The Infinite Complexity of Literature, as seen in Running in the Family
Few aspects of the world are as subjective and as complex as literature. The same piece of literature can take on a virtually infinite number of meanings based upon the interpretation of the individual. This idea has been expounded upon in several literary works, such as How to Read Literature Like a Professor by Thomas C. Foster. Foster’s work addresses and analyzes a wealth of literary tropes and examines their applications in popular literary works. However, the concepts Foster describes can be applied to almost any work of literature. One such work is Michael Ondaatje’s 1982 memoir Running in the Family. The memoir is divided into several sections. The first section, A Fine Romance, primarily describes Ondaatje’s parents. It capitalizes heavily on the use of motifs and symbols, particularly those of death and fish, as well as the context that an understanding of history provides to a literary work.
To begin with, Running in the Family’s A Fine Romance section contains several chapters. The chapter Honeymoon depicts death in a highly unusual manner. As opposed to treating it with humility and grief, as is the norm both in literature and reality, the novel uses ironic prose to downplay the deaths simply as “casual tragedies” (Ondaatje 40). One example can be found on page 41, Ondaatje writes “T.W. Roberts was bitten in the leg by a dog” and goes on to write that “…Later the dog was discovered to be rabid, but as T.W. had left for England nobody bothered to tell him” (Ondaatje 41). This matter-of-factness provides a certain melancholy to the story, portraying a sense of nonchalance amongst the people of the time. In Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor, death in literature is also discussed in the eleventh chapter, …More Than It’s Gonna Hurt You: Concerning Violence. Foster discusses different uses of death in literature from a storytelling perspective. First and foremost, literary violence can be used to complicate the plot, however it can also be used to create action, or to put characters under stress. While Running in the Family is a memoir depicting real events in the life of Michael Ondaatje, Ondaatje still had control over what to include and not to include. Thus, it can be assumed that by including such casual deaths, Ondaatje aimed to convey an idea to a reader. In this case, the melancholy and nonchalance of contemporary life.
Next, Running in the Family’s A Fine Romance chapter also capitalizes heavily on the use of symbolism, particularly on the symbol of a fish. Mervyn is told “Don’t forget the fish!” (Ondaatje 35). In this instance, the fish is symbolic of responsibility, as fish do require a good deal of responsibility to care of. However, Mervyn chooses to ignore this responsibility just as he ignores the authority in his life he must one day deal with. In essence, the fish represents procrastination. It illustrates that Mervyn is reckless, ignorant, and unbothered by the consequences of his actions. However, he will never truly escape these responsibilities, as they are ever-present, as shown by the fish tank. “I sat up on the uncomfortable sofa and I was in a jungle, hot, sweating. Street lights bounced off the snow and into the room through the hanging vines and ferns at my friend’s window. A fish tank glowed in the corner.” (Ondaatje 21). Thomas C. Foster discusses the use of symbolism quite often in How to Read Literature Like a Professor. One chapter, titled It’s My Symbol and I’ll Cry If I Want To, explores the multiplicity of text created through symbolism. Foster argues that once symbolism has been introduced, it “permits texts to mean more than one thing simultaneously.” (Foster 344). In this instance, Foster’s idea suggests that though Ondaatje is referring to fish, one should only pay attention to the use of the fish as a symbol.
Finally, Running in the Family’s depiction of the real-life events before and during author Ondaatje’s life cannot be read without also considering its historical context. The events of the first section take place primarily during the 1920s and 1930s. Thus, major global events of the time are referenced. In reference to his father’s generation, Ondaatje’s discusses the effect of World War II. He discusses his dad’s youth from the 1920s to the onset of World War II and claims that “until the war, nobody really had to grow up.” (Ondaatje 53). This portrays a carefree lack of responsibility in his generation and allows the audience to better understand how Ondaatje’s father’s generation had more time to form “complex relationships” (Ondaatje 54). However, as Thomas C. Foster claims in How to Read Literature Like a Professor’s twenty-fourth chapter, Don’t Read With Your Eyes, one must “…find a reading perspective that allows for sympathy with the historical moment of the story, that understands the text as having been written against its own social, historical, cultural, and personal background.” (Foster 332). If one is to employ this reading approach to Ondaatje’s work, it becomes apparent that the stories Ondaatje is telling cannot be proven to be entirely accurate, as the knowledge of his father’s “complex relationships” (Ondaatje 54) is known only by personal accounts, many of which are marred by emotion and have lost accuracy due to the tremendous amount of time that has past. Ondaatje recognizes this and yearns to find a more objective account of this aspect of his father’s life, devoid of emotional burden.
Conclusively, every work of literature has an infinite complexity and subjectivity. This has often been commented upon by authors, such as in Thomas C. Foster’s How to Read Literature Like a Professor. Among other topics, Foster discusses the roles of violence, symbolism, and historical context in literature. These concepts are broadly applicable. One novel where these concepts are specifically put to the test is Michael Ondaatje’s memoir Running in the Family. Ondaatje’s use of death, fish, and his father’s affairs in the 1920s and 1930s allows readers to see Foster’s ideas in action, underscoring just how complex even a simple memoir can be.
Foster, Thomas C. How to Read Literature Like a Professor. New York: Harperluxe, An Imprint of HarperCollins, 2014. Print.
Ondaatje, Michael. Running in the Family. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2011. Print.
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