Setting the Table for Family Drama: Writing Dinnertime Conflict

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do.

Among the most commonly occurring and underrated settings employed in fiction is the dining table. The dinner table serves more than (hopefully) good eats: it provides both place and reason for characters to be together. Relatively few limits exist for such gatherings. The dinner table accommodates routine meals but also can expand (with a leaf or two) for a holiday party or become several tables at an awards ceremony. Locations also are flexible: I’ve recently set the opening of a story at a patio table during a birthday barbecue. Impromptu celebrations such as promotions, too, might result in an outing to a favorite restaurant. Since mealtimes can occur at any point in the plot, so long as it makes sense for people to eat, the dinner table represents one of the most versatile settings that writers can use to creates scenes, forward the plot, and/or explore the central problem of a story. While these tables can appear in innumerable story types, I will discuss how a few of my favorite authors set the table when writing about families.

For these stories, setting the action at the dinner table can be quite natural. After all, families often are urged to dine together: shared meals are touted for strengthening familial bonds as well as providing a host of positive benefits. And who wouldn’t want to dine with their loved ones? However, even tight-knit families experience their moments of discord. Featured prominently in the Harry Potter series, the Weasley family is considered a loving one.[*] Harry Potter’s first breakfast at their home, however, is rather tense. Concerned that Harry hadn’t replied to their letters, Ron, Fred, and George Weasley decide to use their father’s enchanted car to rescue Harry from his relations (it was a cloudy night) and sneak him into their home undetected. Unluckily for them, Mrs. Weasley observes both absent boys and car and upbraids all parties for their irresponsibility save the relatively blameless Harry. Mrs. Weasley is somewhat mollified when her sons tell her of Harry’s hardships, but she isn’t one to let them escape the consequences just because their intentions were good: they have chores to do. She sends them outdoors to sort out garden beds instead of letting them nap right away (Rowling 24–41).

Rowling accomplishes quite a lot in these pages besides removing Harry from an unpleasant situation (and thus moving the plot forward). Harry, long accustomed to his aunt’s and uncle’s tendency to condone and excuse his cousin’s bad behavior while punishing him for mere infractions, sees Mrs. Weasley appropriately scold her children for engaging in a risky activity. His subsequent meals at the Burrow, where he is welcomed at the table and in which Mrs. Weasley attempts to feed him up (the Dursleys begrudge him every morsel ), are new experiences for him.[†] Escaping to the Burrow introduces Harry to how loving families work. More telling, though, is the contrast that reader sees between Harry’s home life, which is arguably neater, wealthier, and unhappier (Rowling 1–42). Rowling underscores the point that judging people’s worth by mere appearances or their wealth is fallacious. What makes people worthy is the how they treat each other. It’s little wonder that Harry would rather spend his summers in the happy chaos of the Burrow.

Manor house banquet tableFor unhappy families, however, the potential for tension at the table is extensive. Agatha Christie, a master of the manor house mystery, frequently seats her characters at a banquet table. Since her mystery novels often involve the murder of a wealthy benefactor to various family members (money and resentment making excellent motivations), mealtimes can be quite intense. The dinner table, being an obliging sort,[‡] works as both setting and opportunity for narrative exposition. In “The Second Gong”,[§] dinner guests and family members alike almost race to the dinner table to ensure they arrive punctually because their host, Hubert Lytcham Roche, notoriously despises lateness. His tardiness is so unprecedented that his guests and butler are stunned and hardly know how to proceed. Shortly thereafter, they find Hubert dead. Here, the table works in two ways: it reveals aspects of Hubert’s character (his controlling, unyielding nature) and gathers all the principal suspects together. In A Pocket Full of Rye, however, the dining table serves as the murder scene: Rex Forestcue, a rather nasty man, is poisoned during breakfast whilst surrounded by suspects—er, family members—all of whom had both motive and opportunity to kill him. In novels such as The Mysterious Affair at Styles, Christie uses the dinner table to review the case and acquire background information: Captain Hastings, a guest at Styles Court, and Hercule Poirot discuss the murder of Emily Inglethop during breakfast on at least two occasions, which affords Poirot the opportunity to question persons present about events surrounding the murder (for which he was not present) and gather clues.

