The novel The Memory Keeper’s daughter is about a story set in mid twentieth century. The social, political, and economic environment was different and its effect on the characters life can be seen especially through the actions they choose. The characters in the novel all seem to be victims of social constrains. By examining the novel through a sociological perspective, the characters can be seen as reacting to the social elements in their world and how that leads to their suffering or redemption.
The story revolves around a decision made by one of the key characters, David. David is a doctor who realized that being caught up in a snowstorm, he would have to help his wife deliver at home. Everything went well with the delivery, but David learned that one of the twins, a baby girl had down syndrome. Because of the stigma associated with the condition, David prefers to put the child in an institution than to put his family through the hardship of raising a child with down syndrome.
After all, given the short lifespan expected, Phoebe’s life would have been short. David remembered the difficulties he had with his sister June and her death. Although he felt it freed him, the truth was that “He felt guilty… ” (121).
During the time of the setting of the novel, Down Syndrome Association states that, there were many social limitations that families with special children had (5). Families were treated as if something was wrong with them if they had such a child. Many parents would be embarrassed and ashamed to have such a child (5). As a result they put their children away in institutions to avert the shame.
Society in many instances would treat the children as subnormal. This would explain David’s reaction. However what compounds the situation is that he was a doctor. While he should have known better, it is David the parent who made the decision. He was so afraid for the pain that Norah would have to endure that for their sake, he made the decision to have the child, Phoebe, taken to an institution.
In his experience with his sister, David knew that with such a child the road ahead was tough. He could remember having June in the family and the conflict it brought to him, “His love for her was so deeply woven with resentment that he could not untangle the two.” (120).
Another related social issue in the novel is the prejudice that people have against children with down syndrome. Edwards brought this out by the the dismissive description in the novel that is given without any positivism, “flaccid muscle tone, delayed growth and mental development, possible heart complications, early death.” (16).
Caroline who takes care of Phoebe does so while she continues to endure the public discrimination of Phoebe. It is for this reason that Caroline is hesitant to let Al into their lives. Down syndrome was still very much misunderstood. It is only after Al proves himself that Caroline gives him a chance and married him, confident that he had a great love of Phoebe and accepted her. The social discrimination of Phoebe does not end in social environment, but extended to other area like education.
Phoebe’s opportunity for education was also threatened due to laws that made it difficult for children with down syndrome to enjoy equal education as their counterparts. According to Down Syndrome Association, children with down syndrome did not qualify to join mainstream education (7). During the time period of Phoebe’s birth, there would have been no legal entitlement (7). According to Down Syndrome Association, “People with Down’s syndrome were termed ‘severely subnormal’ and ‘ineducable’. (7).
Politically this period was marked by lack of civil rights and as a consequence, people with special needs did not have protection from the governments. Their rights were generally not respected according to American.gov (20). The states solution was to provide a place where children with special needs could be taken y their families. According to Down Syndrome Association, these institutions did not offer the children any real hope for a normal life. (8).
Society placed great value in success. In the novel Paul exploits are contrasted to what David expected of Phoebe. It is because Phoebe held no future prospects for success that David envisioned a bleak future for her and the family. Paul is encouraged to pursue education and other skills so that his future can be bright. He attends good school and seems poised to be a successful member of his community. Even when he discovers about his sister Phoebe, Paul too worries how that will change his life from then onwards (397).
A daughter who would have been limited perhaps in achievement would have been an embarrassment for her family. David feel that in putting Phoebe in an institution, the family could still continue to be seen as successful without a blemish. Caroline however, believes in Phoebe. It is this believe that leads her to have hope in of Phoebe’s future. While there are numerous challenges in their lives, Caroline decides to give Phoebe the best opportunities that she can afford.
Phoebe excels in what she attempts and manages to make something of her life. She is able to look after herself and gain skills that are necessary to living a full life. Norah too on her part also seeks something to give her life more meaning during the decline of her marriage to David. It is for this reasons that she tries to get a job so that she too can make her place in the world.
