(Not) keeping it in the family: examples of family estrangement in literature

The idea of family estrangement is something that’s always bothered me. Even as a teenager, I hated arguing with parents. Serious arguments, I mean. There was plenty of me huffing off to my room, or pointing out how embarrassing they were (to which they would usually reply that I was far more embarrassing). I wouldn’t have thought back then that I’d still rely on them now. Even if we don’t speak for a few weeks, I need to know that they’re there in the background, a crucial navigational point. The idea of losing that makes me feel panicky and disorientated. I drew on this anxiety when writing The View on the Way Down, putting my character Jamie into a situation that unsettles me. He has been estranged from his parents for five years, for reasons which unfold over the course of the novel.

Now, in the final run up to publication, I’ve been thinking about other examples of family estrangement in literature. Often, they’re fairly depressing. Sorry.

Here are my top ten:

20130326_143104 1. The Parable of the Prodigal Son (Luke 15:11-32)

There are plenty of examples in the Bible, but this remains a classic of estrangement and reconciliation (YES, reconciliation! Something lacking from many of my examples). An extended metaphor for God’s forgiveness of sinners, it’s incredibly moving with or without the religious context, suggesting there is nothing we can do that will stop our parents loving us. Explaining his joyful welcome of the prodigal son to his disgruntled elder son, their father says, ‘Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.’

 2. King Lear, Shakespeare

The archetypal estranged family. High-handed Lear spurns his one truly loving child Cordelia and rewards his devious daughters Goneril and Regan in her place. He soon finds ‘How sharper than a serpent’s tooth it is/
To have a thankless child!’ Never has such misery been wrung from a family breakdown.

My ancient Penguin edition

My ancient Penguin edition

3. The Sound and the Fury, William Faulkner

In a novel of raw misery, the most poignant aspect is Benjy, whose section is the ‘tale told by an idiot’ referenced in the title. He pines desperately for his sister Caddy, who is estranged from the family after a promiscuous youth and divorce from her husband. Also painful is their brother Quentin’s unwillingness to relinquish Caddy to other men; he tries to invent a story of incest to keep her to himself (‘If we could just have done something so dreadful that they would have fled hell except us’).

4. The Mayor of Casterbridge, Thomas Hardy

In true Hardy style, The Mayor of Casterbridge sounds ridiculous if you try to explain the story to someone else, but it’s grimly compelling on the page. As a young man, Henchard drunkenly sells his wife and daughter at a country fair. Years later, the act comes back to haunt him. However, it’s not fate which destroys Henchard in the end, but his own character. He is offered the opportunity for reconciliation and happiness but is incapable of grasping it, leading to an ending as bleak as any Hardy ever served up. Which reader can forget the resigned conclusion of his daughter Elizabeth-Jane which closes the novel? Although afforded a fairly happy ending herself (at least in relative terms), she remains aware ‘that happiness was but the occasional episode in a general drama of pain.’

mother's milk

Published by Picador

Witty, savage and grim, these semi-autobiographical novels chart Patrick’s efforts to escape the damage done to him by his sadistic, sexually abusive father and his detached, pathologically deluded mother. In her way, Patrick’s mother is as chilling a figure as his father. So beautifully written and so frightening.

 6. Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? Jeanette Winterson

A lucid exploration of the author’s relationship with her semi-deranged adoptive mother. It seemed to make sense to include this haunting memoir rather than Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit, which was, as Winterson puts it, the ‘cover version’; she says of Oranges, “I wrote a story I could live with. The other one was too painful.”


Published by Headline Review

7. The Vanishing Act of Esme Lennox, Maggie O’Farrell

A troubling and horribly plausible novel. For reasons not immediately apparent, Esme Lennox has been shut away by her family in an asylum for more than sixty years. In the novel’s present, she is released into the care of her bewildered great-niece Iris. Slowly, Esme’s past begins to unfold, a disturbing story of family jealousy and betrayal. By the time I got to Esme’s reunion with her sister Kitty, I was finding it difficult to breathe.

8. Death of a Salesman, Arthur Miller

Biff Loman is not exactly estranged from his father Willy, but they are mired in mutual disappointment, Biff resenting the unrealistic expectations Willy has of him, and Willy unable to comprehend how Biff has made so little of himself. An emotional scene at the end of the play seems to offer a breakthrough, but Willy misunderstands Biff to the last. Plus he landed his kids with the names Biff and Happy, which is just not cricket.

9. The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis

Are any of us really in a position to judge Edmund? Haven’t we all been tempted at one time or another to betray our siblings for a juicy piece of Turkish Delight? Entirely reasonable.


Another ancient Penguin edition from the family supply

 10. Greek mythology

Incredible for family estrangement and feuds. A great example is Orestes’ and Electra’s murder of their mother Clytemnestra in retribution for Clytemnestra’s killing of their father Agamemnon, which was itself (pause for breath) done in revenge for Agamemnon’s sacrificial killing of his and Clytemnestra’s daughter Iphigenia. The siblings’ revenge is legendary, and dealt with by Sophocles, Aeschylus and Euripides.

But even better are the instances in which various angered parties serve up each other’s children as dinner. Things turn nasty(er) for feuding brothers Thyestes and Atreus (father of Agamemnon, which explains a thing or two) when Atreus tricks Thyestes into eating a reconciliation dinner, which turns out to consist of Thyestes’ own two sons, delightfully stewed and seasoned. In another story, Procne gets revenge on her husband Tereus for the rape and mutilation of her sister Philomela by murdering her own son Itys and serving him up to his father for supper. Shakespeare draws on these grisly ideas in Titus Andronicus.

And an honourable mention goes to:

 Where’s Wally? Is Wenda his sister or his girlfriend? But more to the point, why are they standing so far apart on every single page?

Feel free to contribute more ideas – I’d love to hear them!


About Rebecca Wait

27-year-old writer based in London. Author of 'The View on the Way Down'.
This entry was posted in Lists, Literature, The View on the Way Down and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to (Not) keeping it in the family: examples of family estrangement in literature

  1. Joanna says:

    Dolores Price (She’s Come Undone, by Wally Lamb) one of my all time favourite fictional creations, so vividly portrayed I sometimes forget I’ve never actually met her for real, is a brilliant illustration of the effects of estrangement as she sets off on some serious life-unravelling when her father moves out of the family home for another woman. (Although I think her problems started before he left.) Families, hey!

  2. Emily says:

    The Glass Menagerie is another tragic tale of a sibling relationship. I can empathise with both Tom and Laura; him trying to escape the confines of a stifling and unhappy home, and Laura left all alone with her suffocating mother, losing her only companion. *sniff*

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