Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The first question that this story poses is exactly what is meant by “artificial” in its title? Toby’s desire for a family has an artificial easiness about it. Perhaps he savors the idea of a family more than the reality of complex people with mysterious pasts. Mary’s commitment to Toby seems even more clearly artificial and dishonest. She and Samantha appear artificial or unreal; they appear out of nowhere and disappear equally mysteriously. However, Mary is overly concerned with the artificial quality of the Easter basket that Toby buys in a store instead of making it himself.

In exploring definitions of love and the struggle for power within a family, “The Artificial Family” addresses the sanctity of marital love—a love that demands willing, imperfect, vulnerable partners engaged in forming a more perfect union. Toby, the character most concerned with his ability to love, seems to exemplify unconditional love and acceptance. His courageous act of saving Samantha from being hit by a car and his grief after her later departure indicate that he has fully entered into the relationship. Toby desires to have more children and unconditionally accepts Samantha despite his own parents’ misgivings.

Mary prizes her independence and her ability to abandon a bad marriage without hesitation. Her hardened “survivor” mentality prevents her from displaying vulnerability or showing her true personality. Toby notices that her face seems artificial, like a mask, after they fight over the Easter basket. Mary resists Toby’s offer to help with child care and resents depending on him.

Toby’s concern with his ability to love, his high regard for family, and his desire for children—all qualities that are generally regarded as feminine—stand opposite to Mary’s masculine independence, unresponsiveness, and refusal to invest in the relationship. Mary seems to lose authority over her daughter because of Toby’s abundant attention and lax discipline; her leaving may be read as an attempt to reassert her control. Mary and Toby attempt to love each other, but too many “artificial” impediments bring their marriage to an end.