Sights Unseen

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

In Kaye Gibbons’ SIGHTS UNSEEN, Harriet Barnes recalls her tumultuous relationship with her mentally ill mother, Maggie. Set in the 1990’s after Maggie has been sane for a number of years, Harriet’s story unfolds in flashbacks from the 1960’s. Through these flashbacks, Harriet tries to make sense of the circumstances of her mother’s manic depression and its effects on her and her family.

Harriet’s flashbacks underscore her strange childhood. She spends most of her youth feeling as if she has no mother, particularly as her mother spins further out of control into mania. She finds herself unable to understand the mental illness or her mother’s incapacity to care for anyone, even herself. Reared essentially by her housekeeper, Pearl, Harriet spends most of her childhood being alternately overwhelmed and ignored by her mother.

Maggie creates a brilliant splash of drama and activity in this novel. Though her manic episodes are retold from Harriet’s point of view, many of them end up being humorous rather than frightening. Gibbons takes great care in trying to re-create the mind of one who is mentally ill. Because of its dramatic effect in the text, however, Maggie’s mania threatens to take over the novel, eventually subsuming Harriet’s perspectives, even as she tries to tell her own story. Although the novel proposes to be about the building of the mother/daughter relationship between the two women, Maggie’s problems create too much drama for the text. As a result, there is no time left to explore the complexities of the rebuilding which Harriet and Maggie must do after Maggie is healed.

Although SIGHTS UNSEEN does present a realistic picture of a family struggling to deal with mental illness in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Gibbons fails to adequately present the specific problems this illness would create between mother and daughter, the avowed purpose of the novel. Gibbons seems to want to do too much in this novel; consequently, Maggie’s mental illness takes precedence over the exploration of Maggie and Harriet’s reconciliation.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. September 10, 1995, p. M3.

Los Angeles Times. October 9, 1995, p. E5.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 24, 1995, p. 30.

The New Yorker. LXXI, August 21, 1995, p. 115.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, June 5, 1995, p. 48.

Southern Living. XXX, December, 1995, p. 88.

Times-Picayune. October 1, 1995, p. E6.

USA Today. November 2, 1995, p. D4.

Sights Unseen

(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

When Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster (1987) was published, critics hailed her protagonist’s youthful, abrasive voice as a new addition to southern literature. Since then, Gibbons’ novels have offered her readers glimpses into other haunting interiors, primarily showing psychological tensions between southern women.

In Sights Unseen, her fifth novel, Gibbons continues to explore familial terrain using first-person narration, this time in an attempt to uncover the memories of Harriet Barnes, only daughter of a manic-depressive mother. Told from Harriet’s perspective as an adult, the novel explores the relationship between the emotionally neglected Harriet and her manic mother, Maggie. Though the novel conveys the social stigma of mental illness, in a larger sense the novel fails to illustrate the fragile mother- daughter relationship. Furthermore, the use of first-person narration, so effective in Gibbons’ earlier novels, seems largely problematic rather than useful in this novel.

Sights Unseen opens in the early 1990’s, some time after Maggie has died in a freak accident. Most of the action of the piece, however, occurs in flashbacks from around and before 1967, the year Maggie was hospitalized and diagnosed with manic depression. Harriet’s retelling of her life with a manic-depressive mother and the often freakish childhood events that shaped her adult life is reminiscent of Gibbons’ earlier narrators, particularly Ellen of Ellen Foster, who, like Harriet, had to adapt to often horrific circumstances. Yet unlike Ellen, who so masterfully takes control of that novel, Harriet Barnes seems to be merely a pawn in her mother’s game. Consequently, her reflections often define her mother’s character while diminishing her own. Though Harriet’s plight should be at the center of the text, Maggie’s manic episodes are so dramatic that she becomes the main character of the novel; the narrator seems a mere observer rather than someone intimately connected with the story’s events.

One of the problems Gibbons encounters in using mental illness as the centerpiece for this novel is in the sheer liveliness and “fun” of manic activity. Had she chosen a more dire mental illness such as schizophrenia or clinical depression, the reader might have found Maggie’s plight more heart-rending. Under the spell of mania, Maggie resembles a lovable drunk—someone who must be protected and coddled by her family. Because of her lively presence, Maggie is far from the villain of the piece. As with John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), readers know that they should despise Maggie, but they cannot, because she is so beautifully drawn and her mania is almost a pleasure to behold.

For example, Maggie becomes convinced that she has connections to several political, literary, and cultural figures of the day. Eventually she fixates on Robert Kennedy, who she believes will one day leave his wife for her. Acting on her expectations, she telephones several neighbors in an attempt to ascertain what a Catholic might like to eat for dinner. Even the event that concludes a six-week manic episode remains mostly comic in its ludicrousness. In this episode, Maggie drives downtown and runs over a woman because she thinks that the woman is dressing like her, wearing the coat, and adopting her mannerisms. Maggie fears that the woman is trying to steal her soul.

Maggie’s assertiveness and assuredness in her manic moments, particularly the way she forces others to listen to her and play along, make her likable and knowable, despite her insanity. Though Gibbons tries to undercut Maggie’s attractiveness, she fails at conveying the horror of a woman whose moods and ideas change hourly. The main problem is that Harriet never seems to be as affected by these occurrences as the reader thinks she could, and perhaps should, be.

Harriet has little to say about the significance of the events she relates. Though she is theoretically recalling her childhood from the vantage point of an adult who has learned from her experiences, she often presents remembered events as pristine artifacts, allowing the reader to decide how they would affect a twelve-year-old girl. While this technique saves the novel from becoming too maudlin, it also takes away Harriet’s narrative presence in the recounting, allowing Maggie to take over the text. Harriet’s detachment presents problems when juxtaposed to what appears to be Gibbons’ purpose in the narration—to illustrate the nurturing needs of an essentially motherless young woman.

Because Gibbons largely refrains from editorializing, she seems to struggle to make...

(The entire section is 1923 words.)