Before and After

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

In A Voice of One’s Own: Conversations with America’s Writing Women (1990), Mickey Pearlman points out that one of Rosellen Brown’s major themes is the power of the irrational in the lives of even the most rational of human beings. This theme was evident in Brown’s first two novels, The Autobiography of My Mother (1976) and Tender Mercies (1978). While the crucial events in these early works are simply tragic accidents, the central incident in Before and After is a murder, one that the relatives of the killer would like to believe was in some sense an accident. In their attempt to understand the crime, to diminish or excuse it, the murderer’s mother, father, and sister come to recognize the fearful effects of irrationality, not only on other people but also on their own thought and conduct.

Before and After is set in Hyland, a small New Hampshire town where Carolyn and Ben Reiser have chosen to spend their lives and to rear their children. Their social acceptance has never been a problem. Their occupations are prestigious: Ben is a sculptor with some success, Carolyn a popular pediatrician. As a couple, they seem ideal. What the practical, rational Carolyn lacks in imagination, Ben more than makes up for. The tolerant, loving family atmosphere has been reflected in the conduct of the Reiser children. Neither seventeen-year-old Jacob Reiser nor his fourteen-year-old sister, Judith, ever has been in serious trouble. At home, their offenses run to chaotic housekeeping or thoughtless absence from meals, for which they are routinely rebuked by parents who, like all parents of adolescents, are considered peculiar by their offspring. Despite such minor disagreements, it is obvious that both of the young Reisers have a deep affection for Ben and Carolyn.

The “Before” of Brown’s novel effectively is summed up in her brief prologue. There, the author describes a home movie evidently made when Jacob and Judith were much younger. In it, the four members of the Reiser family simply act foolishly for the camera. The fact that this was no special occasion, just a typical time in the life of a happy family, makes the events that follow even more shocking.

The rest of Before and After deals with what happens “After”—that is, after the brutal murder of Martha Taverner at Jacob’s hands. Although she chooses to tell this story in the third person, the author does not serve as an omniscient narrator, nor does she use a single character as narrator. Instead, she changes narrators, chapter by chapter, thus at the same time effectively revealing character and presenting the story from different perspectives.

Interestingly, the author permits only Carolyn, Ben, and Judith to serve as narrators. When Jacob confesses to his family, more than halfway through the novel, his account is incorporated in Ben’s narration. This is one reason for the fact that, as critics have complained, Jacob never does become a fully realized character. It may be that Brown eliminated Jacob from the work of narration for that very purpose. Certainly the agony of the other major characters stems in part from their uncertainty about who Jacob really is: a normal adolescent who has had a momentary lapse, or a sadistic person whose real nature has been concealed from his family and perhaps from himself.

Before and After is divided into three parts, each of which takes one phase of the dramatic action to completion. In the first part, the body of Martha Taverner is discovered, and the police chief comes to the Reiser home to question Jacob, who was one of Martha’s boyfriends. Jacob, however, has disappeared. In the days that follow, his parents are torn between their fears that something might have happened to him and their realization that if he is safe, as they hope, his flight suggests that he is guilty of the crime. When they begin to receive postcards in his handwriting, mailed from various parts of the country, they are reassured but puzzled. Finally, the family is notified that Jacob is in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

The second part of Before and After begins with Jacob’s arrest in Cambridge and his return to Hyland, where the attempts of the police to question him meet with no success. Jacob will not speak, either to the authorities or to his family. Despite his silence, however, most of the community considers him to be guilty, and as a result, Jacob and his family are treated as pariahs. Ben’s friends suddenly have no time for him; Carolyn’s patients disappear; and at her school, Judith is tormented and ostracized. Then, when Jacob does find his voice, it is only to confess to his family that he did indeed kill Martha. According to his story, she had goaded him mercilessly, but in any case, he admits that he struck her repeatedly. This new knowledge is even more troubling than his silence, which at least left some room for speculation.

Judith is the narrator throughout almost all the final section. After...

(The entire section is 2062 words.)