Of course, not every family need be wealthy (or murderous) to be unhappily seated together at the table. From the outset of The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it seems clear that the seven-year-old protagonist’s parents don’t relate to their bookish boy. Neither mentions his kitten’s death after it occurred, not even to offer consolation. The boy doesn’t share his disappointment about receiving the unsuitable replacement cat with them, anticipating (correctly, I suspect) that his parents won’t understand that the hurt remained new cat or not (Gaiman 14–16). During another incident, his older self (who narrates the events) observes that he only consulted adults as a child when he absolutely must (Gaiman 63), suggesting that the boy already expects adults to be reluctant to help him. Understandably Gaiman’s protagonist is terrified when he realizes that his new childminder is an actual monster. He sits at the dinner table on two occasions, hungry but afraid to eat what the monster made for supper (Gaiman 82, 90–92). Beyond their immediate horror, these moments reveal a larger pattern in the novel: the powerlessness of children. It’s all too easy for the monster to portray the boy as truculent, making his protests seem…childish. The boy, already aware of how easy he is to discredit, knows he cannot expect his parents to believe or assist him. Gaiman captures this bitter aspect of childhood, its impotence, and allows it to be the force that drives his narrative by seating a child at a table.

When it comes to stirring the plot, the familial dining table provides numerous opportunities for writers to use this setting to do as much or as little as they need it to do. It can serve as a mere setting, providing the appropriate backdrop to the story at hand or cleverly reveal information about characters. Often, scenes from a dining table allow writers to connect to larger themes they explore, both for their stories about families and elsewhere. As such, it might not be such a bad idea to set characters down for something to eat and see what happens next.

Do you have a favorite mealtime scene from a story or book? Share what you liked about it in the comment box below. Also, sign up for the newsletter and receive links to latest Sequence in your inbox!

Works Cited

Christie, Agatha. The Mysterious Affair at Styles: the First Hercule Poirot Novel. New York: Berkley , 1990.

Christie, Agatha. A Pocket Full of Rye. New York: Signet Book, 2000.

Christie, Agatha. “The Second Gong”. Witness for the Prosecution, and Other Stories. New York: Berkley , 1984.

Gaiman, Neil. The Ocean at the End of the Lane. New York, NY: William Morrow, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, 2016.

Rowling, J. K. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. New York: Arthur A. Levine , an imprint of Scholastic Press, 1999.

NOTES:

[*] At this point, the Weasley family’s problems lie more with financial constraints and the odd personality clash versus actual deep disagreements with each other.

[†] Harry, much like Jane Eyre before him, represents a tragic form of the poor relation: the orphaned and presumed penniless child required to live under the guardianship of uncaring relations.

[‡] Unlike the murder victim.

[§] For anyone besides me experiencing a bit of literary déjà vu with this story, it’s useful to know that Christie later rewrote and expanded this story, which she called “Dead Man’s Mirror”. I’m working with the original because I like its simpler plot. Having said that, Christie’s work can feel familiar in places because she reuses elements such as nursery rhymes (“Sing a Song of Sixpence” is one I’ve noted in a few stories), themes, and motivations (typically, money).

