Run to the Waterfall

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 16)

Freud’s impact on literature is seen clearly in the modern novelist’s treatment of the family romance. While the novel has always, since its origins in the eighteenth century, been preoccupied with the domestic, it is not until this century that the psychological dynamics of the relationship between children and parents have been given so much close scrutiny. One thinks especially of Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers, Joyce’s Ulysses, and the stories of Kafka, Schnitzler, and Mann. Coming closer to the present, the noteworthy family romanticists are Salinger, Updike, and Roth. Arturo Vivante’s new collection of stories, all of which appeared previously in the New Yorker, is also about the family, and, most effectively, about the way a son battles his dying father, consoled only by the memory of his dead mother, who represents the single paradise he has ever or will ever experience.

Certainly Freud’s definition of the Oedipal triangle awakened writers to the possibility of the family romance. Yet something else was also at work to bring the family and all its erotic entanglements to the attention of both the psychologists and the novelists. During the nineteenth century, because of the tremendous growth of an industrial, democratic society which sought to include everything in its organization, the family began to draw in and to isolate itself in the interest of its own survival. The increasing separation of the family from the larger society deprived its members, in turn, of other sources of affection, forcing them back upon themselves and creating a claustrophobic situation full of the most primitive dangers. In other words, without the necessary social reinforcement, the instincts were allowed in these circumstances to come close to the surface. When taboos weaken, as the Greek and Elizabethan dramatists showed us, murder and incest are often the result. It is no wonder, then, that writers were drawn to examine the intricacies of the modern family. Besides, it is in the home, as Eudora Welty reminds us in her eloquent essay on Jane Austen, that “the interesting situations of life can take place.” It is not only the interesting that occurs there, however; it is also, as she continues, where the “dangerous confrontations and the decisive dialogues” happen—and now with greater frequency, it seems, than ever before.

The difference between the way in which nineteenth and the twentieth century writers dramatize the family romance appears not only in the increased psychological concern of the latter, but also in their respective attitudes toward the family as a humane institution. In the classic novels of our language, for example, the plot often involves the orphan’s obsessive search for a family, the discovery of which marks his or her achievement of an identity and spiritual grace. Tom Jones, Jane Eyre, and David Copperfield can be taken as representative. Indeed, the return of the orphan to the actual family, or the creation of a substitute one in marriage, were presented as a restoral of moral and spiritual meaning lost in some original disaster. The family, in short, assumed religious significance, a replacement of a belief lost in history.

From the modern point of view, the family cannot support such a weight of significance, nor can it bear the burden of supplying all the spiritual needs of the individual. Cut off by choice and necessity from other sources of affection, the family emerges in modern fiction as a cruelly repressive institution that either twists or saps the self’s powers of love and feeling. It not only injures its children by failing to love them or by isolating them from the world, but it can also wound them by providing an overabundance of warm, trusting affection which they can never hope to duplicate in later life. Spoiled by the original paradise where all their needs have been met, these children, like Hamlet, see the outside world as “weary, stale, flat, and unprofitable.” The greatest tragedy they can imagine is the loss of childhood. Like Alice in Wonderland, they regard the adult world as merely inane and insane, dread maturity, and prefer their fantasies to reality. Such families produce sons who love dominating, manipulative women, who withdraw from the world, and who are possessed of a melancholy rooted in anger at their loss. They sing a tune of nostalgia and self-pity.

Such is the song of the protagonist of Run to the Waterfall. Appearing either as the narrator or the center of consciousness of these interconnected stories, Giacomo, the middle son of a Jewish-Italian family, is a man in exile, an immigrant to America who longs for a home in Italy as a substitute for his irreparable loss: his first family with his exuberant, charming mother at its center. Giacomo’s paradise was located on a country estate in Tuscany, purchased in the 1930’s by the grandfather, a law professor in Rome, for the father, an idealistic philosopher who was unable to support his family with his books. During Giacomo’s boyhood, the estate was a place for visiting philosophers, poets, and...

(The entire section is 2087 words.)