How does each writer present family relationships in Ishiguro's "A Family Supper" and "Chemistry" by Graham Swift?

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Both stories share certain elements. Both involve suicide. Both have to do with power dynamics within their respective families. Both deal with intergenerational conflict. Both feature awkward family meals. Both stories have to do with the theme of loss.

In "A Family Supper ," the family is dealing with...

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Both stories share certain elements. Both involve suicide. Both have to do with power dynamics within their respective families. Both deal with intergenerational conflict. Both feature awkward family meals. Both stories have to do with the theme of loss.

In "A Family Supper," the family is dealing with the suicide of the mother and the father's emotional detachment. There is a sense that the father, in his depression and sudden early retirement, is suffering from a kind of "loss of face" that, for his business partner Watanabe, resulted in the murder of his family and his own suicide. The father's clipped conversation and the son's noncommittal answers about his future plans suggest that a dangerous dynamic is at work: the father's anger at his son's move to California is sublimated by his stiff formality; it's clear that the forgiveness he extends to the son comes at the cost of emotional bitterness and a recognition of deep shame. The ambiguous ending of the story hints that, like Watanabe, the father will kill his entire family rather than endure disgrace.

In "Chemistry," three generations of a family live together: the grandfather, marked by the death of his wife; his daughter, whose husband died in a place crash; and her son. Their delicate balance as a family is upset by Ralph, the mother's suitor, who challenges the grandfather's authority over his daughter. In this story, the metaphor of "chemistry" is pervasive. The grandfather tells his grandson that chemistry is the science of change, of one thing becoming another; and this is precisely the process that is happening in the family. Not only is Ralph a change agent (and is seen as a corrosive agent by the boy, who dreams of changing him by throwing acid in his face), but the grandfather himself is "changed" from a living being to corpse by ingesting prussic acid. The sense is that the "change" the boy sees in her mother is as inevitable as any chemical reaction.

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Both Swift and Ishiguro present family dynamics as ever-changing, ambiguous, and plagued by the dead. In "A Family Supper," the narrator returns from California to Japan two years after his mother has died from eating a poisonous fish called fugu. The narrator's conversations with his father are strained. The author writes of the narrator's father:

"His general presence was not one which encouraged relaxed conversation; neither were things helped much by his odd way of stating each remark as if it were the concluding one."

The father is fixated on the death of his former colleague, Watanabe, who killed himself and his family after the failure of their firm. As the narrator and his sister, Kikuko, wander about the garden and consider the paths their lives will take, the narrator sees a ghost in a white kimono. Later, he sees a picture of a woman in a white kimono whom his father identifies as his mother.

It is clear that the family is plagued by indecision, disappointment, and ambiguity. The narrator is unsure whether he will return to Japan, and his sister is unsure of whether she will return home or travel with her boyfriend to America. The ghost that the narrator sees in the garden symbolizes the doubt that his mother's death casts on him. As his father says, "It's my belief that your mother's death was no accident. She had many worries. And some disappointments." The narrator wonders if he is to blame for his family's fate. In the end, the story concludes on a hopeful note, as the father predicts that his daughter will return home and "Things will improve then." There is some resolution of the doubt and distance that has plagued the family up until that point.

The narrator in Swift's "Chemistry" also deals with a family whose balance has been thrown out of equilibrium by the arrival of Ralph, the mother's boyfriend. The boat that he sails with his grandfather is symbolic of this disequilibrium. The author writes: 

"Then one day--it must have been soon after Mother met Ralph--we watched the boat, on its first trip across the pond to Grandfather, suddenly become deeper, and deeper in the water." 

The sinking of the boat symbolizes the family's distress after Ralph's arrival. Even though the family lived in a depressed state after the death of the narrator's grandmother and father, it was a state of balance, of what the narrator calls "sad symmetry." Ralph knocks this symmetry off balance.

Like the narrator in Ishiguro's story, the narrator in Swift's story is plagued by ghosts. At the end of the story, he sees a ghost of his grandfather standing by the lake where they once sailed boats. The narrator thinks, "He was smiling, and I knew: the launch was still travelling over to him, unstoppable, unsinkable, along that invisible line." The narrator, like that in Ishiguro's story, has achieved some kind of resolution in the midst of ambiguity and imbalance. He achieves some resolution by believing that the ghosts of the dead are still with him. Perhaps you can think of other connections between the narrators in these tales of family dynamics. 

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