David who had experience with a difficult childhood could appreciate the difficulty that comes with looking after someone. According to Edwards, he had had it rough growing up since he was forced to “fend for himself because his sister couldn’t” (113). The economic status therefore plays a big part in how the characters behave.
David could afford to make payments for the care of Phoebe which made it easier for him to have her in an institution. Caroline used the money to take care of Phoebe, yet she was giving Phoebe more than money could buy. Caroline was open to a life of struggle and having decided to keep Phoebe, the situation could only get harder for her.
However, Caroline also knew how rewarding a life filled with love could be. David did not seem to factor in the aspect of love in his decision. He wanted to avoid difficulties for his family without fully appreciating the contribution to love that another child, although considered different, would bring. Although Caroline is limited in means and has to work in order to support the additional needs that Phoebe has, she is happy with her investment in Phoebe, as she feels that Phoebe should have equal opportunities with other children.
David however found redemption in taking in a pregnant mother who had no money and helping her until her young family could move along. He appreciated the power of money to make a difference since in that decision, he gave greater value to the life that the newborn would bring to the young mother and society. Society does not always see the end and that is why it does not always understand those who are different. A single mother in the society that the characters live in was frowned upon.
Society did not fully support the single mother. According to American Values, there has been a shift in values regarding family life compared to early moments of the novel (68). However, the young mother all alone was in need like any other person for understanding and acceptance. Had David not helped the young woman, Rosemary, her life and that of her child Jack may have taken a negative turn due to the financial difficulties she was going through.
It is only through David’s compassion that a new life begins for that family and for David as well. For him it is a chance to turn back against what society might prescribe. While he had used the society’s measuring yard to make a decision in his life that led to so much pain down the line, in this instance he chose to act differently and reach out. Through his generous gift, Rosemary got to live with family and that eased her financial burden. In addition they took care of her until she could move on giving her and Jack a better start in life.
Availability of money also helps some of the characters. This is clearly seen in Norah’s pursuits. As her marriage crumbles she finds solace in the comforts that money can afford her. She is able to travel and get a break from the situation at home. She does not have to work and her pursuit for employment is not a necessity.
Such if the situation in which Norah does not have to struggle. Availability of money also led her to maintain her drinking habit. Since she does not feel that she has venues to address her problems, she finds means in which to mask her loneliness, isolation and grief.
Paul is also another character whose life is shaped by the availability of the best life his parents can afford him. He is accepted into Juiliard school. He spends ample time traveling the world and even undertakes music lessons in France. He acknowledges the privileges that his parent’s can afford him although he desires to understand his family. During this time, society focused on provision more than anything else. Norah was a mother to Paul and the fact that he has grown up healthy would have meant that she has fulfilled her role.
David on the other hand has done his best to provide for his family. He considers providing to Paul of importance and in that sense Paul is not lacking. However, Paul requires more than just his basic need fulfilled. He is lost between the grief of his mother and the guilt of his father. However, David and Norah cannot bring themselves to openly address the issues that they are facing. This lead to Paul dabbling in drugs and trying to escape from home.
According to American Values, money does not guarantee the wellbeing of a child (22). On the contrary a child’s wellbeing might be neglected if parents feel they give the child a good economic background (22). However, giving a child love and attention can more than make up for lack of affluent lifestyle. In Caroline’s case, her devotion to Phoebe and her total attentions to her allowed Phoebe to thrive. The few resources that Caroline had, she used to give Phoebe the best she could in addition to emotional and psychological support.
It was common in the setting of the novel for people to hide their marital and family problems. People often had to deal with their problems the best way they could. According to American. Gov, there was movement to liberalism and people began to pursue what worked for them instead of just accepting the way things had always been (11).
Feminism also helped to push for women rights and women began to seek their happiness beyond family life. This is what happened to Norah who for many years had been constrained by her roles instead of thriving in them.
