The Family Saga: A Universal Theme

In my younger, greener, salad days, I used to be less enthused about books, shows, or movies that were a long family saga, with the complications that come with long drawn-out relationships. I was an only child who grew up far away from relatives, and so it wasn’t as interesting to me. Wasn’t it more fascinating to have different characters who were unrelated? And yet, like so many book-loving girls, I had adored Little Women and the Laura Ingalls Wilder books, and earlier, children’s books like the Frances series about a little badger with quite an attitude. Now, my current writing project is a retelling of a classic novel which is–though usually considered to be a romance–truly a family saga. What makes family dramas universal?

A large ensemble of characters that we follow overtime is key to this format. While the author or camera might focus primarily on one or two of them, having a variety of characters to choose from helps keep things interesting. “Everybody Loves Raymond” was a show, as the title suggests, about Ray Barone, but we also followed the ups and downs of the other characters, such as his brother Robert and his love life. Once married to Amy, we got another family added into the mix that made things even more funny–the combination of Fred Willard and Georgia Engel as Amy’s parents was a stroke of genius on the part of the casting director. In literature, I don’t think anyone could neglect mentioning Tolstoy, who juggled an encyclopedic cast of characters so skillfully in his epics War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Take that to another level with the current global favorite, My Brilliant Friend (which I’m currently enjoying): it is a saga of multiple families whose lives intertwined in postwar Naples. It is not, however, just one novel–it is the first in a tetralogy, which goes to show how much richness can be mined from this theme. In opera, we have The Marriage of Figaro with its high-low social class reversals and romantic intrigue in the members of the Count’s household. And this is all before we find out who Figaro’s mother is!

Family sagas also give us a longitudinal study, so to speak, of a character or characters over time. How do their relationships change and grow or dissolve? What kinds of sibling alliances form? Or do they not get along at all? Is there an uncle who usurps the family power, much to the chagrin of the nephew (hint: Shakespeare)? Is there a missing parent whose absence is equally an important piece of the equation? The brilliant, understated Evan S. Connell’s Mrs. Bridge (and its slightly-weaker sequel, Mr. Bridge) captures the trajectory of a suburban woman in St. Louis between the wars and her relationships with her children. For those of us who grew up with “The Cosby Show,” we got to see Sondra marry Elvin and have twins, Denise go off to college and then to Africa, and even little Rudy grow up. “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” is not only about Midge Maisel’s standup career, but also her highly educated Jewish family and fractured relationship with her ex-husband and his family.

Family sagas also give us a degree of relatability. We can identify with one or more of the characters, see that we are being treated unjustly or how we are treating someone who is irritating us. The power of literature always helps us understand our world and other people, giving us a bird’s-eye view that we cannot see ourselves.

That I should have neglected this genre is especially foolish in light of the fact that the most holy Hindu book is a family saga: The Mahabharata. Tolstoyan in its scope, it is the story in the form of an epic poem of two families of cousins who are fighting over the throne. Naturally, this has been filmed in different versions for television as well as the cinema; all of Hindu India was engrossed in it in the late 80s, and it has been shown again during the lockdown. British director and playwright Peter Brook co-authored a play on The Mahabharata that was itself made into a movie. But Hinduism is not the only religion to feature family stories as part of its mythology or teachings: it is almost needless to say the Old Testament is full of them. Great mythologies of the world often feature families and nobility. Even today, we are intrigued by these types of stories–consider the success of “Downton Abbey” and our obsession with the British royal family.

The word family is fraught with so much emotion that it cannot help but be an ideal subject for literature. We all have family stories we tell, be they funny, frustrated, or infuriating. Family stories can be comic or tragic, or anything in between. Perhaps the late Erma Bombeck said it best in the title of a book: Family–The Ties that Bind…and Gag!

Bad is Good: Downfall in Literature

I recently finished rereading Anna Karenina, and I am currently watching the latest Clint Eastwood film, “The Mule,” which is based on a true story. And it is absolutely delightful! A charming Midwestern octogenarian horticulturalist becomes a drug runner for a Mexican cartel, and finds himself more and more embroiled in their world, unable to escape for fear of retaliation or death. Though initially a means to earn money to help pay for his granddaughter’s wedding and other expenses once he is foreclosed, “Grandpa Earl” seems to slowly relish the life he has now attained, complete with gold bracelet, Lincoln pickup truck, and easy women.

This led me to think about the theme of downfall in literature: what makes it so compelling? Why is it such an interesting and oft-repeated trope or topic?

In Anna Karenina, we can’t entirely say Anna is a fallen woman; that would be too simplistic. We initially feel sympathetic for her, a vibrant woman stuck in a loveless marriage to a stuffed-shirt bureaucrat. However, her passion and her desires lead her to lose sight of what is important, separate her from her son, and make her so jealous that she commits suicide. We see this downward trajectory throughout the course of the novel. Her narrative arc is the key driving force of the novel. Roxanne, by Daniel Defoe, is another such example, and probably one of the best. A woman of virtue, she resorts to any means she can find to support herself and her children, which includes becoming a mistress. And lest we fault women, we can also remember that the juicy, Gothic classic The Monk by Matthew Lewis is also from this time. A lustful monk ends up committing murder, and there are all kinds of other peccadilloes along the way, including pregnant nuns.

In modern times, we can look at Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint, a novel so over-the-top that it is truly singular in its first-person narrative voice. Alexander Portnoy is a nice Jewish boy from a good family, but his sexual appetite becomes his undoing. And as the reader, boy, do we enjoy the ride! One of my favorite stories, Sherman Alexie’s “What You Pawn, I Will Redeem,” one could argue, also deals with the theme of downfall. Jackson Jackson is a homeless Native American who needs to obtain money in 24 hours in order to buy back his grandmother’s regalia. But rather than judiciously saving the money, he squanders it in the course of the day. The ironic–and funny–twist is that (spoiler alert) despite his misbehavior, he ends up getting the regalia in the end. And of course, we can’t go without mentioning another doubly named antihero, the infamous Humbert Humbert of Nabokov’s Lolita. An intelligent, cultured man, the protagonist not only seduces his landlady’s daughter, but then kidnaps her and takes her on a wild ride. He meets his due, captured by the police at the end. The rich prose is a hallmark of Nabokov, who creates such a rounded character in Humbert Humbert that we cannot help but be engaged with the novel.

What do these novels and stories have in common? I would argue that they harken back to the most fundamental of Christian themes: the fallen angel. Also, by setting up a protagonist on some sort of moral high ground–something that is implicitly of the basis of our Protestant/Anglo cultures, the author creates the expectation of morality, that the lead character should behave in some sort of ethical way. We have our societal expectations of how people should or shouldn’t act, and when a character deviates from that, there is the cognitive dissonance between the expectation and the action. This gap makes for great literature and a great story. Also, what is the trajectory that this character goes through? What are the trials and tribulations? Is s/he justified? Is s/he really a victim of society, or does s/he have agency to make rational decisions? Finally, is there any redemption for the protagonist, either through external means, or self-redemption? These are significant questions an author must answer. Also, the author must establish a certain degree of virtue in the protagonist at the beginning, create her or him as likable and establish a rapport with the reader.

The journey of this character on the downward spiral is what makes for great reading. Yes, we may know the outcome or answer already, but how we get there is what is so delightful. Rich prose, a variety of obstacles, thwarting expectations, acting out of the need for survival–these are just some of the elements we might find in a downfall novel or story.

There will always be prudish readers who dislike these anti-heroes, who lament their lack of virtue. But shouldn’t literature and art be a fantasy world in which we can act out or explore our baser emotions in an enjoyable way?