“Hidden Science” in the Writings of Franklin & Conan Doyle

Men of method: Franklin and Conan Doyle

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Benjamin Franklin. By Joseph Duplessi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
It was my first year of graduate studies, and I found myself re-reading The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin. Some time had passed since I read this book in depth,[*] but certain portions remained clear enough in my mind, including Franklin’s ambitious and tongue-in-cheek project to acquire virtues in Part II.[†] As I read through this section, I felt a growing sense of familiarity that was related less to the content and more to the structure of the writing. Franklin’s project followed a pattern that I’d become familiar with while pursuing that other undergraduate degree:[‡] scientific methodology. Reading Part II of The Autobiography was not unlike reading a scientific paper: there was a section on the background and the project’s goal (“moral Perfection”; Franklin 1383), defined terminology, methods delineated (working on acquiring a single virtue on a weekly basis and recording instances of success/failure); results presented and discussed, and a conclusion or two (Franklin 1383–91), ranging from “I think I like a speckled Ax best” (Franklin 1390) to:

But on the whole, tho’ I never arrived at the Perfection I had been so ambitious of obtaining, but fell far short of it, yet I was by the Endeavour made a better and a happier Man than I otherwise should have been, if I had not attempted it (Franklin 1391).

Obviously, the project to acquire virtue wasn’t, per se, a scientific experiment, but it bore the hallmarks of one.

Elated that I observed something I previously hadn’t noticed, I wrote my short paper for the upcoming class with a reference to my discovery and mentioned it during my brief presentation. I, however, did not expect to be asked which approach to the scientific method had Franklin favored. My professor posed an excellent question, considering that the 17th and 18th century scientific thinkers were in the process of disputing more ancient methods (namely, Aristotelian) for deriving facts (Weinberg 201-14).[§] I, however, knew more about applying the basics of scientific methodology than its history.

Awkward.[**]

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. Photo by Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.
Curiously, though, this experience—that is, the feeling I’d come across a familiar format— recurred when I re-read A Study in Scarlet for a recent post. Again, I felt as though I was reading about Sherlock Holmes conducting a scientific study in which he carefully observed the crime scene’s grounds (Conan Doyle 23–4), collected data (measurements at the murder site as well as examination of the murder victims; Conan Doyle 26, 29, 56–7), and even tested his theory that the first murder victims was poisoned (Conan Doyle 58–9). But, there it was: a sort of literary déjà vu featuring the scientific method. While I’m sure I understood that Holmes was both methodical and logical in his approach to detection, I doubt I noted the specific scientific underpinnings in Holmesian detective fiction when I was reading the stories in my early teens. It doesn’t seem like the sort of thing I would have considered independently when I was intent on consuming as many mystery novels as I could. And I certainly didn’t have the same ability to read critically as I do now.

Of course, detecting  the presence of scientific ideas in the writings of scientific men (Franklin, a scientist and inventor, and Conan Doyle, a medical doctor) isn’t unexpected, particularly with two individuals whom share the distinction of forwarding scientific study. Conan Doyle’s fiction anticipated the usage of methods that would become central in forensic sciences (eg, preserving footprints, protecting the crime scene from contamination)[††] and inspired forensic science pioneers like Edmond Locard (Steenberg 35).[‡‡] In Franklin’s case, the study of electricity benefited greatly from his attention to it (Chaplin), to put it mildly. Nonetheless, uncovering these connections between very different people writing for very different purposes was satisfying. I wouldn’t go so far to claim that I’ve seen further than some, but perhaps further than I once did.[§§] And I do feel a bit like a sleuth for detecting evidence of scientific thought.

Have you experience literary déjà vu or found some interesting scientific ideas in unexpected texts? Share your experiences below! Also,  sign up for the newsletter and receive links to latest Sequence  and more in your inbox!

Works Cited

Chaplin, Joyce E. “Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private.” Benjamin Franklin’s Science—In Public and Private. N.p., n.d. Web. 27 Jan. 2017. http://www2.avs.org/benjaminfranklin/chaplin.html.

Conan Doyle, Sir Arthur. Sherlock Holmes: The Complete Novels and Stories, Volume 1 and 2. 1920. Reprint. New York: Bantam Classics, 2003. Print.

Franklin, Benjamin. The Autobiography. In: Franklin, Benjamin. Writings. Ed. J. A. Leo Lemay. New York, NY: Literary Classics of the United States, 1987. Print.

