Jane Hamilton Hamilton, Jane - Essay


(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

Jane Hamilton 1957-

American novelist and short story writer.

The following entry presents an overview of Hamilton's career through 2001.

After winning the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel with The Book of Ruth (1988), Hamilton continued to attract both critical and popular attention for her series of novels, including A Map of the World (1994), The Short History of a Prince (1998), and Disobedience (2000). With astute psychological insight, Hamilton examines the subtle nuances of family dynamics in the face of tragedy, misfortune, and dysfunction, as her characters are thrust into nightmarish circumstances beyond their control. Her novels are typically set in rural or suburban areas of the American Midwest, where the claustrophobic atmosphere of family and community life often threatens to crush the spirit of the individual. In addition, much of Hamilton's fiction explores the internal lives of her characters, usually voicing their unique perspectives and personal insights through a first-person point of view. Critically acclaimed for her well-drawn characterization and evocative settings, Hamilton was widely recognized by mainstream audiences after The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World were chosen as selections for the Oprah Book Club.

Biographical Information

The youngest of five children, Hamilton was born in 1957 in Oak Park, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago. Her father was an engineer for General Motors, and her mother was a theatre critic for the Chicago Daily News. From an early age, Hamilton's passion for reading and writing were encouraged by her grandmother—a former journalist—and her mother, whose notable poem “A Song for a Fifth Child” appeared in Ladies Home Journal. In 1979 Hamilton graduated from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, with a B.A. in English. While at Carleton, she won the Class of 1885 Prose Award in 1977 and 1979. After graduation, Hamilton accepted an entry-level editorial job at a New York publishing company. Before she moved to New York, however, she stopped to visit a friend who was working at an apple orchard in Rochester, Wisconsin, and eventually decided to stay at the orchard rather than travel to New York. Hamilton later married Robert Willard, one of the orchards' owners, in 1982. In 1983 her first short story, “My Own Earth,” was published in Harper's magazine. The December 1983 issue of Harper's published her story “Aunt Marji's Happy Ending,” which was later cited as a Distinguished Short Story of 1984 and recognized in The Best American Short Stories, 1984. Hamilton's first novel, The Book of Ruth, has been awarded the PEN/Hemingway Award, the 1989 Banta Award, and the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award. When Oprah Winfrey, the popular American television talk-show host, launched her book club in 1997, she chose The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World as early selections. Subsequently, both novels became international best-sellers. A film adaptation of A Map of the World was released in 1999.

Major Works

Typically set in the Midwest, Hamilton's novels address the suffering, redemption, and resilience of the human spirit often found in contemporary American families. Inspired by a series of homicides in rural Wisconsin in 1983 when several men killed their mothers-in-law, The Book of Ruth is set in the fictional town of Honey Creek, Illinois. Ruth, the protagonist, is a sensitive and creative young woman who struggles to survive in her emotionally isolated and poverty-stricken community. While recounting her childhood experiences—marred by an emotionally abusive mother and a largely absent father—Ruth falls in love with and marries Ruby, an emotionally unstable man. The couple moves into Ruth's mother's small house, where the ensuing conflict between son-in-law and mother-in-law violently escalates to an inevitable conclusion. Set in the fictional town of Prairie Center, Wisconsin, which is slowly changing from a rural to a suburban area, A Map of the World tells the stories of Alice and Howard Goodwin and their young daughters. The local community has continued to treat the family as outsiders despite their six years of residency in Prairie Center running a dairy farm. Divided into three parts alternately narrated by Alice and Howard, the novel opens with the accidental drowning death of a neighbor's two-year-old daughter whom Alice agreed to baby-sit. Underscoring the town's suspicions of Alice's character, the tragedy snowballs into a series of false accusations that Alice has also molested local schoolchildren. Alice is subsequently arrested and sent to jail to await trial. At this point, Howard's narration begins, recounting his struggles to keep his family intact and the events of his wife's trial. Exonerated after the trial, Alice resumes her story, which includes her reconciliation with the dead two-year-old's mother and the family's eventual decision to leave the farm. In a marked departure from Hamilton's usual protagonists and themes, The Short History of a Prince is a coming-of-age story about a gay man who struggles to reconcile his high school fantasies with the realities of his adult life. A third-person narrative, the novel concerns Walter McCloud, whose story alternates between events during the 1970s and 1990s. The first section features fifteen-year-old Walter studying ballet—and dreaming of performing the role of Prince Siegfried in the Nutcracker—at the same time that his older brother is dying of Hodgkin's disease. The second section follows thirty-eight-year-old Walter as he returns to the Midwest to teach high school English and attempts to come to terms with his homosexuality after spending the intervening years working at a Manhattan dollhouse factory. Narrated in the first person, Disobedience centers around Henry Shaw as he remembers his coming-of-age at the age of seventeen. After prying into his mother's e-mail account, Henry discovers that she is having an extramarital affair. The rest of the narrative focuses on the effects and implications that this discovery brings to bear on Henry's relationships, particularly with his mother.

