In Antonioni’s movie The Passenger the main character, David Locke, decides to change identities; and by becoming someone else to leave his own past – wife, home, adopted son, and country behind. He has become listless and dispirited, tired of what has become a predictable and uninspiring life. In a desert outpost in the eastern Sahara he meets a fellow traveler who is in Africa ‘on business’. Locke confides to him that he has lost interest in travel and adventure because everything now seems the same. In an exchange with Robertson, Locke explains:
Robertson: Airports, taxi, hotel.It is this conditioning that Locke hopes to change, and finally has the chance to do so. Robertson, a man who looks remarkably like him, dies suddenly; and Locke, by exchanging passports, becomes a new man. What he does not know is that Robertson is an arms dealer supplying weaponry to a rebel group fighting a corrupt regime. As Locke gradually realizes who he is, he does not attempt to flee or to find ways to return to his former self. On the contrary, he decides to follow the trail that has been mapped out for him by Robertson – clandestine meetings, exchanges of information and money, and secret rendezvous.
They’re all the same in the end.
Locke: I don’t agree.
It’s us who remain the same.
We translate every situation, every
experience into the same old codes.
We just condition ourselves.
In other words, changing identities was not a lark. The exchange was existential. Adopting an unknown life, history, and character was part of the bargain. Removing conditioning and changing perspective is not contingent on old choices but new random selection.
Locke soon realizes that there is no way he can escape his death. He is alone – a man without friends, family, colleagues, or country engaged in a deadly trade about which he knows nothing. His end is pre-destined, but death at the hands of unknown agents of a dictator of a small African country for activities in which he was never involved seems right. Anyone who takes such an existential decision - who trades the intimately known for the absolutely unknown and dies because of it, meets a proper, fitting, and fulfilling end.
Eudora Welty’s Delta Wedding is a story of a large Mississippi Delta family who gather for a daughter’s wedding. Delta Wedding is not so much a novel as the telling of the story of an old, multi-generational, patrician Southern family. Laura, the young girl who moves from Jackson to the small rural community in the Delta, arrives in time for her cousin Dabney’s wedding; and the entire novel takes place within the few days prior to it.
Laura says that she feels like a country cousin even though she is from the sophisticated capital. The Fairchilds are a community unto themselves. There are so many of them living co closely together that there is neither time nor interest in anyone or anything outside their privileged perimeter. Although part of the family, she feels like an outsider, an interloper who doesn’t belong or at least has to show her bona fides – some features of looks, personality or character that attest to her blood ties.
Everything has its prescribed family order. Children marry predictably and well. Cotton is planted, harvested, and sold as it always has been. The Fairchilds are served by Negro ex-slaves who are, in that strange Southern way, a part of the family. Pictures of five generations of Fairchilds are hung on the wall. Memories of the Civil War and who died at Corinth, Shiloh, and Bull Run are vivid and retold. The War and Reconstruction disrupted the Old South, but sixty years later, life goes on just as before. The perimeter around the Fairchilds is no different than the perimeter drawn around the old Confederacy.
Although they may bicker among themselves, the Fairchilds unite against any threats to the family’s status, honoring the belief in the family as a sacred and unchanging entity. Welty’s story is about the importance of family integrity – strengthening the ties among those who are living, and remembering the greatness of the dead.
William Faulkner was another writer who wrote about Southern families; but his were troubled, incestuous, violent, and suicidal. The story of the Compson family in The Sound and the Fury is told from four different points of view; but whether the narrator is Quentin, Jason, Benjy, or Dilsey, the tale is about the Compson family itself and the frustrated attempts of Quentin and Jason to keep it together. All three brothers are obsessed with their sister, Caddy, but in very different ways; and in their attempts to restrain her, to tame her wild promiscuity and irresponsibility, their incestuous passions end to a final, predictable, and tragic end.
In Absalom, Absalom Faulkner tells the story of Thomas Sutpen who came out of the Virginia hills farm in the Mississippi Delta. His ambition, energy, singularity of purpose, and absolute will resulted in ‘Sutpen’s One Hundred’ – one hundred miles of cleared bottom land. For all his intelligence, drive, and economic and political canniness, he was never able to govern either his passions or his emotions. The family comes apart as revelations about Sutpen’s illicit New Orleans relationships and the recollections of his embittered, hateful sister-in-law Rosa Coldfield become known.
