[These materials have been excerpted by the author from Jerome Bump, "The Family Dynamics of the Reception of Art," Style 31.2 (1997): 328-350]

Decorative Initial A book of literary criticism has finally been devoted to using family dynamics in the services of literary criticism: Paula Marantz Cohen's The Daughter's Dilemma: Family Process and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel (1991). Cohen places Richardson's Clarissa, Austen's Mansfield Park, Emily Brontë's Wuthering Heights, Eliot's The Mill on the Floss and James's The Awkward Age in the context of the family system theory that emerged from schizophrenia research, represented by Kerr and Bowen. Believing that the "cross-sexual, cross-generational relationships of father and daughter functioned as the core of the nuclear family" (22), Cohen focuses on the sick daughter's role in the family as the bearer of the family's symptoms. She traces the ways in which psychosomatic illness performs a regulating function, maintaining the closed family system, and on the relationship between "the novel's thematic drive to establish a closed family system" and "its formal drive to closure" (29).

While family systems theory is but one of three contemporary psychologies John V. Knapp relates to literature in Striking at the Joints: Contemporary Psychology and Literary Criticism (1996), he adds many dimensions to the approach pioneered by Cohen. He presents thorough, convincing defenses of interdisciplinary literary scholarship, especially integration of contemporary psychology and literary criticism, and of mimetic or "realistic" literary characterization in the age of postmodernism. He shows us how to reconstruct "a fictional family's system and its emotional life" (61) in terms of the "mimesis" discussed by Tallis (In , 69), Phelan (50), Graff, Hochman and Wachs. He convinces us that we are "inhabitants of a world not entirely or primarily constituted out of parts of speech" (Tallis, Not 63), a world in which language is not self-sufficient but embedded in society and history, especially the history of individual families (6).

Moreover, he brings to literary study the family systems theory that informs the practices of the thousands of family and marriage therapists (who greatly outnumber practicing psychoanalysts). He demonstrates the relevance of this widely effective contemporary psychology to Lawrence's Sons and Lovers and Roth's Call It Sleep. Like Cohen he discusses triangulation and scapegoating, but explores the marital, parental, and sibling subsystems as well. In his subtle exploration of the families of origin of the parents in Call It Sleep, he demonstrates that we do not truly comprehend an individual character unless we understand his entire family system, including the legacies of previous generations. He shows not only the source of dysfunction in the secrets, blame and denial in that family system, but also how that family began to break the bonds of the repetition compulsion by cultivating openness, intimacy, and emotional expressiveness. Knapp concludes with a call for more research "relating family systems ... to literary works from every time and culture" (245).

Family Dynamics and the Limitations of Psychoanalytic and Postmodern Conceptions of Self

Charlotte Brontë Anne Brontë Thomas Hardy

Last modified 1999