Last Updated on December 12, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 753
Michael Ondaatje is the author and narrator of Running in the Family. In this fictionalized memoir, he examines the stories of his family and his home country of Sri Lanka, formerly known as Ceylon, in order to better understand his family history and formulate his notions of self and identity. He is particularly interested in knowing the story of his father, Mervyn, from whom he was estranged at a young age when his mother, Doris, left his father. Michael travels to Sri Lanka, where he was born, from his home in Canada; in the writing of his book, he uses a variety of approaches to tell the stories of his family, ranging from travel writing to magical realism to autobiography, in the forms of both prose and poetry.
Mervyn is Michael's father and an alcoholic. Through the many family stories recounting his irresponsibility and outrageous behavior, Mervyn becomes a tragicomic figure; by the end of the book, he is revealed to be a man who has lived much of his life in emotional pain, suffering under a heavy weight of anxiety and depression. Mervyn grew up during the early part of the twentieth century, an era known for its hedonism, and his family was considered upper-class in Sri Lanka, which was then known as Ceylon. Mervyn served as an officer in the Ceylon Light Infantry. Michael seeks to understand Mervyn better through his writing of the book Running in the Family.
Doris is Michael's mother; she left Michael's father, Mervyn, after enduring fourteen frustrating years of marriage. Like Mervyn, Doris is from an upper-class family in Sri Lanka. She attracted Mervyn's attention after he had already declared himself engaged to a young woman he met while at Cambridge. In her youth, Doris enjoyed singing and the dramatic arts and inspired the affections of many young men, and she sometimes employed theatrics while trying to cure Mervyn of his alcoholism. Ultimately, all of her efforts to help her husband failed, and she left Mervyn, taking their four children with her. Michael writes about his mother's pride and strength of character, which enabled her to work hard in a hotel in order to make a living with which to support her children.
The author's maternal grandmother, Lalla, had a difficult relationship with her daughter Doris, and Michael explains that his mother never speaks to him about Lalla. Lalla's eccentric personality is displayed in the many stories about her love affairs and her pursuit of her own desires. She raised her children on her own after her husband, Willie, died. When she was approaching old age, the dairy farm Lalla had taken over from Willie failed, so she began to roam the country, staying with various people at different times. Lalla had a particularly close relationship with her brother Vere, who never married and drank heavily with Lalla and others. Ultimately, Lalla died by drowning when she was carried by a flood to the ocean while drunk.
Willie was the first husband to Lalla, Michael's maternal grandmother. He died very young, and Lalla was forced to raise their two children on her own as well as run their dairy farm. While losing Willie left Lalla in a difficult position, it also gave her the unexpected freedom to look for her own happiness.
Francis de Saram
Francis de Saram was a friend of Michael's parents, Mervyn and Doris. Francis enjoyed parties and drinking, much like the rest of his social group during the hedonistic 1920s and 30s. His significance in the book is more symbolic than literal, as he was the first of Mervyn and Doris's peer group to die an alcohol-related death. After Francis died, his friends became disoriented, viewing his death as a waste and an end to their careless approach to fun and to life in general.
Michael's paternal grandfather and Mervyn's father, Philip Ondaatje was a very different man to his son. Though Philip's approach to life was much more responsible than Mervyn's, he was unable to teach Mervyn to be a more responsible adult. Philip made himself a wealthy man through a series of successful real estate transactions, but Mervyn's alcoholism eventually led Mervyn to lose all the affluence Philip had acquired.
Gillian is Michael's sister, with whom he travels to Sri Lanka to learn more about their family. Gillian works as a researcher and, at one point, tells a story of Michael being bathed as a five-year-old boy, which Michael recounts in the book.
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