Sights Unseen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 392

In Kaye Gibbons’ SIGHTS UNSEEN, Harriet Barnes recalls her tumultuous relationship with her mentally ill mother, Maggie. Set in the 1990’s after Maggie has been sane for a number of years, Harriet’s story unfolds in flashbacks from the 1960’s. Through these flashbacks, Harriet tries to make sense of the circumstances...

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In Kaye Gibbons’ SIGHTS UNSEEN, Harriet Barnes recalls her tumultuous relationship with her mentally ill mother, Maggie. Set in the 1990’s after Maggie has been sane for a number of years, Harriet’s story unfolds in flashbacks from the 1960’s. Through these flashbacks, Harriet tries to make sense of the circumstances of her mother’s manic depression and its effects on her and her family.

Harriet’s flashbacks underscore her strange childhood. She spends most of her youth feeling as if she has no mother, particularly as her mother spins further out of control into mania. She finds herself unable to understand the mental illness or her mother’s incapacity to care for anyone, even herself. Reared essentially by her housekeeper, Pearl, Harriet spends most of her childhood being alternately overwhelmed and ignored by her mother.

Maggie creates a brilliant splash of drama and activity in this novel. Though her manic episodes are retold from Harriet’s point of view, many of them end up being humorous rather than frightening. Gibbons takes great care in trying to re-create the mind of one who is mentally ill. Because of its dramatic effect in the text, however, Maggie’s mania threatens to take over the novel, eventually subsuming Harriet’s perspectives, even as she tries to tell her own story. Although the novel proposes to be about the building of the mother/daughter relationship between the two women, Maggie’s problems create too much drama for the text. As a result, there is no time left to explore the complexities of the rebuilding which Harriet and Maggie must do after Maggie is healed.

Although SIGHTS UNSEEN does present a realistic picture of a family struggling to deal with mental illness in the 1950’s and 1960’s, Gibbons fails to adequately present the specific problems this illness would create between mother and daughter, the avowed purpose of the novel. Gibbons seems to want to do too much in this novel; consequently, Maggie’s mental illness takes precedence over the exploration of Maggie and Harriet’s reconciliation.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. September 10, 1995, p. M3.

Los Angeles Times. October 9, 1995, p. E5.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 24, 1995, p. 30.

The New Yorker. LXXI, August 21, 1995, p. 115.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, June 5, 1995, p. 48.

Southern Living. XXX, December, 1995, p. 88.

Times-Picayune. October 1, 1995, p. E6.

USA Today. November 2, 1995, p. D4.

Sights Unseen

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1923

When Kaye Gibbons’ Ellen Foster (1987) was published, critics hailed her protagonist’s youthful, abrasive voice as a new addition to southern literature. Since then, Gibbons’ novels have offered her readers glimpses into other haunting interiors, primarily showing psychological tensions between southern women.

In Sights Unseen, her fifth novel, Gibbons continues to explore familial terrain using first-person narration, this time in an attempt to uncover the memories of Harriet Barnes, only daughter of a manic-depressive mother. Told from Harriet’s perspective as an adult, the novel explores the relationship between the emotionally neglected Harriet and her manic mother, Maggie. Though the novel conveys the social stigma of mental illness, in a larger sense the novel fails to illustrate the fragile mother- daughter relationship. Furthermore, the use of first-person narration, so effective in Gibbons’ earlier novels, seems largely problematic rather than useful in this novel.

Sights Unseen opens in the early 1990’s, some time after Maggie has died in a freak accident. Most of the action of the piece, however, occurs in flashbacks from around and before 1967, the year Maggie was hospitalized and diagnosed with manic depression. Harriet’s retelling of her life with a manic-depressive mother and the often freakish childhood events that shaped her adult life is reminiscent of Gibbons’ earlier narrators, particularly Ellen of Ellen Foster, who, like Harriet, had to adapt to often horrific circumstances. Yet unlike Ellen, who so masterfully takes control of that novel, Harriet Barnes seems to be merely a pawn in her mother’s game. Consequently, her reflections often define her mother’s character while diminishing her own. Though Harriet’s plight should be at the center of the text, Maggie’s manic episodes are so dramatic that she becomes the main character of the novel; the narrator seems a mere observer rather than someone intimately connected with the story’s events.

