Saturday, March 29, 2014

The Importance of the Father-Son Relationship

The standard model for a nuclear family is the presence of a father, a mother, and some number of children. From this accepted model, the child is expected to grow and develop into a well-adjusted adult, fully prepared to participate in society. However, life is rarely so perfect, and for many children, this form of family life does not exist, leading to various developmental issues and complications. Author Chris Ware’s understanding of the psychological concepts of the father-son relationship, the need for role models in life, and the power of emotional catharsis, coupled with the art of his comic, show that Jimmy’s relationship with his father (or lack thereof) was the cause of Jimmy’s unexciting life, and how interacting with his father led to the changes Jimmy was able to implement in his own life at the end.

The biggest concept to understand when discussing Jimmy’s life is to understand the impact a father figure has on the life of a child. The father-son relationship, while not so lauded as the mother-son relationship, is highly important in the life of a young male. The father figure in the life of a child becomes the person the child will pattern themselves against, and try to emulate. Based upon how nurturing the father is, the child will change how the child develops, and eventually interacts with society. More nurturing fathers lead to emotionally open and happy children (that grow into well-adjusted adults), while distant fathers produce the opposite effect (Mussen). In Jimmy’s life, his father was absent, and without the stable father figure, Jimmy had no real role models to emulate, and therefore developed a less emotionally equipped persona. This is apparent in the sequence of images where Jimmy, about to meet his father, tries to imagine what he will be like (Ware, 30). All 12 men share similar characteristics with Jimmy, from limited hair and similar chin-shapes, but all are distinct, and have what appears to be, varying lifestyles and personalities. Jimmy’s lack of understanding about who is father is, as a person, explains why Jimmy fails to act assertively in most situations. He has never had a real role model from which Jimmy could learn how to behave, and as a result, fails to act. Ware also demonstrates the power of a male role model elsewhere in the comic, through the use of Jimmy’s grandfather. When Jimmy’s grandfather argues with the red haired girl (Ware, 219), this child’s actions mirror the model that Jimmy’s great-grandfather set, where he mistreats women and acts as if they are beneath him. In this case, the child replication the actions and beliefs of the father, who is the child’s masculine role model simply because the father is there, no matter if it is a positive or negative role model. Ware clearly understands the power of a father-figure in a child’s life, and uses it to begin to explain Jimmy’s behavior, as the lack of a real role model for Jimmy stunted his emotional growth.

Without the live-in father figure, Jimmy struggles to find a substitute, and, like many young boys, ends selecting one from pop-culture, here a superhero. Society holds up superheroes as the epitome of masculinity, due to their strength, morals, and the predilection to save the day. Because young children have are unable to completely separate reality from fiction, they often take superheroes as role models, and assume the same ideas, morals, and even gender-roles that the characters exhibit (Baker). From this, we see how young children focus on these types of characters for models. The issue arises when Jimmy actually meets his role model, at a mall appearance. This hero proceeds to take a glancing interest in Jimmy’s life, takes Jimmy and his mother out to dinner, and proceeds to have a one-night-stand with Jimmy’s mother, leaving Jimmy with only a mask to remember him by (Ware, 5). From this sequence, Jimmy learns two things. One, that women are primarily sex objects (as shown by the hero taking in interest in Jimmy’s life only so far as it leads to sex with his mother), and two, that the role models in one’s life will leave without notice. Based upon these two things, Jimmy’s future development is understandable. Jimmy’s isolation and loneliness is a product of his belief that people will not stick around in his life, and his failure to connect with the opposite sex, and to focus on sex exclusively, is a product of Jimmy seeing his role model interact with him only for sex (from his mother). The ideal man the superhero represents imposes its ideals upon Jimmy, who, even at a young age, takes these lessons to heart, even if he did not yet understand it. Even with these issues with his superhero role model, Jimmy persists in using the superhero as his role model even until adulthood, proving Jimmy’s shortened emotional growth. We see that after Jimmy is hit by a car, he imagines that his savior is indeed the superhero, instead of just the driver (Ware, 99). Furthermore, the image of his superhero dying, or letting Jimmy down, both on page 17 for the suicide of the superhero, and on page 15 with the superhero dropping him and his future son, show Jimmy’s belief that even those people he believes in will let him down. In both of these cases, the model used for Jimmy’s personal development has failed him, yet he still immaturely follows the same role model.

Things begin to change for Jimmy when he actually meets his father. The initial meeting does not go well, and for both Jimmy and his father, things are awkward. They fail to connect, and often lapse into silence (Ware, 48). Jimmy’s father is forced to carry the conversations, and overall, all conversation is shallow, focusing only on the superficial, such as the quality of food, or the weather outside. To Jimmy, it seems as if he has no place in his father’s life, as evidenced by his sleeping on the couch, his father forgetting Jimmy was staying with him, and even his clothing shrinking (Ware, 64). Clothing here is significant. When Jimmy is forced to wear his father’s clothing, it does not fit well, indicating to the reader and to Jimmy that Jimmy does not have to be his father (Ware, 64). Later, when Jimmy’s old clothing fails to fit again, indicating to the reader that perhaps Jimmy is changing beyond who he was when he arrived (Ware, 67). The breaking point for Jimmy in this short trip is the sight of his father’s “Number One Dad” shirt (Ware 71) ­­­. To Jimmy, this brings up his abandonment issues, as Jimmy realizes that even though his father was not there for him, he apparently was for somebody else. Jimmy, unprepared for this realization, runs off, and gets injured (Ware, 99). This accident leads to the first occasion that Jimmy’s father does actually come through for Jimmy, as he takes him to the emergency room, and is able to help treat his broken foot. This is the beginning of Jimmy rationally reevaluating his father. Jimmy must start to reconcile his father, as a man, with the father figure he idolized in his younger days as a superhero. Throughout the day, Jimmy learns that his father was a good father to Amy, (Ware, 286), but does also have faults, such as leaving Jimmy, smoking, and mild amounts of sexism. However, the fact that Jimmy is finally able to process the imperfections of is father is the most important part, as it leads to his personality change at the end, and restarts Jimmy’s emotional growth.