Critical Reception

Critics have widely praised Hamilton for her insight into the human psyche and her effective treatment of such themes as forgiveness and suffering, often favorably comparing her novels to the works of Jane Smiley and Sue Miller. Reviewers have also lauded her efforts to create characters endowed with sensitivity and endurance, particularly the protagonists of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World. Although commentators have frequently noted the realistic portraits and evocative atmospheres of everyday Midwestern life in her novels, especially as experienced by women, some have argued that the plotting of A Map of the World is both predictable and mechanical. Some critics have also complained that Hamilton's novels tend to be overly sentimental and melodramatic, sometimes comparing her plots to those of television soap operas. However, Hamilton's supporters have asserted that her distinctive authorial voice, precise language, and subtly nuanced characterizations greatly outweigh any perceptions of formulaic plotting. Reviewers have also remarked that, despite the dominantly feminine perspectives of her early novels, Hamilton constructed a striking and believable male point of view in The Short History of a Prince. Commentators have additionally compared the stream of consciousness narration of the male protagonist in Disobedience to that of Holden Caulfield in J. D. Salinger's Catcher in the Rye.

Principal Works

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

The Book of Ruth (novel) 1988; published in Great Britain as The Frogs are Still Singing, 1989

A Map of the World (novel) 1994

The Short History of a Prince: A Novel (novel) 1998

Disobedience (novel) 2000

Suzanne Berne (review date fall 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Berne, Suzanne. “Dreams of Love.” Belles Lettres 4, no. 1 (fall 1988): 13.

[In the following review, Berne outlines the plot of The Book of Ruth, highlighting its central themes in contrast with those of Elizabeth Benedict's The Beginner's Book of Dreams.]

You would miss Honey Creek, Illinois, if you were driving through “listening to your favorite song on the radio or telling a story about your neighbor.” It is one of those small, depressed towns that flick by your car window, just another collection of houses needing paint and a cow pasture. But in this town lives Ruth, a luminous spirit encased in a homely child, waiting for someone to stop...

(The entire section is 1403 words.)

Judith Paterson (review date 5 February 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Paterson, Judith. “Labors of Love and Loss.” Washington Post Book World, 19, no. 6 (5 February 1989): 6.

[In the following review, Paterson examines the elements of classical tragedy in The Book of Ruth.]

In a return to be welcomed, love and God seem to be making their way back into fiction. Jane Hamilton's passionate and adroit first novel, The Book of Ruth, seldom shows the hand of the beginner as she unravels the tragedy of a young woman's inability to reconcile her love for her sweet, slightly deranged husband, Ruby, and her loyalty to her mother, May, a mean-spirited woman driven half-mad by a lifetime of emotional deprivation.


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Jay Parini (review date 24 November 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Parini, Jay. “Into the Nether Regions.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4521 (24 November 1989): 1313.

[In the following review, Parini focuses on Hamilton's characterization in The Frogs are Still Singing, the title under which The Book of Ruth was published in Great Britain. He compares the novel's preoccupation with poverty and isolation to Carolyn Chute's Letourneau's Used Auto Parts and Susan Richards Shreve's A Country of Strangers.]

