Hereditary misery: The dysfunctional family and multigenerational transmission in Jonathan Franzen’s "The Corrections" and Cynthia Shearer’s "The Wonder Book of the Air"

Seminar Paper, 2007

20 Pages, Grade: 1


Table of Contents

Introduction: Inescapable Revictimization?

1. The American Family
1.1. Ideal and Idealization
1.2. Dysfunction

2. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections
2.1. Family Structure and Christmas
2.2. Dysfunction and Revictimization
2.3. Helpless Attempts of Corrections

3. Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air
3.1. Dysfunctional Family and Family Patterns
3.2. Marriage and Love
3.3. Genealogy and Revictimization

Conclusion: Family as Simultaneous Stability and Curse


Introduction: Inescapable Revictimization?

In times of the decline of the family as a social parameter we witness an unquestionable popularity of the family novel in American literature. Are authors writing desperately against the unraveling nuclear family, against patchwork constellations and second and third marriages? Is this merely nostalgic reminiscence, a longing for the long lost? In my paper I will argue that the portrayal of the family in Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections and Cynthia Shearer’s The Wonder Book of the Air is a rigid dissection of the pathological cycle of dysfunction, family often produces. It leaves every generation with the burden of the latter’s failures and a lifelong struggle against reproducing revictimization.[1] It is rather a sober account of the family as it is, than a sugar-coated stroll down memory lane. In life and literature the family is still a hot topic. It being such a popular matter of investigation in novels today is proof of the fact that the family is not close to being overcome or even outdated, but rather that the patterns depicted are somewhat universal and also thinkable in other constellations of belonging and kinship, biological or emotional (See McCarthy 6).

In her novel The Wonder Book of the Air Cynthia Shearer beautifully depicts the misery of the Durrance family that is handed down three generations. It is an inescapable cycle of misery, but also one of a certain kind of stability and reliance and ultimately hope, that is produced by love, marriage and child-rearing. While Shearer’s novel is set in the Deep South employing a multi-perspective mode, Franzen’s The Corrections strikes the reader as a technically fairly traditional story, nevertheless sharp, sarcastic, and new in its content. It is the story of the Lamberts, a failing Mid-Western family on their way to personal catastrophe.

In a first step I will briefly describe the American family ideal and idealization and the dysfunctions, especially the multigenerational transmission families are prone to develop through unhealthy behavioral patterns. In a second and third step I will investigate both The Corrections and The Wonder Book of the Air regarding the depiction of family and its structures, and I will show that both authors portray cases of multigenerational transmission par excellence. I will finally prove that the described misery is hereditary in a sense of recurring revictimization hard to overcome.

1. The American Family

In order to examine family structures that lead to unhealthy or even pathological behavior, we must understand the American family, its ideal and also its idealization. Before we can focus on the dysfunctions, and how they are portrayed in the two novels, we have to first take a quick look at the smallest social unit, the family as a system.

1.1. Ideal and Idealization

The idealized American family[2] has its roots in the Bible, in church, and in a social code of behavior (See Scott/Wishy 579). It is perceived more as a natural than a social unit (See Cherlin 161), and it consists of parents and children with an at-home-mother who is mainly concerned with raising the children and the household chores. Even nowadays, when women and mothers are educated and pursue careers, the father as the patriarchal head of the household remains role model and decision-maker (given the fact we are looking at a traditional family, not at a step- or patchwork- constellation). While the husband and father lives in two spheres, the home and his work sphere, mothering comes naturally and with great emotional satisfaction to women (See Ibid.). It fulfills them and is their main role and purpose.

The family is an orderly structured system “with a clear division of labor, authority, and even emotions – between husband and wife and between parents and children” (Ibid. 159). There is a nostalgic belief that a strong family provides “warmth, comfort, security, and discipline for its members administered by a strong father and a nurturant mother” (Ibid.).[3] While the father is father, provider, social subject, and so on, the perfect mother is only mother. She is “not perceived as a person with other tasks, emotions, needs, or history, but was only seen as a mother” (Ibid. 175). She doesn’t feel the urge to get away from her family or to pursue own goals or even have interests of her own. For the ideal mother “the family [is] not just enough; it [is] everything” (Weiss 123).

Such an idealized family is aware of their importance for the American society and eager to hold up its values and celebrate its holidays with the appropriate spirit and sense of community. Holidays, and especially Christmas and Thanksgiving are very important for the American family. They are a social and familial ritual. Enid Lambert instrumentalizes Christmas to desperately try to restore something that has never really been: unity and happiness. She doesn’t know how else to channel her ambition to unite the family than through formal holiday demands.

Ideal families in contrast to the idealized and the dysfunctional are healthy, functioning families. The members of a healthy family are not without problems, but rather with the ability of solving them. They communicate well, and adapt to changes.

My main focus will be the multigenerational transmission of dysfunctional behavior in the two novels reviewed. A healthy family can avoid such a cycle of perpetuating pathological behavior: it stays healthy because it is able to change, and it changes because it is able to communicate (See Nichols/Schwartz 55). The adaptation especially to new phases of the life cycle of the family (adolescence, the children leaving home, etc.) is crucial to a healthy family atmosphere. If the family can’t change to meet the new requirements of the next phase, dysfunctions develop (See ibid. 126). We can witness this behavior nicely in Enid who absolutely ignores that her children are grown and have lives of their own. She tries to hold on to Christmas rituals fit for school children. (For example, when she wants Denise to pin the last ornament on the Christmas tree.

