At the end of E.L. Doctorow's The Writer in the Family, what does Jonathan learn about his father's past?
At the end of E. L. Doctorow’s short story The Writer in the Family, Jonathan learns a great deal about his father’s past, starting with the revelation from his Aunt Frances that Jack’s life had not been quite precisely as described over the years by his mother. The bitterness that Ruth felt towards Jack’s family had, for years, colored her perceptions of all those around her and, consequently, distorted the perceptions of her children, Jonathan and Harold. Led to believe that his father had been emotionally and professionally abused by his siblings, and that Jack’s failure to attain the level in life to which he may have aspired was directly related to that abuse, Jonathan has grown up believing a story about his father than begins to crumble when presented with an alternative universe. Ruth has further led Jonathan to believe that their dismal financial condition is a direct result of that family history on Jack’s side. It is for these reasons that Jonathan has so resented his Aunt Frances’ requests that he write letters purportedly from Jack to Jack and Frances’ ailing mother, who lives in a nursing home and doesn’t know about Jack’s death.
Unsurprisingly, Jonathan has accepted Ruth’s information without question. How could he not, given the proximity and influence of his own mother over his knowledge of family matters? Resentful of the financial well-being of Jack’s side of the family, Jonathan discusses with his brother Frances’ repeated requests for the bogus letters:
“Then why did Aunt Frances ask me?”
“That is the question, Jonathan. Why did she? After all, she could write the letter herself—what difference would it make? And if not Frances, why not Frances’ sons, the Amherst students? They should have learned by now to write.”
“But they’re not Jack’s sons,” I said.
“That’s exactly the point,” my brother said. “The idea is service. Dad used to bust his balls getting them things wholesale, getting them deals on things. Frances of Westchester really needed things at cost. And Aunt Molly. And Aunt Molly’s husband, and Aunt Molly’s ex-husband. Grandma, if she needed an errand done. He was always on the hook for something. They never thought his time was important. They never thought every favor he got was one he had to pay back. . .[A]ny goddamn thing. Call Jack.”
It is only when Jonathan is surprised by a visit by Aunt Frances that he, for the first time, is confronted with an alternative reality. For the first time, Jonathan is hearing from the other side of the great familial divide. Frances speaks first:
“Your mother has very bitter feelings and now I see she has poisoned you with them. She has always resented the family. She is a very strong-willed, selfish person.”
“No she isn’t,” I said.
“I wouldn’t expect you to agree. She drove poor Jack crazy with her demands. She always had the highest aspirations and he could never fulfill them to her satisfaction. When he still had his store he kept your mother’s brother, who drank, on salary. After the war when he began to make a little money he had to buy Ruth a mink jacket because she was so desperate to have one. He had debts to pay but she wanted a mink. He was a very special person, my brother, he should have accomplished something special, but he loved your mother and devoted his life to her. And all she ever thought about was keeping up with the Joneses.”
Hearing Aunt Frances’ perspective, Jonathan is forced to adopt a more nuanced view of his family -- a view that becomes increasingly at odds with what he has been told by his mother over the years. And, the transformation begins immediately. Having noted his aunt’s physical attractiveness, her well-kempt appearance, Jonathan now views his mother very differently:
“THAT EVENING WHEN my mother came home from work I saw she wasn’t as pretty as my Aunt Frances. I usually thought my mother was a good-looking woman, but I saw now that she was too heavy and that her hair was undistinguished.”
Ruth proceeds to reveal information to which Jonathan had never been privy solely because his mother never cared to tell him and his father was too self-effacing: He had served in the Navy briefly and, as a consequence, Ruth might be eligible for some kind of Veteran’s Administration annuity. In searching for his father’s old military records, he discovers an old photograph of his father and other young sailors from that period and, for the first time, takes an interest in the collection of seafaring-related novels like Moby Dick given to him years before by his father. Raised by his mother to view his father as a pathetic victim of familial ingratitude, Jonathan now reflects upon Jack’s past and upon his relationship to the now dead father: “I thought how stupid, and imperceptive, and self-centered I had been never to have understood while he was alive what my father’s dream for his life had been.”
Jonathan has been awakened to the realities of his family’s existence. His mother, not his father’s siblings and extended family, had been responsible for holding Jack back and crushing his ambitions.