One of the problems Gibbons encounters in using mental illness as the centerpiece for this novel is in the sheer liveliness and “fun” of manic activity. Had she chosen a more dire mental illness such as schizophrenia or clinical depression, the reader might have found Maggie’s plight more heart-rending. Under the spell of mania, Maggie resembles a lovable drunk—someone who must be protected and coddled by her family. Because of her lively presence, Maggie is far from the villain of the piece. As with John Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost (1667, 1674), readers know that they should despise Maggie, but they cannot, because she is so beautifully drawn and her mania is almost a pleasure to behold.

For example, Maggie becomes convinced that she has connections to several political, literary, and cultural figures of the day. Eventually she fixates on Robert Kennedy, who she believes will one day leave his wife for her. Acting on her expectations, she telephones several neighbors in an attempt to ascertain what a Catholic might like to eat for dinner. Even the event that concludes a six-week manic episode remains mostly comic in its ludicrousness. In this episode, Maggie drives downtown and runs over a woman because she thinks that the woman is dressing like her, wearing the coat, and adopting her mannerisms. Maggie fears that the woman is trying to steal her soul.

Maggie’s assertiveness and assuredness in her manic moments, particularly the way she forces others to listen to her and play along, make her likable and knowable, despite her insanity. Though Gibbons tries to undercut Maggie’s attractiveness, she fails at conveying the horror of a woman whose moods and ideas change hourly. The main problem is that Harriet never seems to be as affected by these occurrences as the reader thinks she could, and perhaps should, be.

Harriet has little to say about the significance of the events she relates. Though she is theoretically recalling her childhood from the vantage point of an adult who has learned from her experiences, she often presents remembered events as pristine artifacts, allowing the reader to decide how they would affect a twelve-year-old girl. While this technique saves the novel from becoming too maudlin, it also takes away Harriet’s narrative presence in the recounting, allowing Maggie to take over the text. Harriet’s detachment presents problems when juxtaposed to what appears to be Gibbons’ purpose in the narration—to illustrate the nurturing needs of an essentially motherless young woman.

Because Gibbons largely refrains from editorializing, she seems to struggle to make sense of the events Harriet recounts. Offhandedly, Harriet discusses her mother’s initial rejection of her as an infant, then later as a young adult. In one telling anecdote, Harriet becomes physically ill, but because her mother is having a manic attack, she is forced by circumstance to take care of her mother. Harriet points out this reversal in a rather cavalier manner. Her stoicism in the face of her mother’s tempests seems less poignant than dull-witted, particularly since Harriet is speaking as an adult. If Gibbons expects her readers to care about Harriet’s plight, Harriet needs to be less a youthful narrator and more an adult character.

The flashbacks seem to take the bite out of Harriet. Though she appears to tell the stories of rampage and insanity from the viewpoint of a child, she fails to appear believably bewildered. Eventually, the reader becomes unsure who is narrating—the child or the woman. Consequently, there is little of the immediacy one might expect from first-person narration except when Harriet discusses her manic mother. This shift in emphasis further undercuts Gibbons’ ability to keep Harriet at the center of the text.

The novel seems further blighted by Gibbons’ attempts to find a moral in the story; Harriet, in her retelling, hints at such a moral, but Gibbons never fully develops it. Harriet struggles to find her mother in the many masks of Maggie’s mania. Within the first pages of the novel, Harriet claims that she “never abandoned the ideal of a mother” and that she and her mother “caught each other just in time”; thus the reader is deprived of most of the suspense of the novel—the two are reconciled. Readers learn from another flashback that Harriet’s mother has died in a freak accident after being “sane” for fifteen years and that Harriet is deeply upset by her mother’s death and fears she will not be able to rear her daughter without her mother’s presence. These clues suggest a novel of reconciliation or, at the very least, a novel dealing with a difficult relationship and showing how the difficultly is resolved. Gibbons’ suggestions at the outset of the novel, however, work against her. Because Harriet does not give voice to the actual reconciliation, the novel seems oddly off center, as if most of the important action occurs after it is over.

