Doctorow's short story, "The Writer in the Family," examines the question of who has been responsible for the fact that Jack, the father, a failed salesman, has not lived up to anyone's expectations. While unanswered, the narrative points to the tremendous matriarchal power in Jewish families.
My aunts had decided on their course of action without consulting us. It meant neither my mother nor my brother nor I could visit Grandma because we were supposed to have moved west too, a family, after all.
Jonathan is assigned by his Aunt Frances to write letters to the family's matriarch, Jack's mother, supposedly from Arizona where the father can, at last, be successful. After these letters are written, they are submitted to Frances who evaluates them. But, when Jonathan decides not to continue the charade, his aunt berates him. Reflecting upon his father's family, Jonathan narrates that the father's family feels that they are
the true citizens by blood and [the in-laws] the lesser citizens by marriage. It was exactly this attitude that had tormented my mother all her married life....She had battled them for twenty-five years as an outsider.
The mother reiterates this opinion when she and Jonathan and Harold go to the graveside of the father.
“Even in the old days....Nobody was ever good enough for them. Finally Jack himself was not good enough for them. Except to get them things wholesale. Then he was good enough for them.”
It seems, then, that each side blames the other for Jack's lack of success; however, perhaps, the real fault is revealed when the mother pulls out the articles that evince the father's history of Naval service. That he would sacrifice his real dreams for either matriarchal side is the tragedy. When the mother takes no blame for the end of his father's dream that Jonathan discovers was real as he looks at the telescope shoved back on a shelf, this fact gives some validity to the opinions of Aunt Frances.