Norah began to advocate for herself as the years passed culminating in the divorce from David and a new relationship with Fredric. She wants to move on and have a better life despite everything that has happened. Although according to Edwards, she feels that David played a role in her unhappiness, she acknowledges her part in choosing how to go on (396). As a woman she became more empowered to chart her own course and find meaning not just as a wife, or mother but as herself.
Marriage is another social environment in which the characters interact. For David and Norah, their marriage lasts a long time even after they realize that they are unhappy. Because of the demands for families to stay together during their era, it was difficult for Norah and David to end their marriage. Years of secrets and isolation exacerbated their suffering and made it difficult for them to help each other. David isolated himself in his problems and Norah did not know how to deal with her grief and loneliness.
According to American Values, divorce has been on the increase since the 1960s (50). During David and Norah’s marriage, the times change. While before divorce was seen as undesirable, it now began to be seen as the only solution to a disintegrated marriage. Norah and David end up divorcing. However, it does not bring about the relief that they desired. Marriage had a strong hold on married people and certainly for the characters and somehow they both continue to look for redemption from each other.
Families did not know how well to cope with a divorce. In David and Norah’s case, perhaps the advantage was that Paul was much older when the divorce happens. But still it leaves a schism between David and Paul. According to Edwards, although they both try to bridge the gap, they do not know how well to do that. In their reflection in the novel, Paul feels as if David is too far, “I’d go over to his house and I’d try; I’d hang out and talk with Dad about this and that, but we never went any further.”(330).
David on the other hand feels that it is Paul who keeps the distance, “Now and then David made overtures, but Paul always chose that moment to leave, pushing back his chair and yawning, suddenly tired.” (311). It is within these cultural parameters that the Henry family operates.
In contrast Phoebe and Robert are living in another era. As they fall in love they are not afraid to show their love. They want to be together for the right reasons. Caroline looking at them realizes perhaps what her generation would think of the love Phoebe and Robert have, “Caroline closed her eyes at her daughter’s naked expression of emotion – the wild innocence, the risk!” ( 340).
Coming from an age when marriage was about security it might have been hard for Norah to understand Phoebe and Robert’s take on love. Caroline also displays a different take on marriage. While it would have been easy for Caroline to accept Al’s proposal and get security especially given Phoebe’s condition, she wanted to wait and make sure that she knew Al’ motivation.
Only when she was sure of his love and the kind of man he was was she ready to say yes to his proposal. This knowledge was lacking in Norah and David’s marriage which began to disintegrate within two years of their marriage. Perhaps it was the secret of Phoebe that kept them apart or perhaps it was that they did not know each other well enough as it was customary in those years.
The characters in the novel are aware of their social circumstances, they find themselves mostly helpless to make decisions that go against the dictates of the society. In David’s case from the beginning to the end, he lives in fear of his secret coming out. The implications would affect his family first and foremost.
This is a situation he cannot deal with. In this situation, he endures a life of regret and suffering just because of the choice he made. Even when he might have let his secret out he did not take the opportunity and dies before his family can resolve the situation.
Norah tries to live according to the dictates of society. However, that does not work in her favor. She is aware that in order to change her life, she has to transcend the cultural barriers that have kept her unhappy for so long. She gets a divorce and later settles into a relationship with Fredric. For Norah this was a journey that took her outside the comfort zone. Luckily for her, the times were changing during this period and she could transcend without much disapproval or condemnation from society.
Caroline and Al, life cannot be pegged because of social limitations. They make the most of what they have attained the life that they feel is right and will give them happiness. They are not afraid to paddle against the current for what they believe in. It is their courage that brings about an end in which Norah can finally meet a well-educated and rounded daughter and Paul can finally have a sister to love ans share life with.
American. gov. Decades of Change: 1960-1980. 2008. Web. 16th December, 2010.
American values. Marriage In America: A Report to the Nation. 1995. Web. 16th December, 2010.
Down Syndrome Association. Reign of Queen Elizabeth II Transforms Life for People with Down Syndrome. 2002. Web. 16th December, 2010.
Edwards, Kim. The memory keeper’s Daughter. New York, NY: Penguin, 2006. Print.