Lemay, J. A. Leo. The life of Benjamin Franklin: printer and publisher, 1730–1747. Vol. 2. Philadelphia, PA: U of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Print.

Steenberg, Lindsay. Forensic science in contemporary American popular culture: gender, crime, and science. New York: Routledge, 2013. Print.

Weinberg, Steven. To explain the world: the discovery of modern science. New York: Harper, 2015. Print.

NOTES:

[*] High school to be exact.

[†] Spoiler: It’s my favorite part.

[‡] For the curious, I have an undergraduate degree in Literature and one in Environmental Studies.

[§] Numerous sources discuss this critical change in scientific thinking, including the one I cite here (as a physicist, he brings an interesting perspective to exploring this history ). The scientific methodology has a long history and, of course, will continue to evolve as scientific discoveries and thought require it to do so. The link I provide depicts a concise timeline of important known events, dates, and person contributing to this evolution.

[**] Based on my limited research, I’d (tentatively) go with Francis Bacon. Franklin already was familiar with the self-improvement plans of notable intellectuals, including Bacon who was likely the most influential (Lemay 39). Considering that Bacon favored experiments to establish facts (empiricism), I think this dovetails neatly with Franklin’s process here. Oh, and not having an answer didn’t have any negative consequences for my classwork; it was just embarrassing.

[††]  Holmes use of footprint evidence seems amazingly prescient when you consider the SoleMate database of shoe prints.

[‡‡] He apparently encouraged his students to read Holmes stories.

[§§] I’m cheekily referencing Newton’s famous quote: “”If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Writing and the Art of Paper Craft

What my hobby taught me about my writing.

There should be a limit to one’s ability to feel embarrassed by juvenilia and other potentially cringe-worthy work. Like that first poem I wrote and work shopped, if it still existed anywhere.[*] And yet early efforts in some ways, whether they subsist only in one’s memory or in actual, viewable format, possess a certain strength in their imperfection—something I’ve recently discovered by reminiscing other artistic endeavors:

I vividly remember my first camera, how it felt: the textured red plastic case with the smooth black cord I now would call a wristlet strap.[†] Its rectangular flash stick—my camera didn’t take cubes, which I felt were far cooler. I was ten or thereabouts. I kept most photos, even bad ones, in an album that had sticky pages with plastic covers. With age, the glue became visible wherever photos weren’t. Somewhere along the line, I learned about acidic (not archival) paper. I did not necessarily become better at photo taking.

By high school/college, I switched the photos to an album now called a scrapbook. It had manila pages and clear photo corners, which I found disappointing. I thought the pages and corners would be black, like the scrapbooks of yore, the kind my grandparents remembered from their youth. Removing the old photos proved to be challenging. They’d peel and tear on occasion, the cantankerous, yellowed glue refusing to graciously cede its grip. This time, I added some captions, school awards, and the like.

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One of the bad but interesting photos: the double exposure makes it look like a great spirit horse decided to join us on the ride. (Photo by R. Gould.)

It didn’t occur to me that I was revising my first draft. (I still kept many of the bad photos because they were all I had or were wrong in the right way. Because sometimes, mistakes[‡] can be cool.)

Side projects, both sweet and hilarious, informed my process. My friends and I decorated clipboards for each other using photos, magazines, stickers, and contact paper. Concepts from collage shaped my scrapbook. How these projects somehow gave me permission to make my own wedding invitations,[§] and how I never questioned that I could do so even though I’d never created cards previously.

(I sketched designs and found instructions on the Internet, and I made every last invite, with half the tools and knowledge I have now. There are a few mistakes, but fewer than I’d guessed there’d be.)

I’m working on new projects, considering re-doing a few old albums with the more modern approach I currently use. I worry if my projects are too conventional, my captions too cute and canned. I’m working up some new phrasing. I’m an editor, after all.[**]

And somehow this proves that even when I’m not writing, there’s this writerly quality to what I do and that I improve, try new things, and find surprising measures of success that sometimes make me amazed that I did what I did. Then, this epiphany clicks: my older writing is just that—older. It’s only a step in the process of becoming a better writer.

