As many writers know, discussing themes that are indigenous to the human experience can be a very advantageous endeavor. This is the case for many reasons, including the fact that most people are a part of a family and have experienced the tension that results from familial disagreements. Because this is the case, audiences are often drawn to narratives that convey these sorts of tensions. And this is why writers should explore them in their written works.
Although there are probably many short stories that contain interesting representations of familial tension, one of my favorites is from Joyce Carol Oates’s important work “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” The story opens like this:
“Her name was Connie. She was fifteen and she had a quick, nervous giggling habit of craning her neck to glance into mirrors or checking other people’s faces to make sure her own was all right. Her mother, who noticed everything and knew everything and who hadn’t much reason any longer to look at her own face, always scolded Connie about it. “Stop gawking at yourself. Who are you? You think you’re so pretty?” she would say. Connie would raise her eyebrows at these familiar old complaints and look right through her mother, into a shadowy vision of herself as she was right at that moment: she knew she was pretty and that was everything. Her mother had been pretty once too, if you could believe those old snapshots in the album, but now her looks were gone and that was why she was always after Connie.”
Here, Oates uses physical appearance as the vehicle through which she conveys familial tension that exists between a mother and a daughter. In short, the mother is irritated about the fact that her daughter places primacy on how she looks. This deep-seated irritation results from the mother’s awareness that she herself is no longer attractive. To be more specific, her irritation springs from a bitterness and envy that gains livelihood in her mind because she no longer possesses a desirable attribute that her daughter clearly does: beauty. As the text states, the mother at one point had looks but she lost them and this loss results in her continually being “after” her daughter. Contextually, it is clear that the term “after” refers to the mother constantly nagging and belittling her daughter about the fact that she is physically attractive.Thus the tension that exists between the two women is plain. This narrative development is an effective route for Oates to take because many people are familiar with the reality of a family member feeling jealous of them for being better-looking. Moreover, it goes without saying that the unique way that Oates describes such events contributes to the quality of her story.
Oates’s “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” is one of many great literary works that engages the issue of familial tension. As stated earlier, familial tension is an effective reality to narrate because many people can relate to the experience of being at odds with a parent or sibling. This is why I encourage writers to make familial tension an integral aspect of a forthcoming work. Good luck!
Jocelyn Crawley holds B.A. degrees in English and Religious Studies. Her work has appeared in Jerry Jazz Musician, Nailpolish Stories, Visceral Uterus, Dead Beats, Four and Twenty, and Haggard and Halloo. Other stories are forthcoming in Faces of Feminism, The Idiom, Thrice Fiction and Calliope.
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