Perhaps because of the obvious and painful contrast between the rich and poor of their country, American writers from Steinbeck and James T. Farrell to Raymond Carver and Bobbie Ann Mason have been...

(The entire section is 993 words.)

Suzanne L. MacLachlan (review date 3 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: MacLachlan, Suzanne L. “One Woman's Map of a Troubled World.” Christian Science Monitor 86, no. 133 (3 June 1994): 13.

[In the following review, MacLachlan assesses the themes and plot of A Map of the World.]

Jane Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth, for which she received the PEN/Hemingway Foundation Award for best first novel, has written another engrossing, powerful book that should attract some much-deserved attention.

A Map of the World is not an easy or light read; indeed, it takes on some of the toughest issues of modern life. But the writer's skill in describing a community and a way of life, as well as her insight...

(The entire section is 650 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 5 June 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “Some Things are Unforgivable.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (5 June 1994): 5, 15.

[In the following review, Eder describes the principal characters of A Map of the World in the context of the novel's narrative structure and themes.]

In a patch of Wisconsin woods, late on a summer afternoon, two women stand a few feet apart, each leaning her back against a tree and swatting mosquitoes. They face the same direction; neither looks at the other. They were best friends but Alice had a moment of distraction while minding Theresa's baby, Lizzie, and the child wandered off and drowned in the farm pond. Now, days later, Alice is almost mute...

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Moureen Coulter (review date fall 1994)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Coulter, Moureen. “After the Fall.” Belles Lettres 10, no. 1 (fall 1994): 25, 27.

[In the following review, Coulter summarizes the central themes of A Map of the World, noting that Hamilton's examination of the power of forgiveness is “remarkable.”]

What does it mean to fall from grace, and where do the fallen go? Are they forever banished from their former blessedness, or can they hope to regain its heights? These theological questions have structured many a catechism over the years, but even children who learn the answers “by heart” can later have trouble applying them to the unforeseen messiness of their adult lives. Alice Goodwin, the...

(The entire section is 766 words.)

Jean Hanff Korelitz (review date 20 January 1995)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Korelitz, Jean Hanff. “Slouching to Suburbia.” Times Literary Supplement, no. 4790 (20 January 1995): 20.

[In the following review, Korelitz praises A Map of the World for its skillful evocation of rural Midwestern life.]

Jane Hamilton's tense novel [A Map of the World] opens with the accidental drowning of a two-year-old girl. While her two daughters and her best friend's two daughters, whom she is minding, are all playing downstairs, the narrator, Alice Goodwin, dashes upstairs to look for a bathing-suit, happens on the long-forgotten map of the world she had drawn the summer of her mother's early death, and pauses over it for one...

(The entire section is 743 words.)

Carol J. Pierce (review date September 1996)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pierce, Carol J. “Dairy Farm Tragedy.” English Journal 85, no. 5 (September 1996): 109-10.

[In the following review, Pierce highlights the realistic portrayal of daily life on Midwestern farms for women in A Map of the World, drawing thematic and character comparisons to classical tragedy.]

Books take us to lands and times we can only imagine and let us encounter characters who people a culture or an era much different from our own. This is a message we impress on our students daily. However, lately, it seems more of us are interested in the people and places of what we term the “real world.”

The recent popularity and exploding...

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Jane Hamilton and Sybil Steinberg (interview date 2 February 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Jane, and Sybil Steinberg. “Jane Hamilton: A Kinship with Society's Outcasts.” Publishers Weekly 245, no. 5 (2 February 1998): 68-9.

[In the following interview, Hamilton discusses the inspiration for the characters and themes of her novels through The Short History of a Prince.]

A young man coming of age in suburban Illinois in the 1970s, obsessed with ballet, literature and classical music, aware that he's gay but determined to remain closeted. The protagonist of a novel by David Leavitt, Alan Gurganus or Dale Peck? Not this time. While these gay male writers would seem to own the territory, it's a female novelist praised for her depiction of...

(The entire section is 2135 words.)

Richard Eder (review date 29 March 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Eder, Richard. “The Dollhouse.” Los Angeles Times Book Review (29 March 1998): 2.