What projects inspired your writing or changed how you saw your work? Share your thoughts in the comment section below. Also, sign up for the newsletter to stay current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*] It doesn’t. I checked.

[†] Of course, no photos of this long-gone camera exist, which amuses me because I remember it more clearly than some of the events my 110 recorded.

[‡] Mistakes or errors are signposts to success. They point where you need to change direction, learn more, or just try harder.

[§] Permissible but not by my any means sensible. Hating every over-the-top romantic and/or too expensive card that felt very much unlike us also fueled this decision.

[**] I re-read my posts and fix the tiny grammar errors. Yep, editing all the way out the door and to the store.

Love, Concealment, and Laura Chase: Review of The Blind Assassin

At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved.

The Blind AssassinThe Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

Part of the pleasure in reading Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Blind Assassin, lies in tracing the various narrative threads throughout the book to see how they inform each other and how they are reconciled. Newspaper clippings and excerpts from a novel written by Laura Chase (sister to Iris Chase Geffen, the narrator) are stitched together with Iris’s own story (both past and present). The juxtaposition here—the fictional (or at least fictionalized) romance of two clandestine lovers inventing a pulp sci-fi tale contrasted with the more factual/official accounts of newsworthy events—add both intrigue and tension given that novel opens with Laura’s suicide being reported to her sister. This tension is important, too, because the storytelling (the switching among narratives) reflect Iris’s reluctance to reveal her truth, even as her own approaching death leaves the possibility that no one will ever know what transpired.

Blind Assassins and Their Mute Sacrificial Maidens

In the tale Iris spins of her youth at Avilion and her early adulthood in Toronto, certain themes emerge. Chief among them are blindness, silence, and sacrifice, which also appear as physical traits in two characters from the sci-fi portions of Laura’s novel. The titular assassin and the mute sacrificial maiden represent the lower echelons of a cruelly indulgent society where the wealthy blind slave children to produce luxurious carpets and cut out tongues of sacrificial maidens so that they cannot be disturbed by pleas to be spared. Meant to appease the gods and thus keep the city safe, these sacrifices prove fruitless: an invading horde waits outside the gates and the assassin is likely to tell said horde how to breach the walls.

Class tensions, futile sacrifices, and overwhelming outside forces (World War I, the Great Depression) also shape life at Avilion as do blindness and silence. However, blindness tends to be a failure to understand, just as sacrifice can stem from more noble impulses. Norval Chase (Iris’s father) generously decides to keep his workers (many of whom were fellow veterans) employed, but he fails to see how keeping the factory running will jeopardize his family’s financial security. Iris doesn’t exactly despise sacrifice, but she cottons onto the fact that it can be without merit. Implicit in her reflections on her father’s financial mistakes (she recounts that he was a considered a “blind fool”) is the idea that better choices on his part may have made a difference for herself and Laura.

Most of the novel’s sacrificial maidens are women, though, and their motivation is usually love. Liliana Chase endures her husband’s post-war adultery and drinking binges in silence whilst attempting to bear him male heirs (Norval’s partial blindness is a bit heavy handed here). She later dies following a miscarriage. The girls unfortunately pattern themselves after her example. Iris, who marries to save family fortune and factory at her father’s behest, particularly finds love to be burdensome. She is weighed down by her father’s love as well as the responsibility for the younger and too trusting Laura, a responsibility thrust upon her by parents and housekeeper Reenie. (And she certainly feels the older sibling’s resentment of being the only one required to be a good sister.) It’s this burden and lingering resentment that she shoulders into old age.

