A TROPE AND A QUESTION

Dear ARTICHOKE,

I have a question.

Specifically, a question regarding a trope, and why it is so frequently so.

Let me explain:

Firstly, in the words of Philip Pullman, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that young protagonists in search of adventure must ditch their parents.” Now, that, in and of itself, is not exactly revolutionary– part of growing up in Western culture is coming to consciousness and realizing that all of your fiction, film and literature, is improbably lousy with orphans. And, most of these parents were got rid of in ways that are rather specific to the plot. Harry’s parents were offed by Voldemort; Batman’s parents were killed by, you know, crime [1]; and of Pullman’s own protagonist, Lyra’s parents are not dead at all, but their absence turns out to be very significant to the plot indeed.

A great number of these parents, however, like Lyra’s, have only disappeared, assumed dead, again in ways that are relevant to the plot. The trope I want to discuss is this: (a) If a disappeared parent reappears, there will be a brief reunion with their protagonist child and (b) I meant it when I said brief, because they will be gone again within five minutes, this time permanently.

  • In His Dark Materials, Will’s journey is instigated by the absence and presumed death of his father, John Parry, aka Jopari aka Grumman (all told, Mr. Parry actually has several fake deaths under his belt). At almost precisely the moment Will finds his dad, Mr. Parry is killed by a jealous lover, this time for realsies. Will’s father is the most straightforward version of this trope, but Lyra also suffers from disappearing and reappearing parents. In The Golden Compass, she spends most of the book searching for her father, only to disastrously meet up with him at the end of the book, and then never see him ever again.
  • In Carnivale, Ben Hawkins has been raised by his insane mother, and he and the carnival spend most of the show endlessly searching for Ben’s father. They find him, and then the baddie promptly kills him.
  • In Song of the Sea (which I just did a letter about), Saoirse and Ben have been raised by their father after their selkie mother, Bronagh, presumably died. At the very end of the movie, when Saoirse has nearly died of selkie related causes, Bronagh reappears, long enough to tell Saoirse to sing the selkie song, and then, as per said selkie song, she and all magical creatures up and leave the world.
  • In DWJ’s Aunt Maria, the reader is told that Mig’s admittedly lackluster father recently died via affair-turned-car-crash, therefore setting the events of the plot in motion. At about the middle of the book, he makes his reappearance, and by the end of the book, he is, while not dead, decidedly out of Mig’s life, presumably permanently.

I’m not saying that these disappeared-reappeared parents are necessarily good parents, or good people, I’m merely commenting that regardless of their parental quality, the same rule stands, which seems to be this: disappeared-reappeared parents do not get to parent again.

I can think of two examples where the parent did get to return after their disappearance and presumed death. The first is in the Artemis Fowl books, when he finds his father, sans a limb or two, and does bring him home; and the second, in the A Little Princess movie, where she finds her father basically living next door, but he doesn’t remember her due to WWI-related amnesia. [2]

My question is this: Why does this seem to be a law? It is a truth universally acknowledged, that young orphaned protagonists are damn well going to stay that way.

Now I do admit that in most versions of this trope, there’s usually a pretty clear reason, specific to each story, as to why it has to be this way, especially if we’re only halfway through the story. Often, this is a matter of keeping our child protagonist independent, and therefore facilitating the continuation of the plot, and frequently it’s a matter where the parent, who inconveniently reappears halfway through the book, has to be killed before he or she can reveal answers that should only be revealed at the end, as per the story structure. There’s also the fact that a plot that uses a disappeared parent in the first place already called for a lack of parental supervision.

Other times, the reasons are more general. In Song of the Sea, for example, Bronagh’s permanent return would have to include explaining her disappearance in the first place, which the movie preferred to leave rather ambiguous. A reappeared parent would have to answer the following questions: Where have you been? What kept you away? What have you been doing? Why didn’t you contact us to tell us you weren’t dead? (These are big questions for Song of the Sea; for others, such as His Dark Materials, not so much) But on the other hand, Bronagh’s permanent return would nicely fix the pressing problem that was set up at the beginning of the movie, namely, that the family is hopelessly broken what with Bronagh being dead.