[In the following review, Eder offers a positive assessment of The Short History of a Prince, praising the novel's “sympathy and nerve.”]

If you are William and the world won't accept you as William and you have to keep fighting so that it will, then what do you call yourself once it does? The question stirs uneasily within what is conveniently known as gay fiction; it is one that Jane Hamilton—married to an apple grower and mother of two—explores with sympathy and nerve.

Hamilton, author of The Book of Ruth and A Map of the...

(The entire section is 1353 words.)

Jane Hamilton and Judith Strasser (interview date May-June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Jane, and Judith Strasser. “Daily Harvest: At Work with Novelist Jane Hamilton.” Poets & Writers 26, no. 3 (May-June 1998): 32-45.

[In the following interview, Hamilton discusses her family and career during two meetings with Strasser—one at a public reading, the other at Hamilton's home—detailing the effects of The Book of Ruth on both areas of Hamilton's life.]

Awards and royalties, rave reviews and Oprah aside, practical Jane Hamilton follows a self-prescribed diet of daily doggedness when it comes to writing. She says she starts by sitting in her study, which overlooks her family's orchard, and “committing bad words to...

(The entire section is 5073 words.)

Rosellen Brown (review date June 1998)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Brown, Rosellen. “Something Completely Different.” Women's Review of Books 15, no. 9 (June 1998): 6-7.

[In the following review, Brown focuses on the dual passions of Walter, the protagonist in The Short History of a Prince, noting his key differences from Hamilton's previous protagonists.]

Although readers may turn to us for guidance, book reviewers infrequently have a chance to think much, or at least long, about the work at hand. Film, drama and music critics have far shorter deadlines, but still we rarely have the leisure to let a book settle in our minds, let alone sink below consciousness level. That's a pity, because fiction works differently...

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Jane E. Gordon (review date winter 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gordon, Jane E. Review of The Short History of a Prince, by Jane Hamilton. Antioch Review 57, no. 1 (winter 1999): 115.

[In the following review, Gordon examines the disparity between the protagonist's extraordinary dreams and his ordinary life in The Short History of a Prince.]

This story [The Short History of a Prince] is about the transformative power of ordinariness, coming to terms with death, and acceptance of real life. One might say it is about the death of fantasy, and the acceptance of ordinary reality. Told in a style that juxtaposes the present and past of Walter McCloud, a Midwestern English teacher in the present, gay adolescent in...

(The entire section is 333 words.)

Amy Levin (essay date spring 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Levin, Amy. “Familiar Terrain: Domestic Ideology and Farm Policy in Three Women's Novels about the 1980s.” NWSA Journal 11, no. 1 (spring 1999): 21-43.

[In the following essay, Levin traces the influence of 1980s myths about family life on the heroines of A Map of the World, Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres, and Bharati Mukherjee's Jasmine, explicating each novel's perspective on “family” in terms of a specifically Midwestern American identity and the interaction between global farming policies and political ideology.]

During the 1980s, Republican administrations glorified nostalgic visions of family life. These visions coexisted with...

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Susan Salter Reynolds (review date 15 October 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Reynolds, Susan Salter. Review of Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton. Los Angeles Times Book Review (15 October 2000): 11.

[In the following review, Reynolds assesses the characters of Disobedience in light of typical family relations in modern society.]

Henry [in Disobedience] is 17, a bit of a hacker but not completely solitary. His sister Elvira is 13 and obsessed with the Civil War. In reenactments that she lives to participate in, she pretends to be a boy. Henry's mother, Beth Shaw, is a folk musician; his father, the socialist, teaches history at a high school in Chicago, where the family moved from Vermont. Henry learns by reading his...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Ron Charles (review date 9 November 2000)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Charles, Ron. “A Family Quartet out of Tune with Itself.” Christian Science Monitor 92, no. 245 (9 November 2000): 18.

[In the following review, Charles analyzes the principal characters of Disobedience in terms of the relationship between technology and human nature.]

Jane Hamilton has written a novel so disturbing that no one will enjoy reading it. But Disobedience is so provocative that you must.