“The last ornament was a Christ baby in a walnut shell. Pinning it to the tree was a task for a child, for someone credulous and hopeful, and Denise could now see very clearly that she’d made a program of steeling herself against the emotions of this house, against the saturation of childhood memory and significance. She could not be the child to perform this task.” [Franzen 542f] ).

The two families examined here, the Lamberts in The Corrections and the Durrances in The Wonder Book of the Air, both do not have sufficient communication skills. Communication either plainly doesn’t exist, or is marked by misunderstanding, lies, hurt feelings, or untold truths.

1.2. Dysfunction

Multigenerational Transmission is the term I will use for the process of a family’s past influencing the future of the generations to come and “emotional processes [that] are passed down through the generations” (Nichols/Schwartz 123). It is a term mostly used for the transmission of chronic anxiety and depression. But even worse mental illnesses, for example, schizophrenia, can be traced back three generations or more by analyzing family dynamics that help to produce such diseases (See ibid. 44).

Children will fight against their role assigned to them by their family when they leave home to become the author of their own lives. They swear they won’t ever turn out like their parents (as perfectly seen in Gary Lambert in The Corrections and Field Durrance in The Wonder Book of the Air), but unfortunately “it usually catches up with them” (Ibid. 124), and it takes a determined fight and self-recognition to undergo a lasting change.

Research has shown that not only are fathers perfectly able to perform infant caretaking tasks, but children benefit greatly from such a two-parent split of responsibilities, both emotionally and cognitively (See Cherlin 206). It is therefore important for both parents to actively participate in the raising of the children. Although I will not participate in what is called “mother blaming”, a professional position, popular in the 1970s and 1980s, that blames parents and especially mothers for all mental illnesses and personal and social problems of their offspring (See ibid. 175), it is important to recognize the role of the dysfunctional parents and family in perpetuated pathological and insensible behavioral patterns.

2. Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections

Jonathan Franzen’s novel The Correction follows the narrative conventions of literary realism (See Rohr 92), but is beyond realistic. It is often put in the category of hysterical realism, a phrase coined by James Wood in 2000,[4] or even crackpot realism. It retreats to the realms of the smallest social unit, the family, to explain greater social systems.[5] The unforeseeable forces and dangers of life, the fears and feelings of the individual are triggered by the unorderly, chaotic world (See Bukiet 16). Crackpot realism refers to the narrator as a crackpot, a madman. His madness and problems refer to a loss of a healthy sense of reality. It is a genre that has an out of touch concept of the world, perception, and reality. Just like the novel of manners, which can be seen as a predecessor of the crackpot realism, it emphasizes the subject and his or her perception. Every single member of the Lambert family is depressed or has some type of mental health issue. Their overall depressions, their loss of control, their need of corrections are linked to the world’s state, and they are somewhat typical for society.[6] To explore familial relationships to “illuminate the American experience” (Wakefield 1) and society is a common practice for American authors.


[1] In my paper I will use the psychological terms multigenerational transmission (See Nichols/Schwartz 123ff) and synonymously revictimization when I describe the handing down of behavioral patterns involuntarily and subconsciously imitated by the following generations resulting in dysfunctional family structures.

[2] Although the ideals, traditions, and origin of the American and European family differ widely in some areas, and an examination of those distinctions would be very interesting, this cannot be subject of discussion in this paper. I will restrict my investigation to the American family ideal without contrasting it to other culture’s family ideal or discussing its roots and origin.

[3] Of course such values and gender roles have been widely and interdisciplinarily challenged.

[4] He used this phrase in an article called The Smallness of the ‘Big’ Novel: Human, All Too Inhuman on Zadie Smith’s novel White Teeth.

[5] In The Corrections many social topics are reflected in the family history of the Lamberts. Consumerism, capitalism, free markets, secularization, and the impact of globalization are subjects discussed on the scale of the smallest social unit, the family. These elements cannot be discussed at length in this paper, since I will restrict the focus of investigation to family structures and behavioral patterns.

[6] Alfred speaks of a universal American depression, due to the lack of a frontier. “I wonder if we’re depressed because there’s no frontier anymore. Because we can’t pretend anymore there’s a place no one’s been. I wonder if aggregate depression is on the rise, worldwide” (Franzen 347). People turn to the new pharmaceutical, chemical frontier.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


Hereditary misery: The dysfunctional family and multigenerational transmission in Jonathan Franzen’s "The Corrections" and Cynthia Shearer’s "The Wonder Book of the Air"
University of Frankfurt (Main)  (Institut für England- und Amerikastudien)
Continuity and Change in Contemporary Southern Literature
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Hereditary, Jonathan, Franzen’s, Corrections, Cynthia, Shearer’s, Wonder, Book, Continuity, Change, Contemporary, Southern, Literature
Quote paper
Julia Merkel (Author), 2007, Hereditary misery: The dysfunctional family and multigenerational transmission in Jonathan Franzen’s "The Corrections" and Cynthia Shearer’s "The Wonder Book of the Air", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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