The reader does see the feeble beginnings of reconciliation, after Maggie undergoes eight electroconvulsive shock treatments and begins taking a wonder drug called Miltown. When she gets home, she asks Harriet to read with her in her room (tellingly, Harriet reads Frankenstein [1818]; Maggie is deep into a copy of East of Eden [1952] that she has stolen from the mental hospital). Later, Maggie begins to attend school functions and act more as a healthy mother might act. Still, the difficulties of the real reconciliation that Harriet hints at during the course of the novel, the years of trust building and anger, occur outside the novel’s scope. Sights Unseen records the most dramatic part of the relationship, the easiest part to tell, and the most titillating. A sane Maggie would not offer as much dramatic flair as a mad Maggie. Maggie gets pushed into the background after she is healed, as if her strength of character rested in her mania—a dangerous assumption about the mentally ill that Gibbons perpetuates through this authorial decision.

Despite these criticisms, Sights Unseen does succeed as a sort of case history of a family caught up in the mysteries of mental illness in the 1950’s and 1960’s. Despite the fact that Maggie Barnes begins acting strange in 1948, Frederick Barnes, Hattie’s father, does not take her in for treatment until 1967, and then only after Maggie hits the woman with her car and the family needs medical proof that she is insane. Until that point Maggie is coddled by her husband and father-in-law, allowed long days in bed when she is depressed and shopping sprees when she is manic. Indeed, her father-in-law seems to take great pleasure in squiring her around town as she buys clothing, furniture, and jewels, all in excess of her needs. To keep her contained in the house when she is not feeling well, her husband hires housekeepers, all of whom quit until Pearl Wiggins appears. Pearl takes on the task of nurse, keeping Maggie from hurting herself and others and, most important, keeping her away from the rest of the world when she is ill.

The family’s willingness to hide Maggie away and medicate her mania with Sominex and alcohol seems ludicrous to modern readers, but Maggie’s relatives seem to believe that they are doing the best they can under the circumstances. As Harriet points out in the novel, the Barneses are lucky because they can afford the illness—the housekeeper-cum-nurse, the spending sprees, the expensive treatment at Duke University Hospital. Yet the concealment of the patient and the denial of the illness that self-medication suggests indicate that the Barneses also simply do not want to be publicly seen as harboring mental illness. Led by its stalwart patriarch, Mr. Barnes, a man so fierce that no one except Maggie ever stands up to him, the family seems content to let him “handle” Maggie. He seems content to spend what must be thousands of dollars on Maggie in order to keep her illness from becoming apparent to the townspeople. He even offers to pay off police officers and the media in order to keep her car incident a secret. Because of the social stigma of the disease, the family follows Mr. Barnes’s lead and develops strict internal codes and structures to protect itself from the intrusion of outsiders.

This rallying around Maggie, however, does her very little good except as a stopgap maneuver. Instead, she becomes a victim of her family’s inability to admit she needs professional help. Maggie’s family literally traps her in her mania.

Gibbons seems to have a much too ambitious agenda for Sights Unseen. Although the novel does make insightful points on the ways that families respond to mental illness, Sights Unseen fails to touch more than the surface of the tumultuous relationship between Harriet and Maggie. By limiting Harriet’s voice to flashbacks, Gibbons loses the immediacy of her youthful experience and limits the reader’s involvement in her problems with her mother. The mother rather than the daughter becomes the focal point of the novel, undermining the self-proclaimed significance of the narrator’s need to be reconciled. Had Gibbons attempted to show only the effects of mental illness or only the relationship between mother and daughter, she might have been successful, but the narrative structure that she has chosen for Sights Unseen prevents her from fulfilling her ambitious agenda.

Sources for Further Study

Atlanta Journal Constitution. September 10, 1995, p. M3.

Los Angeles Times. October 9, 1995, p. E5.

The New York Times Book Review. C, September 24, 1995, p. 30.

The New Yorker. LXXI, August 21, 1995, p. 115.

Publishers Weekly. CCXLII, June 5, 1995, p. 48.

Southern Living. XXX, December, 1995, p. 88.

Times-Picayune. October 1, 1995, p. E6.

USA Today. November 2, 1995, p. D4.

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