Last Updated on February 23, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 513
Intense and Unusual Familial Relationships
On one level, Stead’s portrayal of family life is as a small and petty sort of existence. Despite the novel’s occasional diversions into the affairs of the wider world, as with Sam’s work commitments in Malawi, readers soon come to realize that “The true setting of Stead’s novel is Pollitland.” An unpleasant sense of claustrophobia is produced by the close proximity of estranged parents and frightened children, all of whom communicate in their own familial language whose unusual idioms and sayings have the paradoxical effect of making a reader feel excluded while simultaneously forcing them to enter a world to which they feel themselves an intruder. But in her characterization, particularly of the parents, Stead also evokes a sense of grandeur, what Jane Smily in the Guardian terms “that sense of unstoppable and fated intensity that literature usually reserves for kings and queens.”
This misplaced majesty of Sam and Henny’s furthers the burlesque absurdity of both parents as characters. It can be observed in Sam’s self-righteous refusal to defend himself from the accusations of his colleagues and in Henny’s suicide, which is rich with dramatic flare and ceremony.
This novel is rife with violent acts, both physical and psychological in nature, being perpetrated by Sam and Henny against their children. The sardonic, even comic manner in which Stead handles this violence is shocking; the intensity of both parents as characters and how this intensity contrasts with the passivity of their children is profoundly disturbing. Still more disturbing is Stead’s portrayal of the novel’s concluding act of violence, the attempted poisoning by Louie of her mother, as somehow heroic.
Immaturity and the Reversal of Parent/Child Roles
The chief irony of Stead’s work is that the parents are the immature figures, while the children increasingly demonstrate signs of awareness as to their situation. Sam’s immaturity lies in his commitment to ideals, his child-like faith in justice which blinds him to the injustices he perpetrates as a tyrannical father on his children. Meanwhile, his “love” for his children is such that he fails to recognize their increasing material needs. Henny, meanwhile, is more mature than her husband in that she recognizes both her husband’s shortcomings as a “little tin Jesus,” and the family’s material situation. Nonetheless, the abuse, both physical and psychological that she perpetrates on her children, especially on Louie, suggest a selfishness all her own. The intimation is that she is disappointed both with herself and with her children and is expressing this disappointment in the form of violence, first against her children and later against herself.
Louie’s increasing realization of her situation meanwhile indicates a kind of coming-of-age, which is reflected in the growing maturity of her artistic productions. Her constant endeavors to impress her father and her ultimate attempt to kill her mother suggest an oedipal progression toward adulthood, a type of adulthood that she ultimately rejects when she flees from her family to discover a new life for herself.