Certain books capture the interaction between new technology and old human weakness at just the right moment. In The Octopus, Frank Norris used the sprawling railroads of 1901 to explore the ancient terror of losing control...

(The entire section is 899 words.)

Jane Hamilton and Pegi Taylor (interview date January 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hamilton, Jane, and Pegi Taylor. “Jane Hamilton: Good Writing Is in the Details.” Writer 114, no. 1 (January 2001): 26-31.

[In the following interview, Hamilton discusses her writing process and teaching career, her inspiration for and significance of various elements in Disobedience, and the roles of setting and humor in her novels.]

Jane Hamilton has had a meteoric writing career. Her novel, The Book of Ruth, won the PEN/Hemingway Foundation award for best first novel in 1989. A Map of the World, her second novel, landed on The New York Times bestseller list in 1994. Both books, which feature rural women struggling to come to...

(The entire section is 3619 words.)

Molly McGrann (review date 2 February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: McGrann, Molly. Review of Disobedience, by Jane Hamilton. Times Literary Supplement, no. 5105 (2 February 2001): 23.

[In the following review, McGrann explores the significance of the disconnect between past and present in the characters of Disobedience, observing that the novel's tension hinges on the relationship between mother and son.]

Thirty-eight-year-old Beth Shaw (Eliza) is having an affair with a Ukrainian violinist, partly conducted through passionate daily e-mails [in Disobedience]. These are discovered by seventeen-year-old Henry Shaw when he accidentally opens his mother's file. “I was the boy in the family and therefore,...

(The entire section is 494 words.)

Nicci Gerrard (review date 11 February 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Gerrard, Nicci. “Truth and Deception.” Observer (11 February 2001): 15.

[In the following review, Gerrard focuses on the emotional consequences of knowledge and truth on the narrator of Disobedience, particularly as they affect his relationship with his mother.]

Jane Hamilton is the chronicler of family relationships; the cartographer of the human heart. Everyday catastrophe blows apart the lives of her characters, so that pain, guilt and all the tensions and terrors of intimacy are exposed. In all her books the domestic is turned into the epic. Sorrow is a human condition. Betrayal becomes an earthquake rumbling along the fault lines of love. A...

(The entire section is 490 words.)

Vicky Hutchings (review date 12 March 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Hutchings, Vicky. “Boy Talk.” New Statesman 130, no. 4528 (12 March 2001): 55-6.

[In the following review, Hutchings emphasizes the interplay between the narrator's teenaged and adult perspectives in Disobedience.]

Henry Shaw, the 17-year-old narrator of Jane Hamilton's Disobedience, is a modern-day Holden Caulfield. Using his mother's password (Liza38), he logs on to her computer and, like any teenager, is outraged to discover that she has “got mail”. “What was the old girl up to?” Why, she is having an affair with a man who lives in Wisconsin, no less.

But there's a potential problem. A Holden Caulfield would not be able...

(The entire section is 495 words.)

William H. Pritchard (review date summer 2001)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: Pritchard, William H. “Fiction Chronicle.” Hudson Review 54, no. 2 (summer 2001): 313-19.

[In the following review, Pritchard examines a selection of recent novels, including Disobedience, arguing that Hamilton's realistic portrayal of a mother-son relationship is “a solid and credible achievement.”]

William Trevor's most recent collection of short fiction has met with universal praise, an unusual consensus even for such a distinguished writer.1 As one of the reviewers who praised it, I can't help wondering whether anything in addition to the clear merit of his work is responsible for the unanimity. It may have something to do with a...

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Further Reading

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)


Archer, Kirstie. “A Map of the Human Heart.” Lancet 357, no. 9260 (24 March 2001): 968.

Archer offers a positive assessment of Disobedience, noting Hamilton's ability to “make a story with themes covered so many times before resonant and compelling.”

Brownrigg, Sylvia. “The Scarlet Letters.” New York Times Book Review (19 November 2000): section 7, p. 9.

Brownrigg acknowledges Hamilton's “warm” and “humane” portrayal of the modern American family in Disobedience but criticizes the novel's “inertness” and lack of immediacy.

Cassidy, Christine....

(The entire section is 322 words.)