-and he himself referred to it as an "ugly little comedy." James was not just any lurid dime novelist, mind you, but the dean of American fiction writers, the "master craftsman" of the modern realistic novel. He purportedly based Maisie on malicious gossip overheard in the drawing rooms of continental elites; his specialty was seizing the detours of post-Victorian morality and turning them into mannered narratives of world-weary protagonists for whom the pursuit of happiness is grievously self-consuming. Some critics excuse James for merely holding up a satirical mirror to a decadent culture. But Maisie represents something more than a send-up of social deviance. For the first time, a novel offers readers the cruel demise of childhood innocence as fashionable entertainment. This was a watershed moment in mainstream fiction. For all his ingenuity, James simply represented the literary avant-garde, with its heralding, then massaging of the ideas of the jaded cognoscenti, making them first accessible, then palatable, and finally, permanent fixtures in the institutions that force-feed society's imagination. Now, most of us may never have heard of the inimitable Mr. James, and in some respects he is just a two-bit thug when placed in the lineup alongside the usual 19th-century suspects he might be said to be fronting for: Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Nietzsche. This unholy quartet's incendiary notions of human nature and destiny color every artifact and intellectual discussion that follows them. By defaming man's heavenly origins, collectivizing society's notions of self and other, reducing human psychology to wish-fulfillment and libido, and stripping rationality of any foundation or motive besides power, they barred the emerging artist's way back to Eden as effectively as any cherubim brandishing flaming swords. The Victorian era, which began with moral clarity, climaxes in an aesthetics of confusion, preoccupied with sheer novelty, social fragmentation, sexual degeneracy, and the principled rejection of tradition-both as technique and as subject matter. By the first decade of the 20th century, on both sides of the Atlantic, any semblance of the family chronicle was displaced by naturalistic deconstructions of the genre; the nuclear family barely appears thereafter as a meaningful subject for fiction. When it resurfaces in American discourse, we find it chiefly in the work of dedicated regionalists like Willa Cather, or agrarian writers like Laura Ingalls Wilder. Indeed, most modern narratives are founded almost exclusively upon the drama of absent or banished absolutes-neurotic couples or depraved families as their exemplars (witness D. H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemingway, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner). By the 1950s, abject sensuality, gratuitous violence, and overt eroticism become the primary provocations for popular fiction, especially in the brave new world of mass market paperbacks (e.g., Erskine Caldwell, Grace Metalious, Mickey Spillaine). When real marriage and family do appear, it is largely from the pens of ethnic or religious writers who are either historicizing their experiences as outsiders and outcasts to a predominately white, middle-class culture (e.g., Lorraine Hansberry, Ernest Gaines, Alex Haley) or dramatizing the effects of assimilation or secularization on belief and tradition (e.g., Isaac Bashevis Singer, Chaim Potok, Frederick Buechner). No more blushing-except at traditional morality
The softer and crueler "modern fiction," with which Lewis contrasted Austen's work, continues to reign through the end of the 20th century, and has become a canon of works that cannot employ Austen's "great abstract nouns" without blushing or without derision. These days, even the few truly talented, mainstream writers now addressing family matters in a serious way squander their opportunities to redeem them from perdition. John Irving, in works like The World According to Garp, The Hotel New Hampshire, and The Cider House Rules, preoccupies himself with perverse households, the occupants denying the validity of the very relationships they supposedly celebrate. Anne Tyler, who crafts mostly benign, often charming tours de force, prefers as protagonists baffled itinerants of both genders (The Accidental Tourist, Saint Maybe, Ladder of Years), who must search high and low for peace and contentment-before finding it, finally, behind their own front door. At least they do come home, eventually. God's sociology book, the Bible, tells us right from the start that the home is imperiled by poor communication between spouses, uncouth blame-shifting, and unchecked sibling rivalry. The list grows: fratricide, rape, incest, usury, slavery, all manner of deceit and cunning (and all this among a people set apart specifically to reveal the Creator's character to mankind). Recording these facts alone does not make for immoral literature-else Moses and Paul would be guilty of pandering to our baser instincts. For the rest of the story-how moms and dads, husbands and wives, brothers and sisters ought to relate, how they can overcome the world, the flesh, and the devil to live kind, peaceable, productive, moral lives worth emulating-we must read on. And read on is exactly what generation after generation of writers in the West had previously done-the Bible their first storybook, its vocabulary and symbol system their building blocks, the predicaments and choices of its characters their plots, the biblical worldview their moral universe. From Beowulf to Babbitt, there is hardly a text written or read in the West that does not in some way betray a genesis in or rebellion against Scripture. But a generation finally arose that "knew not Joseph"-or Jacob, Moses, Deborah, Joshua, Samson, Rahab, Ruth, David, Solomon, or Jesus for that matter. The virulent attack on the Scripture's historicity and relevance, the slow dissipation of biblical literacy out of the mainstream of Western education and culture over the last century-these factors, coupled with the aesthetic abdications of responsibility we have already surveyed, have left Western art and literature without moral compass. Among the rouges:we do need another hero
The problem is not the presence of rogue husbands, wandering wives, homicidal sons, scheming mothers, or deceitful fathers in contemporary stories; for these we have with us always. Rather, it is the profound and lingering absence of any caring, faithful, persevering, loving role models as family protagonists or even foils that betray the crumbling foundations. Every society is shaped by aesthetic tradition for good or ill. When our culture at large regains a moral vision that encourages stories and storytellers to anchor its family relationships in a transcendent moral order, it will return to depictions of enduring, enriching marriages between lifelong partners. These successful and admirable families will bring along their literary fruit: protagonists and plots whose destinies are built on virtuous character and corresponding right choices. The family will then be reclaimed as a living testimony to objective value, joyful responsibility, the true site of character development, and the fulcrum of personal integrity. We don't have to be told again and again that the world is evil and that we are outside the garden. This we know and know well; it is not from prudery but from prudence that we seek the family's honor restored as a haven of security and hope. We simply are longing, with the rest of mankind, for a return to a moment when more protagonists aspire to be, in G.K. Chesterton's felicitous phrase, "happy at home." That doesn't seem too much to ask.

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