Catharsis is the act of reconciliation, emotionally and psychologically, and is noted by a significant release of negative emotion (Claiborn). Jimmy goes through his own personal catharsis after the death of his father, all stemming from his redefinition of his male role model. Jimmy’s father never met up to the image of a superhero that Jimmy maintained for years, yet his father was more immediate and nurturing that the superhero ever was.  This catharsis was Jimmy reconciling that his role model may not be perfect, but it is still valuable to have a dependable pattern to model oneself after. While his father was in the hospital, Jimmy has a real conversation with Amy about Jimmy’s personality, his expectations, and why Jimmy wanted to meet his father (Ware, 320), starting the process of the catharsis, as Jimmy realized he wanted to know who his father was. Here, Jimmy begins to evaluate his own actions, and begins to understand why he acts so peculiarly. Going home after his father’s death, Jimmy begins to take responsibility for his actions after discovering and examining the discrepancy between the ideal and reality, all hallmarks of a true developmental catharsis, as stated by Nichols and Efran (Nichols), allowing him to define a richer, more satisfying life. Jimmy has come to accept that he is not his father, but there are aspects of his father that are worthwhile to copy. Jimmy’s father was a supportive father to Amy, he was responsible later in life, and was able to change into a better man, an aspect that Jimmy can, and did take to heart. By the end of the comic, Jimmy was able to let go of his infantile attraction to Peggy (Ware, 375), moved on from his mother’s dependence upon him (Ware, 373), and was finally able to see a woman outside of a sexual situation (Ware, 378), all actions that would have seemed out of range for the Jimmy the reader encounters in the first 100 pages. True development in Jimmy was achieved, because he was able to move past his childish fantasies about his father, and accept his father for who he is, and that Jimmy can be his own man outside of his father, showing clear emotional maturity.
Jimmy Corrigan, as a character, is initially very plain. He is a passive character, unable to speak to women, and is extremely lonely. All of these attributes are due to the lack of a stable male role model in Jimmy’s life. By interacting with his father, and understanding the man his father was and is, Jimmy is able to reach a catharsis, and is able to move past his problems. Chris Ware masterfully uses both the art of the comic, as well as detailed knowledge of psychological concepts to impress upon the reader the importance of a stable male role model in a young boy’s life. Ware’s novel ends with young Jimmy being carried off by a superhero, a superhero that looks suspiciously like himself. By ending the novel in this manner, Ware acknowledges that the changes in Jimmy are because Jimmy himself wanted to change, but need the catalyst that was interacting with his father, and reconciling his ideal role model with a real person.  



Works Cited:
Baker, Kaysee, and Arthur A. Raney. "Equally Super?: Gender-Role Stereotyping of Superheroes in Children's Animated Programs." Mass Communication and Society 10.1 (2007): 25-41. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Claiborn, Charles D. "Dynamic Psychotherapies." Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Mussen, Paul, and Luther Distler. "Masculinity, Identification, and the Father-Son Relationship." The Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology 59.3 (1959): 350-56. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Nichols, Michael P., and Jay S. Efran. "Catharsis in Psychotherapy: A New Perspective." Psychotherapy: Theory, Research, Practice, Training 22.1 (1985): 46-58. Web. 27 Mar. 2014.
Ware, Chris. Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth. New York: Pantheon, 2000. Print.

2 comments:

Adam said...

Too much of the material in the introduction is obvious. There are lots of non-obvious things to *do* with the father-son relationship and its importance in JC - but I'd like to understand where you're going with it (in other words, what your own argument is) from the start. An example of where you move from overly obvious or basic material is here (2nd paragraph): "When Jimmy’s grandfather argues with the red haired girl (Ware, 219), this child’s actions mirror the model that Jimmy’s great-grandfather set, where he mistreats women and acts as if they are beneath him." Now we're moving from fairly basic psychology (which, granted, can't go without some explanation) into its consequences. Good - more like this, please!

Your discussion of superheroes has some important insights. I think that it's basically good (especially re: how he learns from Superman to view women as sex objects), but I think your exploration of what Superman's suicide and murder *mean* are a little abbreviated. In particular, Superman's murder of Jimmy's son, leading into the really distinctive "theater" scene is such a wild and strange part of the book, I'd like to see you do more with it.

Your analysis of several details of Jimmy's interaction with his father is quite good. You cover a good bit of ground, and this material does its work. I'm personally skeptical about whether there was ever any possibility for Jimmy to idolize his father (as opposed to superman, his idealized father), but that's a quibble, and I can see where you're coming from if you think otherwise.

Your argument for Jimmy's catharsis has its strengths and its limitations. Its strengths are that you ably discuss several changes in Jimmy's character and how they relate to his encounter with his father. Its weaknesses are that you don't deal with the epilogue vs. "the end" issue, which is *really* important to your argument, and that you similarly slide over the issue of how Jimmy flees because Amy rejects him, which pushes, to some extent, against the maturing/cathartic reading.

Overall: I thought the beginning of the essay was far too basic. The later parts are much better, invovling a detailed and interesting analysis of the text. What would have strengthened it is to trim down some of the weaker and more obvious material so you could be more detailed & convincing at the end (for instance, by dealing with the epilogue vs. "the end" issue from your own point of view.

General Manager said...

Good article shared about father and son,..
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