Concealment and Secrets

As the story spirals toward Iris’s long-held secrets, the role of concealment emerges. Concealment, of course, neatly dovetails with the effects of blindness and silence. Both girls learn how to hide their feelings to avoid the cruelty of their tutor Mr. Erksine, a stereotypical wicked instructor. It’s this episode where what could have been a close-knit relationship between two sisters begins to falter. Mr. Erskine is careful to conceal his own misconduct, so Iris only has Laura’s unexpected and, to Iris’s mind, too calm account of wandering hands to go by. Iris’s confusion borne from ignorance, however we might dislike it, makes sense given the historical context (children were not told about abuse then). Then, as now, the notion of the “good victim” plagues the abused and prevents justice. While concealment for Iris serves as a good survival strategy for dealing with the manipulative Geffen siblings, Laura’s choice to remain silent instead puts her at their mercy. Her choice to sacrifice herself for a loved one instead of confiding in Iris is both tragic and understandable.

In large part, concealment is what ties Atwood’s novel together. The switches among the narratives styles permit us to question the notion of what represents the truth just as it lets Iris keep her secrets a little longer—even as she drops hints in hopes that she won’t have to outright admit her culpability. As she nears her confession, she finally has to embrace the terribleness of should: how she should have assured Laura that she believed her, when she should have said nothing, been kinder, or even lied. How she should have opened up to her daughter, Aimee or rescued her granddaughter Sabrina. At the heart of Iris’s web is her regret that she failed those she loved. Whether readers guess at the big revelations in The Blind Assassin beforehand is somewhat immaterial. Atwood’s narrator whose is compelling enough to merit hearing out. And, Iris may just have finally earned a bit of redemption for giving Sabrina the freedom to reinvent herself.

View all my reviews

Reading Past and Future

Ready to read in the new year

Generally speaking, I avoid the whole “new year, new me” resolutions that plague the early days of January. In my part of the world, January tends to be cold and grey with a chance of snow. After the merry and bright of the darkest nights of December, January already feels like the morning after the night before.[*] Why add the pressure of life-changing resolutions?

To be fair though, I have the bookworm’s long-standing goal to read more, regardless of which part of the year it is. It’s been a rather poignant plan at times, when I haven’t had enough free time to read deeply the way I wanted to do or the focus when I did have time. In 2016, however, I felt like I read a lot of cool books, although I always wish for more time to read more.[†] With that in mind, I’ve compiled a list of the notable books I’ve read (links are to posts that discuss these books).

Since I’m making lists, I thought I’d consider books for 2017 as well. Normally, I let my birthday and Christmas presents[‡] dictate the books that I plan to read for the upcoming year, and I find other books that interest me as the year progresses. I am, however, hoping to get a few suggestions from my readers. Please feel free to post your suggestions in the comment box!

2016 Notable Reads[§]
The Vegetarian by Han Kang

Winnie-the-Pooh by A. A. Milne[**]

The House at Pooh Corner by A. A. Milne

The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood

The Lovely Bones by Alice Sebold

The Complete Sherlock Holmes by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This by Robin Black

Jamrach’s Menagerie by Carol Birch

Sleeping Embers of an Ordinary Mind by Anne Charnock

The Kitchen God’s Wife by Amy Tan

The Joy Luck Club by Amy Tan*

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon

2017 To-Read List
All the Living by C. E. Morgan

Life of Pi by Yann Martel

The Help by Kathryn Stockett

Howard’s End by E. M. Forster

The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd

Bad Feminist by Roxanne Gay

Les Miserables by Victor Hugo[††]

Beloved by Toni Morrison

Take Off Your Pants! Outline Your Books for Faster, Better Writing by Libbie Hawker

Read a good book lately? Share your reading recommendations in the comment section below! Also, sign up for newsletter and stay current with the latest posts!

NOTES:

[*]For some of us, this might be literally true on New Year’s Day.

[†] Just like that guy in the Twilight Zone episode.

[‡] Nothing is sadder than when you DON’T get books for a present.

[§] I’ve read more books than are listed here, but these are the ones that truly stood out as I was putting this list together. Some of these books are also re-reads.

[**] I still can’t believe I’d not read either of these books as a kid.