The Sutpen family is as dysfunctional, suspicious, secretive, spiteful, angry, and impassioned as the Fairchilds are loving, respectful, open, and proud.
For both Faulkner and Welty, multi-generational, complex families are at the heart of their stories; but each author has a different vision of them. Faulkner sees them as deforming, destructive, and ultimately tragic; while Welty understands them as the essential core of civilized society. The Fairchilds were right to try to preserve their patrimony and history.
For Welty the antebellum period during which the family became wealth and prominent is simply a formative antecedent to the present. She makes no judgment about slavery, Negro servitude, or civil rights; nor disproportionately praises the white Southern tradition of which the Fairchilds are a part. She simply describes and values family integrity, loyalty, tradition, and honor.
Hawthorne’s The House of the Seven Gables is also about family and the weight of past generations. The moral of the story in Hawthorne’s own words is:
“The wrong-doing of one generation lives into the successive ones, and . . . becomes a pure and uncontrollable mischief.”Hawthorne tells the story of the Pyncheon family who settled Salem in the mid-1600s. Colonel Pyncheon, the patriarch built his large and imposing house on the site of that of Matthew Maule who was executed in the infamous witch trials of the period. The old colonel was one of the most outspoken about Maule’s wizardry, and rumor had it that without his enthusiastic support, Maule might never have been sent to the gallows. Generations of Pyncheons had lived in the house until Hawthorne’s story begins in the mid-19th century with the saga of Miss Hephzibah Pyncheon.
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Hawthorne writes of the double edge of family legacy. There is something noble in the longevity of a great family, but such nobility has a corrosive effect as well. Here he refers to the family’s ancestral land in Maine, thousands of acres of land legally secured but impossible to exploit:
This impalpable claim, therefore, resulted in nothing more solid than to cherish, from generation to generation, an absurd delusion of family importance, which all along characterized the Pyncheons. It caused the poorest member of the race to feel as if he inherited a kind of nobility, and might yet come into the possession of princely wealth to support it. In the better specimens of the breed, this peculiarity threw an ideal grace over the hard material of human life, without stealing away any truly valuable quality. In the baser sort, its effect was to increase the liability to sluggishness and dependence, and induce the victim of a shadowy hope to remit all self-effort, while awaiting the realization of his dreams.Edward Albee was famous for observing that families are the crucibles of maturity. As much as he hated families for their self-assured righteousness, bourgeois values, and restrictions on individual expression, he knew that we would never grow up without them. George and Martha eviscerate each other, flay each other to the marrow, but need each other. Without the confines of marriage and the duty, however marginal and weakening, of individuals to face their own selfishness, meanness, and ambitions, adolescence would be permanent.
Miller, O’Neill, Lillian Hellman, Du Maurier, Flaubert, Tolstoy, Shakespeare, and a hundred lesser authors have understood this. Othello was undone by his inability to move from battlefield to bedchamber. Tamora, Dionyza, and Volumnia all kill for the sake of family, offspring, and the preservation of status and wealth.
The Nineteenth century romantic realism of Flaubert, Walpole, George Eliot, Howells, Bronte, and Hardy focuses on how the traditional family and the bourgeois mores on which it is based is destructive and penalizing, especially for women.
Ibsen, Strindberg, and Chekhov all wrote about family. Ibsen’s Rosmersholm is very much like The House of the Seven Gables, for the characters in both feel the overwhelming, oppressive weight of the houses in which they live and the history they represent. Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard is written in the same spirit. An aristocratic woman can simply not face the loss of her ancestral home. The Three Sisters is a story of three women uprooted from their past and inability to find another home.
David Locke in Antonioni’s film wants nothing to do with family; and to him it is the most confining and limiting of any institution, but only the most central in a constellation of work, travel, and responsibility. He has no patience for such collective, communal structures; and is so committed to individualism as the only fulfilling expression of human nature, that he changes identities.
The particularly interesting aspect of Welty, Ibsen, and Hawthorne is their emphasis on the weight of family history. Although this sense of historical destiny is of course very evident in Shakespeare (e.g. The War of the Roses), these more modern authors have brought the inescapable burden of family history much closer. The important generations of Thomas Sutpen are those which follow him, but they represent historical imperatives nonetheless.
It is this sense of generational history and its inescapable weight which is and will be relevant as long as families remain.