Family has long been a cornerstone of humanity, regardless of time period, location, and culture. This is also true in the stories we read and write, as we discussed in this DIY MFA case study. However, what makes family such an important literary theme? Why do stories that focus on family sometimes lift our spirits and other times hit frighteningly close to home? Since we’ve already covered how to explore this theme, it’s now time to cover the “why.”
In today’s edition of Theme: A Story’s Soul, we’ll examine five reasons that explain the importance of the theme of family. If five sounds like a stretch, then you might be pleasantly surprised as this post goes along. Remember, no two books examine one theme in the same way—which means the reasons for why a theme is so significant are just as numerous and complex.
1) It can remind us of the importance of birth families
For many of us, our biological family is our first and primary social unit. Our relationships with our parents and siblings shape who we are and create the foundation for relationships with people outside the family. If those familial bonds are healthy, we’re more apt to demonstrate genuine love, loyalty, and selflessness as a result. This kind of nurturing is something we often find in the stories we read. The Murrys in Madeline l’Engle’s A Wrinkle In Time, the unnamed man and his son in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, and the Alden siblings in Gertrude Chandler Warner’s The Boxcar Children are just a handful of fictional biological families who demonstrate the power of their love and the great lengths that characters and real people alike will go to maintain or save those relationships.
2) It can address broken families and show how people endure or overcome such circumstances.
Sometimes the happy family is an ideal, and the reality we grow up with is much different. Many authors recognize this; and as a result, some stories that explore the theme of family reveal how complicated, fragile, or painful these relationships can be. Infidelity, disownment, neglect, abuse—such trials and tribulations can shatter families, both literally and figuratively. In fact, the broken or dysfunctional family is a frequent topic in creative nonfiction and memoirs such as Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle and James McBride’s The Color of Water (specifically Ruth McBride’s chapters in the latter).
This angle on the theme doesn’t just stress the trauma that a narrator or fictional character can experience in these families. It also shows how these individuals endure and rise above their circumstances, sometimes by leaving their birth family for a more loving “chosen” family (which we’ll discuss shortly). For some of us, these stories resonate more strongly than those in Reason #1. When we recognize our own not-so-happy family on the page, we feel less alone in our struggles and might be compelled to use the book as a guide to repairing or changing our circumstances for the better.
3) It opens our eyes to different types of families
Not all literary families are comprised of a husband, wife, and children. Many books that delve into this theme feature different types of families, including single-parent families, blended families, and families with same-sex parents. It’s also common for grandparents, aunts, uncles, and other members of the extended family to play crucial roles. (Remember Grandma Lynn in Alice Sebold’s The Lovely Bones? Or Aunt March in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women?) By highlighting characters and relationships outside the traditional family, the theme’s portrayal becomes more multi-dimensional and realistic. We can then develop empathy for characters who grow up in a family structure that’s different from ours, or feel included and respected because we’ve found a literary family that resembles our own.
Similarly, the theme often embraces “chosen families.” Characters might lose their birth family due to distance, death, or other reasons, and then form new bonds with other characters they meet. Sometimes these relationships form out of necessity, like with the refugees in Ruta Sepetys’s Salt to the Sea. Other times they form out of a common purpose or location, like with Ruth McBride and her friends, neighbors, and church community in The Color of Water. These families might not be related legally or biologically, but the kinship they create and nurture is undeniable and realistic. In this way, stories about chosen families help us remember and acknowledge the people we consider to be “as close as family.” They also emphasize the importance of looking beyond our birth families for love, companionship, and support.
4) It can teach us how the concept of family differs across time and culture, and which aspects of family are universal
Pick up a historical fiction book, or a novel or play written over a century ago. Chances are you’ll find stories from long ago that demonstrate the theme of family. Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and Sense and Sensibility, for example, illustrate the impact of social status on a family’s future as well as common familial obligations of 19th century Britain, such as a child’s compliance with their parents’ wishes and the parents’ responsibility for their children’s education and manners.
William Shakespeare’s Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet present darker angles on the theme, but they still address family expectations of Shakespeare’s era, as well as loyalty, love, and other values that are woven into the familial fabric. These and other such stories do more than offer a glimpse into family life in the past. They also reinforce how family has always been a fundamental part of people’s lives, and help us realize how the concept of family has changed over time in some ways and how, in other ways, it hasn’t changed at all.
The same can be said from a cultural perspective. When we engage with stories about families of a different ethnic, religious, or other sociological background than ours, we discover how the character’s culture and beliefs influence the family’s dynamics—and how, despite any differences, our own family might have a lot in common with the family we’re reading about.
Where these stories take place or whether they’re historical (Michelle Moran’s Rebel Queen, Lisa See’s Snow Flower and the Secret Fan) or contemporary (Ibi Zoboi’s American Street, Erika L. Sanchez’s I Am Not Your Perfect Mexican Daughter) doesn’t matter. These family-centric stories teach us empathy by acting as a window into family life in another culture and as a mirror of the values, challenges, and relationships we experience in our own.
5) It can highlight a family’s ability to come together during difficult times
What happens when your family experiences a tragedy or other shared heartache? Do you, your parents, siblings, and anyone else make sacrifices so you can be together to support each other? This is often the case with both real-life and fictional families.
The Pevensie siblings in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, Charlie’s family in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, the Rossignol sisters in The Nightingale are just some of the literary families who struggle to overcome their differences but eventually find a way to reconcile, reunite, or cooperate to achieve a common goal, even if that goal is a sense of restored peace within that family. And when a story’s examination of the theme wraps up in this way, it can be incredibly inspiring. These endings remind us of how vital the ties that bind really are to our existence and how, when we value family beyond measure, we’re willing to do whatever it takes to keep those bonds strong.
In your opinion, why is family an important literary theme? What other reasons would you add to this list? Which family-themed stories have you read that are compelling examples of any of the above?
Sara Letourneau is a poet and speculative fiction writer in Massachusetts who devours good books, loves all kinds of music, and drinks copious amounts of tea. In addition to writing for DIY MFA, she was previously a Resident Writing Coach at Writers Helping Writers, freelance tea reviewer, and music journalist. Her poetry is forthcoming or has appeared in Amethyst Review, Muddy River Poetry Review, Canary, Soul-Lit, The Eunoia Review, Underground Voices, and elsewhere. Visit Sara at her blog, Twitter, Instagram, and Goodreads.