Compare and Contrast the Presentation of Family Relationships Essay
Compare and Contrast the Presentation of Family Relationships
‘Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit’ (OANTOF) by Jeanette Winterson, and ‘Behind the Scenes at the Museum’ (BTSATM) by Kate Atkinson both highlight the fundamentality of families and the dissatisfaction experienced between these seemingly strained relationships. Both protagonists of the two books feel a sense of unacceptance due to a variety of reasons involving suppression of desire – caused by family members; however this secret yearning also reveals itself through the characters experiences as the two novels progress. Both novels share one main theme – the quest for identity – not only for the main characters, but also for their mothers.
Ruby Lennox, the protagonist of BTSATM is a quirky, complex character who relates the events of her life and those of her dysfunctional family with equal parts of humour and passion – starting with her conception in York, England, in 1959: “I exist! “(p. 9) Atkinson centres the novel on the idea of the conventional ‘nuclear family’, which is almost ahead of her time as this concept wasn’t in place at the time it was written, however she illustrates this through mother-daughter relationships and also explores this family unity first with her depiction of marriage.
She presents this concept in generally unfavourable terms, her writing shows us how marriage has evolved from women in the Victorian era marrying for primarily social and economic reasons to the more liberated views of the 1960’s. Atkinson uses the character of Alice to provide an example of a lower middle-class woman in the 1800’s marrying for security thus no longer having to work, rather than love. Alice’s choice was simple in its restrictions: “to go on teaching (which she loathed) or accept Frederick’s offer of marriage” (p. 32)
Her purpose of marriage thus becomes ironic: She marries believing she would escape the one thing she loathed, but thus traps herself in years of unhappiness with a man she does not even like; “not a day passes when Alice doesn’t imagine what life would be like if she hadn’t married Frederick Barker” (p. 33). Unmarried women are spinsters, therefore frowned upon by society. Neither Rachel, whose marriage to Fredericks was merely out of justification of acceptance in society, nor Alice, find any kind of fulfilment from their marriages to Frederick Barker as “a sullen drunk with an insatiable appetite for gambling” (p. 33)
Similar experiences happen to the women of the next two generations. Nell’s fear of being a spinster encourages her to marry Frank, the only eligible man left after the war, and resigns herself to a similar life to that of Alice’s, one of dissatisfaction and ‘second best’. This settling for substandard simplicity rather than following dreams seems to become a prominent theme for the women of the book; this is thus reiterated with Bunty: She marries George after being abandoned by her fianci?? ; “She wasn’t entirely sure about this, but, with the war now drawing to a close, the possibilities were beginning to fade” (p. 108).
Bunty’s marriage was thus, to the reader, predictable to fail as it follows the same unfulfilling course of antipathy and adultery as the previous generations. Both Nell and Bunty are pressured into marriage by social expectations of the time. It is only in the liberation of the1960’s, when Ruby’s generation begins to see love rather than social acceptance as the primary motive for marriage; this new idea ultimately highlights the fairy tale like quality of the new reasons behind matrimony.
Ruby illustrates this illusive expectation of romanticism in marriage and how damaging these unrealistic expectations can be. Ruby marries “a beautiful boy with green eyes and black hair” (p. 335) However, these romantic ideas end in “some truly wretched years” (p. 358). Atkinson presents to us a picture of marriage through the ages that shows how a woman originally gave up her passions for a marriage of acceptance and convenience in society, to one of Ruby’s idea of true love, however ultimately all marriage is predetermined, and is thus harmful to all women – This is due to previous generations being so unsuccessful.
This can be compared with Jeanette’s mother’s motivations for marriage in OANTOF as a way of progressing further in the church rather than love itself, however she secretly desires Pastor Spratt. The want for and lack of maternal love between Nell and Bunty leads on to the central point of the novel, the relationship between Bunty and her youngest daughter, Ruby. The social restrictions of the 1950’s leave Bunty feeling a sense of imprisonment to survive within the domestic expertise as a wife and mother; “a slave to housework” and she’s “chained to the cooker” (p. 44).
Bunty, trapped in a role she does not wish to have, dreams about “What it would be like if her entire family was wiped out and she could start again” (p. 14); this thought to any mother would seem totally unacceptable, she obviously loves her children, however due to her own relationship with her mother, she is incapable of expressing this love. Bunty begrudges her daughters because they have entrapped her in an unsatisfactory life, this view is similarly held by Ruby, however she dislikes Bunty as a mother due to the romanticised notion of fairy godmother like figures that society enforced upon little girls.
Ruby represents her mother as a monster, almost leaving the reader unsympathetic and ignorant to Bunty’s pressures, however this highlights the reality of conventionality within mother-daughter relationships. Although Ruby may try to leave the reader disliking Bunty, it actually creates the opposite feeling as many mothers themselves reading the book will relate to Bunty’s situation as it is very normal and there is fascination and empathy behind the reader’s view of Bunty. This can be compared with Jeanette’s mother in OANTOF as they are both similar in respect of their individual struggles.
Jeanette’s mother actively seeks out combat with others. She feels delighted when she is able to sing hymns to irritate the next-door neighbors. While Jeanette’s mother relishes religious fighting, other indication of her hypocrisy stands out in the novel – for example her picture of her “old flame” yet she condemns lesbianism. This fight against the world is similar to Bunty’s however a contrast could be distinguished as Bunty does not have the strength or confidence to broadcast her struggles or deploy any mechanism to help her, due to her social unacceptance if she did so.
We feel sympathy for Bunty, even thought Ruby outwardly wants the reader to see her flaws, we know she is not living the life she wishes to lead and has only married for functionality, whereas this contrasts the view we have on Jeanette’s mother as she is made a mockery of. Both Ruby and Jeanette feel a sense of rejection from their mothers. For Ruby this is due to her and her family stopping Bunty living the life she wished for, but also due to the belief of causing Pearls death.
For Jeanette this is because of her mother’s fight with her homosexuality rather than her daughter herself, which has cursed her mother’s plan for Jeanette to be a servant to God – For Jeanette’s mother, Jeanette is merely a tool for filling expectations of the church – thus when she leaves, she leaves acceptance also. Both mother’s and daughters share a similarity which makes their unacceptance ironic – Bunty in that she was never accepted by her mother “stuck right in the middle”(p. 94), and Jeanette’s mother by the fact she had a lesbian encounter herself.
This can be compared with Jeanette’s and her mother’s relationship. Although there are obvious difficulties in Jeanette and her mother’s relationship, Jeanette learns much from her mother and her mother’s role in the church. Jeanette is similar to her mother in the sense that she learnt to be an outspoken and strong person, important in dealing with and defending her sexuality. Although she has broken away from her mother’s faith Jeanette has inherited her mother’s strength of conviction on pursuing happiness and what she believes is right.