The undependable bonds of blood: the unanticipated problems of parenthood in the novels of Henry James

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A dilemma inherent within any parent-child relationship is that a youth may require attention and guidance that a parent is unable, or unwilling, to provide. How much is a parent willing to "give up" and will this new role bring with it a residue of resentment because demands are being made upon his or her emotional and financial reserves? Herein lies one of the sources of psychological tension that Henry James examines with such care and precision. Problems that begin within such familial discord bring with them a volatility that often reaches beyond family boundaries. These collisions, and their aftershocks, have consequences that no one can anticipate or repair. The novels of Henry James provide a wide spectrum of figures that lack the flexibility to adapt and meet the needs of their children. Louise Barnett asserts that James's literary families are a group of people "whose underlying constant is the tragic paradox that blood relations are both essential and unreliable" (Barnett, 144). The figures placed within these settings are often a grotesque conglomerate of unsuccessful marriages and absentee relations in which parents practice unhealthy patterns of behavior and negatively influence their children before they have a chance to mature into full grown adults. There are many authors who present families in their literature, but none of these "blood" ties seem as uniquely misshapen or more clearly recognizable than those of Henry James. The chasm between what one needs and what one gets often appears to be not only wide, but also laden with challenges. As I will argue, it is a breakdown of parenthood--an institution that James's novels portray as rife with flaws and shortcomings--that all too often functions as an obstacle.

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English literature