The rule stands regardless of whether the disappeared-reappeared parent is found at the middle or the end of the story; regardless of whether the parent is good or bad; regardless of whether the subsequent disappearance is actually helpful to the story, or if it would tie things up nicely.

And that last is especially interesting to me, because I think if you were to catalogue this trope, I’d find a number of instances of this trope wherein its use is actually counterintuitive. Specifically, that the events of the story are in some way instigated by the lack of parental supervision of the protagonist, and where the restoration of our disappeared parent could solve many of the protagonist’s problems. Song of the Sea is the prime example. Likewise, Will’s arc in His Dark Materials could have been fixed by the restoration of his father into his family, if he had only found that father at the end of the story (not that Pullman is one for neat endings).

It’s interesting to me because it’s such a basic wish on the part of the reader, that the disappeared should return, and it’s more interesting to me because it’s actually, improbably, given to the reader, and then promptly snatched away again.

But then again, many these arguments as to why the parent has to die again don’t always hold up that well. After all, our orphans usually find some sort of family, even if it’s not their own, so they’re not entirely free of parental supervision; Harry finds the Weasleys, Sara Crewe (of the book A Little Princess) finds her dad’s business partner (it makes sense in context), Lyra finds Oxford and the Gyptians, Hugo finds the Melies family, and so on. Some of them do find their own biological family, such as Oliver Twist, but still no parents.

I suspect at least part of why so many writers eschew the restored parent is that the question of how you go back to being an ordinary, or at least functional, family after Dad’s been in a coma in the Dark Lord’s ice cage for six years or whatever, is a question that easily leads to what might very well be a more interesting book than the actual book was in the first place. But, then again, there’s no shortage of books wherein the ending brings up far more interesting questions than the story ever did, so why would that stop the writer just in this particular instance?

I have decided to call this trope The Doomed Parental Disappearance-Reappearance. TVTropes.org, take note. I have an account, but I lost the password, so… here.

Artichoke, I will leave you with this question, and if you ever come up with an answer as to why we, as a group, seem to have all universally agreed that fantastically disappeared parents can never ever ever ever parent ever again, but will definitely make an appearance… let me know.

Much best,

ONION

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PS. According to the method I’ve laid out here, Antimony’s father ofGunnerkrigg Court will at some point make an appearance, followed shortly thereafter by either his death or something like him going to the moon, permanently. Either way, she ain’t never going home. AND, she, like the rest of my example orphans, has also already found a new home, with Kat’s family. Anyway, consider this a hypothesis, and we’ll see how it plays out.

PPS. I didn’t really want to go into this in the letter, but can you imagine just how much it would psychologically fuck up a person to (a) search for their disappeared parent from early adolescence and (b) find that parent, only to ( c) immediately thereafter witness their death. How do you begin to get over a trauma like that? How do you pick your life back up? How is your worldview affected? It’s a bit concerning to me that it seems easier for most writers to just kill the parent again as soon as they’re found.

Footnotes:

[1] When I wrote this, I mistyped “Harry’s parents were offed by Batman,” which… weirdly… works better in my head than I would have guessed.

[2] The movie, not the book. In the book, he’s just dead.

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About onionandartichoke

It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a pair of vegetables in possession of a good quantity of opinions must be in want of a blog. Onion and Artichoke: Purveyors of Fine Literary Reviews, Discussions of Modern Life, and Only Infrequent Eviscerations. (With occasional contributions from Messrs. Aubergine, Leek, and Zucchini.) ------------- We are two college friends in our twenties, who live in the same city and (as of April 2014) have the good luck of working in the same office too. Onion runs the Tumblr, and Artichoke runs the WordPress. Onion is media-savvy; Artichoke mispronounces words on the regular. Onion is full of grace; Artichoke listens to Ace of Base. Onion is a bulb; Artichoke is a thistle. We hope this has been a very informative reading experience. Sincerely, ONION and ARTICHOKE
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