Themes and Meanings
Terms of Endearment is a book about the failure of human relationships. None of the love relationships described in the novel, whether familial or romantic, is quite satisfactory, but the characters involved cling to them in order to stave off loneliness. Aurora Greenway’s frenzied love life masks a profound fear of being left alone. When at length she settles on General Scott as her principal suitor, she is fully aware of the compromises involved but equally aware that her lofty expectations will never be fulfilled by any one man. Bereft of the illusions that sustain her mother’s, Emma’s love life is a joyless cycle of thwarted extramarital affairs. The secondary characters mirror this pervasive lack of fulfillment: Rosie Dunlup’s disastrous marriage and Vernon Dalhart’s perpetual virginity are representative of the novel’s bleak view of romantic love.
Ultimately more tragic, however, is the failure of the mother-daughter relationship that lies at the heart of Terms of Endearment. Aurora has, through her incessant criticism and her overwhelming insensitivity, produced a daughter whose sense of self-worth is almost nil. Emma has known unconditional love only from Rosie, who has served as a surrogate mother from Emma’s infancy. In like manner, the well-dressed and well-bred Patsy, Emma’s closest friend, is clearly the daughter that Aurora believes that she deserves, though the two remain suspicious of each other. This fractured family dynamic seems destined to repeat itself in the next generation: Though Flap is alive and well, Aurora becomes her grandchildren’s guardian at Emma’s death. The middle child, Teddy, has a sensitive nature much like Emma’s, and his need for affection is unlikely to be fulfilled in his mother’s absence. Only Emma’s little daughter, Melanie, provides hope that the damage of the past may be repaired. Unpredictable, volatile, and utterly charming, the child is the image of Aurora, and in her her grandmother has clearly met her match.
At the end of the book, Aurora says of her dead daughter, “She often made me feel I was faintly ridiculous. . . . Somehow she just had that effect. Perhaps that was why I remained so unremittingly critical of her.” In this rare moment of self-awareness, Aurora articulates the subtle antagonism that separated mother and daughter. It is characteristic of their relationship that this admission occurs too late.