The Nontraditional Family Depicted in Literary Works Analysis

At Issue

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Through the presentation of families other than the nuclear family, which is assumed to be the norm, literature shows how nontraditional families fulfill, or fail to fulfill, the functions of nurturing, teaching, protecting, and providing, which are the family’s main purposes for existing. Nontraditional families include single-parent households, stepfamilies, adoptive families, grandparents or other nonparent relatives raising children, and homosexual couples with or without children. Large extended families living together might also be considered to be nontraditional (although this kind of family is traditional) because it is relatively rare in North America in the late twentieth century.

The traditional nuclear family is actually a relatively new family unit. In many cultures and throughout much of human history, families included many more people: grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, and various in-laws. Families have also historically included fewer members than the nuclear family does. Death from childbirth, wars, diseases, and desertion have long removed members of families. Literature shows that stepparents, stepsiblings, half-siblings, and in-laws are not modern inventions. The ways in which these variant families are accepted or not accepted by their communities can inform the reader about the culture and time period being discussed and about the culture and time period that produced the story.

Governments and religions have refused to acknowledge certain groups as families. Mothers and their out-of-wedlock children have often been refused the status granted other families. Stepchildren and stepparents have often had trouble coming to an understanding with one another. Gay and lesbian couples have almost always been denied the right to live together and the right to raise children.

Young Adult and Children’s Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Because family is so important to younger children and identity to older ones, the literature directed at these audiences deals extensively with these issues. Younger children need stories that show that their parents love them and will protect them, and younger children need stories that show that it is natural for families to have occasional strife. Teenagers need stories that show them other teenagers facing the same problems that they or their peers face, including family problems.

Traditional families are often shown in this literature, but, increasingly, so are other types of families. Controversy has surrounded many of these texts, in particular those that address the most nontraditional family, the gay or lesbian couple. Leslea Newman’s Heather Has Two Mommies (1989) and Michael Willhoite’s Daddy’s Roommate (1990) are two of the better-known works that address this issue. Written for younger readers, these books are meant to show that there is nothing wrong or abhorrent about these families, families which children may experience. Some claim, however, that there is something wrong or abhorrent about gay or lesbian families, and that children should be so told.

Examples of how adolescents struggle to find their identities can be found in Cynthia Voigt’s novels about the Tillerman family and their friends. The father of the four Tillerman children—Dicey, James, Maybeth, and Sammy—never married their mother,...

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Contemporary Adult Literature

(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Literature for adults also addresses nontraditional families, but it is rarer that the search for identity within the family is a major element of the work. Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982) examines one woman’s escape from the bondage of a traditional marriage. Anne Tyler’s The Accidental Tourist (1985), details a broken marriage and a close relationship between adult siblings. Barbara Kingsolver’s Pigs in Heaven (1993) explores the issues of adoption and the desire of Native Americans to keep their children within their heritage. Dorothy Alison’s Bastard out of Carolina (1993) is a disturbing look at how an illegitimate child’s extended family tries to protect her when her mother chooses to stay with a boyfriend even after watching him rape the girl. In adult fiction, the traditional family is often portrayed in a critical light.

Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel The Handmaid’s Tale (1985) contains a particularly disturbing depiction of women who have had their identities stripped away. Their society calls them, and treats them as, Wives, Aunts, Marthas, Econowives, Handmaids, Jezebels, or Unwomen. No room for individuality is left to them in the patriarchal, almost polygamous, society of the novel. Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Left Hand of Darkness (1969) details how society and family might look if every person had the ability to be either a father or a mother. Marge Piercy’s Woman on the Edge of Time (1976) shows the trials of an older Hispanic woman in late twentieth century America, where she has been declared insane and lost custody of her child. John Varley’s Steel Beach (1992) examines questions of identity, with a particular emphasis on gender.

Two canonical novels that address the issue of nontraditional families include Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter (1850), which explores the relationship between a single mother and her child and the mother’s relationship with the father of that child and with her husband. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852) addresses the breakup of slave families in the service of economics. The novels of William Faulkner, including The Sound and the Fury (1929), examine the pain that families can cause when different family members have different expectations regarding the importance of pride and honor.


(Society and Self, Critical Representations in Literature)

Suggested Readings

Beer, William R., ed. Relative Strangers: Studies of Stepfamily Process. Totowa, N.J.: Rowman & Littlefield, 1988. An examination of the dynamics of stepfamilies, discussing stepparent-stepchild relationships, blended families, and half-siblings.

Bettleheim, Bruno. The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales. New York: Random House, 1975. Examines what fairy tales teach and how fairy tales may affect children. Family interactions receive a great deal of attention.

Coontz, Stephanie. “The American Family and the Nostalgia Trap (Attributing Americans’ Social Problems to the Breakdown of the Traditional Family).” Phi Delta Kappan. 76, no. 7 (March, 1995): 1-20. This article discusses the myths that surround the debate over traditional and nontraditional families in American society.

Washington, Mary Helen, ed. Memory of Kin: Stories About Family by Black Writers. New York: Doubleday, 1991. This is a collection of stories and poems about families, traditional and nontraditional. Of particular note are the stories and poems about slaves and the problems they had keeping their families together.