[††] I’ve actually been trying to read Les Miserables for ages. The problem is it’s so long that I start losing the plot when I put it down. I’m working on finding time to read it uninterrupted so that I don’t lose where I am.

Closing with Character

The New Year and Reviewing Character

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Character” by NY is licensed under CC by 3.0.

The closing of the year is a jumbled-up affair: The summing up of another year juxtaposed with setting up the next year. It’s not dissimilar to beginning a revision, which I’m (finally) undertaking for a short story I recently wrote. Both processes involve reviewing what you did, what you wish you did differently, and what you will do going forward. And, in both cases, it’s a good time to think about character. Writers use numerous techniques to make their fictional persons feel alive, something that greatly interests me as I edit that first draft where the protagonist feels a bit lacking in, well, character.[*] I recently read two books, one a novel and the other a short story collection, that approach the idea of character in compelling if divergent ways that illustrate what we as writers can really do to with our characters.

A clear sense of character or even lack of character, for example, isn’t necessarily a handicap to tale well told. In The Vegetarian,[†] Yeong-he rarely speaks throughout the haunting tale that chronicles the manifestation and evolution of her madness. With the exception of an unsettling dream sequence she recounts (presumably to Mr. Cheong), her story, her words, and her life’s details are told through the perspectives of her husband, brother-in-law, and sister. She is in essence a negative presence, and each narrator can only react to her mysteriously changed behavior and/or guess at her actions. We, as readers, experience their bewilderment in tandem. The result is remarkable: Yeong-he, much like roots of her madness (and seemingly, all madness) remain unknowable.

In contrast to her absent presence, Mr. Cheong (Yeong-he’s husband) defines a lack of character in an altogether different and entirely unpleasant manner. The Vegetarian is not a story for the fainthearted, and Mr. Cheong is clearly the most reprehensible of its denizens—chiefly because he lacks empathy and compassion. The marriage between the two is not a love match: Mr. Cheong aspires to the “middle course”[‡] and finds it “only natural that [he] would marry the most run-of-the mill woman” available (12). Clearly, he represents a certain patriarchal extreme, where marriage means about his needs are being met and indifference to his wife’s interior life, interests, and even mental health. Or, as he puts it, “The strange situation had nothing to do with me” (26). Eventually, her decline, undoubtedly worsened by his neglect and mistreatment, cannot be ignored. Of course, he abandons her; after all:

her expression, which made it seem as though she were a woman of bitter experience, who had suffered many harships, niggled at my conscience. (38)

Where loss seems to shatter and/or disrupt the characters of The Vegetarian, characters in the collected stories of If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This frequently find themselves at crossroads in their lives where they struggle to cope with their losses. “Pine”, an exemplary story of the collection, features the widowed Claire who marvels at the choices Heidi made with her kitchen: Claire decides that, were she in Heidi’s shoes,[§] she would have chosen a smaller, easier to navigate kitchen with a pine floor to deaden the clumping gait of the prosthetic leg (155). Claire’s choices unsurprisingly are for muting: when her daughter questions her about her “friendship” with Kevin, she “think[s] about reassuring that no one could ever replace her father for me. I’m sure that is what she’s really asking” (164). It’s not. Alyssa suspects that Kevin has feelings for her mother and, in insisting Kevin is welcome to attend her soccer game, is assuring her mother that she’s okay with Claire moving forward. Claire instead focuses on how soon she will be losing her daughter to adulthood (165) and keeping Kevin as her “yes-man”—or more accurately, her emotional crutch that prevents her from moving past her widowhood (158-9, 172-3). Both Heidi and Claire have suffered terrible losses due to cancer. Their approach to these losses comes down to character: Heidi eventually found within herself the grit to get on with her life, while Claire (for now) remains exactly where she stood when Joe died.

