Motherless Brooklyn

by Jonathan Lethem

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Student Question

How are the themes of "family" and "loyalty" defined and exemplified in Motherless Brooklyn?

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Family and loyalty are mutually interdependent throughout Jonathan Lethem’s novel. The Minna Men, as they come to see themselves, were raised as orphans, so their growing loyalty to Frank Minna helps create a surrogate family. When the four men were children, their severe emotional deprivation from living in St. Vincent’s Home for Boys began to create a bond among them. It is not certain that their bonds would have been as strong without Frank’s input. The positive side of his paternal influence is shown through their conviction that he cares for and looks out for them. Not quite as positive is the type of activities that he is involved in and which become the source of their livelihood. One could argue that the activities become their obsession. The boys tried to protect both Frank and themselves by maintaining what they believed was a safe distance from aspects of the clients’s lives that did not concern them.

The situation grows more complex with Frank’s death. The men now have to be responsible for each other without the paternalistic control that Frank exercised over them. Because their primary relationship had been vertical, with each of them feeling a stronger loyalty to their superior than to their peers, interpersonal conflicts erode the cohesion that they need to pursue the killer. Although the book is about “motherless” boys, it is their fatherless state that ultimately enables them to become men.

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