And you thought your family was dysfunctional?
We are in the middle of the holiday season, which means one thing: lots of family time. There is no such thing as a family that isn't dysfunctional. Some families are dysfunctional in a pleasantly chaotic way; some are in a rip-your-hair-out and run-away-screaming- way. Regardless, unless you are the sort of person who watches the Hallmark channel, nobody wants to read about a pleasant family where everyone gets along and there is no conflict. Watching paint dry is far more interesting.
There is something compelling and fascinating about dysfunctional families in fiction. Whether it's because they're a welcome escape from your own (the mentality of, "at least we aren't this bad") or whether it's because they hold the can't-look-away allure of a train wreck, dysfunctional families make for great reading material.
Here are some of the most dysfunctional families in fiction.
1. King Lear's family
Shakespeare gives us a lot to choose from when we look for dysfunctional families. I originally considered Hamlet, as there is more outright murder; or Romeo and Juliet, because of the repeated phrase, "a plague on both your houses!" But the house that is truly plagued is Lear's: a kingdom torn apart, sibling rivalries, madness, a wise Fool nobody listens to at their own peril, confessions that arrive too late, and death and destruction all around.
2. The Glass family (From: assorted works by J.D. Salinger)
J.D. Salinger's creation boasts a wide array of dysfunction: parental pressure, the suicide of the oldest sibling, the tragic war death of one of the younger siblings, a black sheep who is a mysterious monk, and a mentally unstable younger sister. Salinger checks almost every box...
3. The Lannisters (From: Game of Thrones/A Song of Ice and Fire)
The one box Salinger misses: incest. The Lannisters boast every kind of dysfunction: incest that produces demon spawn in the form of an adolescent king who is a combination of Hitler Youth and Justin Bieber; murder plots against each other, a black sheep sibling in the form of a dwarf who is hated by his own father, and a one-handed sibling who fights bears.
In some excellent character development, the one-handed bear-fighting badass is the same guy who boinks his twin sister. Making us like a guy who does that--now that is impressive characterization.
4. The Incandenza Family (From: Infinite Jest)
An obsessive-compulsive mother who has many affairs; an intelligent son who spirals into mental instability; a suicidal father; a son with birth defects, and a famous womanizer who turns his back on almost all his family members. Along with knowing how to spin an astonishingly crafted sentence and mind-boggling array of footnotes, David Foster Wallace truly knew his dysfunction.
5. The Lisbons (From: The Virgin Suicides)
A family of five girls, in which each one commits suicide in a different way? It doesn't get more dysfunctional than that. Other dysfunctional elements include forced homeschooling and seclusion, pregnancy scares, voyeurism, and a town that bears witness. Jeffrey Eugenides spins a provocative tale that implicates the reader in bearing witness to this doomed family.
6. Almost every John Irving book
Oedipal relationships, bears, absent parents, incest, abortion: These are a few of the elements that are recurring themes in all of John Irving's lyrical, dysfunctional family-filled writing.
7. The Black family (From: the Harry Potter series)
A family obsessed with a political fringe movement that disowns anyone who doesn't agree; a murdered younger son; a disowned older son; a murderous cousin who sleeps with evil dictators (because Bellatrix and Voldemort definitely had something going on); a mother who beheads the servants in her spare time, and a fantastically handsome yet tragically doomed oldest son who spends years imprisoned for a crime he did not commit.
Rowling knows how to weave a dysfunctional family tapestry. (Quite literally, as she took the time to create an extensive family tree that is barely on the fringes of the books...just saying, J.K., the material is all there for a prequel...it wouldn't take that much work...)
8. The Foxmans (From: This is Where I Leave You)
A matriarch who can't dress her age; a bitter older brother, a cuckolded middle son who retaliates by shoving a cake up his wife's new boyfriend's ass, a snarky older sister, and a younger brother who is the Paul McCartney of the family because he is "better looking, faces a different direction in pictures, and is occasionally rumored to be dead." Throw them all together for a funeral and Jonathan Tropper delivers mayhem, injury, and some surprisingly poignant moments between the laughs.
The movie is coming out this year, and, because Tropper wrote the screenplay as well, I'm tentatively optimistic that this family will be as much fun in theaters as they are on the page.
9. The Greek gods
This may not count as "literature," but the Greek gods are truly the original dysfunctional family: a patriarch who can't keep it in his pants, a black-sheep brother who is banished to hell and resorts to kidnapping just to find a wife; a vain sister who is the ultimate helicopter-parent in her son's life; incest all around, bestiality, and creative vengeance schemes. Just another day of ruling over the earth.
Ancient mythology began the entire trend of dysfunctional families, and, they knew it even then: They're far more fun to read about than well-mannered, happy families.
I was not able to include all of literature's dysfunctional families, but if you're looking for more, you can find them in most of the Brontë's work, Tolstoy's, Tom Perrotta's, Lisa Carey, and many more that you can add in the comments.
As you continue throughout the holiday season, be reassured that all of these families are more dysfunctional than your own. Even if your family is unfortunate enough to have murder or incest or insanity, it can't possibly have all of them.
If it does, then my extreme condolences; go get yourself a drink, and maybe you can marry into one of these families...