Character, as Merriam-Webster has kindly reminded me, is complex word that refers to  more than persons of fictional works. It ranges from alphabetic markings to reputation. It suggests moral make-up of individual as well as the identity of groups.[**] It is word that encompasses much, and you need context to understand which character you happen to be dealing with, whether they lack, morals, or strength. Characters of fiction, too, need that complexity or even that mystery to make them real. As I go forward into the New Year, editing away, I’ll be sure to keep my character’s character and this complexity in mind. And, perhaps, mine as well.

Happy New Year!

Which characters caught your attention in 2016? Tell us about whom and why in the comment section below. Also, sign-up to my newsletter to receive notification when new posts are available.

 

NOTES:

[*] New Year’s resolution #1: take it easy on puns.

[†] Kang, Han. Vegetarian: A Novel; Trans. by Deborah Smith. New York: Hogarth, 2015. Print.

[‡] I’m uncomfortably reminded of the advice that Robinson Crusoe’s father gave him about choosing the “middle state” of life at this moment. (Defoe, Daniel. Robinson Crusoe. New York: Bantam, 1991. Print.)

[§] And resolution broken! Amusingly, Claire also considers whether Heidi is “more in denial” about her circumstances (155).

[**] “Character.” Merriam-Webster.com. Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 29 Dec. 2016.

 

Christmas Stories and the Naughty List

The ruiners of Christmas are all about wish fulfillment. Just not yours.

For the last several years, my husband and I have hosted the Christmas Day festivities.[*] When we’re finally alone and things have been cleared away enough for now, we kick off our own holiday celebration by watching The Ref. After weeks of holiday hustling and making the feast festive, we’re ready for a grittier Christmas tale.[†]

And there’s nothing quite like watching the holidays go a bit off the rail.[‡]

You see, Christmas stories can’t seem but to help ending well.[§] The question is really how does everything go wrong and then get righted. Because most stories about Christmas tend to capture our anxiety about making the holidays perfect—the just-so gifts, the traditions warmly observed, the delicious spread, the making of new, joyous memories—in contrast to the more likely realities of working late on/through holidays, indifferent gravies, suspect presents, and cranky kids. Christmas isn’t going to be perfect.

But in Christmas stories, there’s at least someone to blame.

Enter the villains of Christmas, the wicked and nasty folks who won’t let the rest of us have our fun. In sharp contrast to our real lives, the rotten are readily reformed—or at the very least, they are thwarted. Some are one-dimensional characters, really more plot devices than people (the Grinch). We delight in their nastiness and cheer for their comeuppance (the thieves from Home Alone). For more complicated characters, writers have the trick job of convincing us that these characters can be cruel while remaining capable of recognizing that they are the problem (Scrooge). We’ve got to believe they can see the world through other people’s perspectives.

And that may well be the ultimate fantasy fulfilled by the Christmas tale—the gift of understanding. We witness the remorseful father who accepts a child for whom that child actually is (Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer), the miserly bosses who finally understand how their workers truly need funds (A Christmas Carol, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation), and the green men who finally get holidays are bit more than consumerism (How the Grinch Stole Christmas!). However cheesily and unrealistically, we are filled with hope. Perhaps we, too, can find a way to open our own hearts and understand or make ourselves understandable to others.

Or at least thwart those who won’t be nice.

Happy Holidays! And be good to each other.

Who is your favorite Christmas villain and why? Post in the comment section below! Also, sign-up to my newsletter to receive notification when new posts are available.

NOTES:

[*] This is meant to be a lighthearted holiday piece. If you are among those for whom the holidays are a difficult time and are reaching a crisis point, please seek help. You are valuable. For more support, check out https://psychcentral.com/lib/telephone-hotlines-and-help-lines/.

[†] To be honest, there’s a small part of me that identifies with the Grinch railing about all the “NOISE, NOISE, NOISE” of the holidays, all of which deserves a few humbugs.

[‡] Or, rather a lot, in the case of The Ref. Larceny, divorce, and blackmail aren’t your typical holiday tropes.

[§] Except, I’m told, the movie Krampus. But it is mostly comedy/horror film, so it’s not exactly in the standard Christmas genre.