Jayne Anne Phillips Long Fiction Analysis
In style and technique, Jayne Anne Phillips has been compared with earlier writers of the American South, such as William Faulkner and Eudora Welty. Recurring themes in her work include those of family, change, loss, and the difficulty of communication.
Machine Dreams, Phillips’s first novel, has been widely praised as the first nonpolemical treatment of the Vietnam War. Phillips uses World War II and the war in Vietnam as background and metaphor for the family conflicts of the Hampsons. Because the primary focus is on the families at home, both wars are described through letters: those of Mitch, fighting in the Pacific in World War II, and his son Billy, fighting in Vietnam. Just as Phillips parallels the combatants’ letters home, she also contrasts the reactions to the wars of their families and of American society as a whole. The saga of the Hampson family is thus a microcosm of the conflicts in American society during the twentieth century.
Family is clearly the most important theme in Machine Dreams as Phillips, like earlier twentieth century southern novelists, employs multiple narrators to portray the Hampsons’ family history and internal conflicts. Initially the focus is on the multigenerational story of the Danners and the Hampsons. The novel begins with Jean Danner Hampson’s letter to her daughter, Danner, chronicling the Danner family history. When Mitch Hampson, Jean’s husband, tells his story in the next section, it too begins with an account of his parents, insofar as Mitch knows their story. Soon, however, the focus shifts to the changes within the Hampson family and their society. In many ways the family member most responsive to the changes taking place, Danner narrates six sections, in contrast with her mother (three), her father (four), and her brother (four). Ultimately Danner also seems the most logical member of the family; in contrast, Billy’s fatalism is seen in his refusal even to try to avoid military service, though he is certain he will be sent to Vietnam.
Another significant theme of the novel is change, usually accompanied by a kind of loss. Mitch responds with anger to any change, but Jean gradually develops the self-confidence to initiate change. Jean describes the losses that have changed her life—specifically, the deaths of her mother and her fiancé Tom. For Mitch, the losses began even earlier; he has been told that his mother left immediately after his birth and his father died in the mines a few years later. Mitch has been raised by his father’s sisters, especially Bess, whom he regards as a mother figure. When he believes his actions have put Katie, Bess’s delicate daughter, in jeopardy, his nightmares about the Pacific are replaced by terrible dreams of Katie’s funeral. Mitch’s losses continue, however, when the death of his business partner leads to the company’s bankruptcy. At the same time, Jean has earned teacher certification and become the family’s primary breadwinner. This change, even more than the loss of his business, fuels Mitch’s anger, which is directed especially at Jean. The family’s greatest loss occurs, however, when Billy is declared missing in action in Vietnam and neither Danner nor Mitch can discover the truth about his fate.
Throughout Machine Dreams, family members simply cannot communicate with one another. Jean’s parents shout at each other through locked doors, and she repeats the pattern as she argues with Mitch, who seems to yell at his family much more often than he converses with them. Eventually Jean and Mitch realize that their failures of communication have damaged both of their children. Danner adopts the types of rebellion common among young people in the 1960’s, and Billy drops out of college without telling either parent. In addition, neither Danner nor Billy seems able to establish a healthy romantic relationship.
Machine Dreams consists of a series of vignettes, perhaps reflecting Phillips’s original preference for short stories. Most of these vignettes reflect the personalities of their narrators, but the language is consistently lyrical—from the beginning, when Danner dreams of horses and Billy dreams of airplanes, to the conclusion, when Danner must try to...
(The entire section is 1760 words.)