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!

Hamlet Redux

(This post is adapted from an analytical journal entry I wrote this semester for my MFA program.)

We know John Updike from his Rabbit series (Rabbit, Run, Rabbit Redux, and the subsequent two novels and novella) and for his chronicling of suburban life. But one of his later works is a masterpiece, a prequel to Shakespeare’s Hamlet called Gertrude and Claudius. At the intersection of historical fiction and a retelling, the novel gives us the backstory to the play, and puts a unique feminist spin on it.

A major concept I have hit upon in my analyses of retellings is the idea of a “hinge.” In all of the retellings I have looked at, there is some element that connects the old work to the new one, some sort of a hinge. Very frequently, it is plot points, and almost inevitably, characters. But sometimes there are other elements that connect the retelling and the classic. Sometimes it is language or phrases, the use of diction. The novel makes frequent use of that, and the author adopts a very old-fashioned tone that seems fitting for Shakespeare.

Gertrude and Claudius is a masterwork that stands on its own as a successful “retelling” of  Hamlet. Structured in three parts, the novel is a prequel to Shakespeare’s play. It focuses on the backstory of two crucial characters, Hamlet’s mother Gertrude and his uncle-turned-stepfather Claudius. I have examined a number of retellings: how they function, how they are crafted, how they work. What strikes me so saliently about this novel is it is a retelling heavily built on character. Of course, this is only natural, given that it is a prequel; it cannot borrow the same plot as the original. But what the novel does so brilliantly is flesh out to key characters in Hamlet and show us their motivations for doing what they have done. This is not to say that there are not some overlapping plot points, especially at the ends of Part II and in Part III. But giving us the backstory of characters who have caused or triggered Hamlet’s grief makes the play so much more vivid. Showing us the actual murder scene with Claudius poisoning his brother is very satisfying, as we it learn only by hearsay in the play. Therefore, Hamlet is the aftermath of the novel, and it makes full sense when we know what evil machinations have happened before.

One of Updike’s motivations for writing the novel is to give the female character some agency. In general, Shakespeare’s plays heavily emphasize men; Hamlet is no exception. Gertrude is not a minor character, but she is not necessarily given her full due. In the play, she is a wife and mother. She is second to the men, and seems at times passive, an innocent victim, helpless in the sway of the powerful king, or too weak to stand up to her son. Gertrude and Claudius gives us the chance to see Gertrude as a key agent in her destiny and in the outcome that will happen in Hamlet. The title itself is a giveaway–she is included in the title and given top billing. Therefore, we can assume that Updike is taking a rather feminist angle upon retelling Hamlet. The presence of Ophelia also represents Updike’s woman-centered retelling.

Updike has essentially constructed the novel so that Parts I and II culminate in Part III, as any good novel should. Everything in the novel has been building up to the end. But what is especially brilliant is that Part III is building up to the play, so everything at the end of the novel will culminate in the actions of the play. “[Hamlet] was letting it be known that he resented his mother’s swift capitulation to his uncle’s suit.” Just before the end, we get the beginning of the play, where the watchmen see the ghost of the King. “It was rumored that battlement sentries on the midnight watch had been seeing an apparition in full armor.”

But the ending of the book belongs to Claudius: he has married his queen, he has been crowned, he has summoned Hamlet back to Denmark to train him to be the next King, and therefore has established his dynasty. Updike himself has lined up all the ducks, so to speak, in his novel, so that the play can shoot them all down. All of our expectations for a successful reign will be threatened by the vengeant Prince. The play is his story.

Foreshadowing is frequently used to hinge the two works: Updike is connecting us through the sense of doom. Also, there are frequent biblical allusions, especially to the Garden of Eden and snakes. The novel is also very much historical fiction, drawing on details of conquests and kingdoms. The sense of the past is palpable; we could truly imagine this love affair and murder happening as part of Danish royal history.

But none of these craft elements would matter, none of this analysis would hold any relevance if it were not for the fact that Gertrude and Claudius is just incredibly well written and a pleasure to read. We read the classics because they know they are time-tested and will please us. Hopefully the retellings should as well.