Thursday, April 10, 2014

Living in Will's Shadow

Apart from having the same genes, twins may not necessarily have anything else in common. In fact, some twins are such polar opposites that you begin to even question their genetics. Will and Tom Navidson in Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, are a prime example of how a pair of twins can be strikingly different. In the Navidsons’ case, one brother is clearly dominant: Will. Will is a successful photographer with a long-term girlfriend whom he has two kids with. Tom, on the other hand, is a mere carpenter with no family, but he does have a bit of a drug addiction to make up for it. Danielewski also mentions the biblical brothers Jacob and Esau in the Navidson narrative, and this is no accident. In my essay, I will show how easily it is for one twin to overshadow the other by analyzing the relationship between Will and Tom Navidson through their comparison to the biblical brothers Jacob and Esau.
There is no mistaking who is analogous to Jacob and who is analogous to Esau. In a note, Johnny describes the brothers as Esau being a “hairy, dim-witted hunter” and Jacob being a “smooth-skinned, cunning intellectual” (Danielewski 247). Since Will is the more successful brother with a stable job and a family, he is Jacob in this situation, leaving the “dim-witted” title for Tom by default. The “cunning” attribute is the most beneficial characteristic to have when looking to manipulate someone, and Will certainly does not fall short in this category. Will often gets Tom to do his bidding or help him out when he needs it without giving anything in return.
For instance, Will and Tom were estranged for eight years when Will suddenly calls Tom and asks him for his help in investigating the strange observations he makes about his house. Karen sums up their lack of communication over the years simply: “Navy’s successful. Tom’s not…There’s been a lot of resentment over the years.” (Danielewski 31). Yet even though Tom resents his brother, he still comes running back to help Will when he needs him, symbolizing the control Will has over his brother with seemingly little effort. Tom’s dedication to his brother is cemented in the fact that instead of taking weeks to arrive (or even not coming at all) he arrives only two days later. Tom drops everything going on in his life to come running to the aid of a man who he has had little to do with in almost a decade. What this also tells us is that Tom most likely does not have anything going on in his life that is worth his time anyway. He is the less successful twin; only Will’s ambitions matter.
            Another similarity arises when we consider that Tom and Esau seem to love their brothers more than they are loved in return. In Johnny’s note about the Esau and Jacob story, after he explains how Jacob tricked their father into giving him a blessing instead of Esau he writes, “Esau bawls like a baby and threatens to kill Jacob. Jacob runs off and meets god. Years later the brothers meet up again, make up, but don’t hang together for long” (Danielewski 247). Esau has every reason to despise his brother, but he forgives him anyway, merely ignoring him. Jacob here is the dominant brother again because he has this silent manipulation over Esau that makes him forget all rage, for reasons that are not made known to us. This may be because there is no reason for his dominance apart from his naturally cunning personality and Esau’s naturally docile one. A theme arises here that forgiveness and kindness can lead to submissive behavior. As a result, Esau also appears to be less ambitious. There is no evidence that Jacob would have walked away without murdering Esau if the situations were to be reversed.
            Tom and Will share a similar relationship. Will does not have much faith in Tom or an unrelenting compassion for him, evidenced by how he reacts when Tom does not show up down the stairs to meet him, stating, “I shouldn’t be surprised….This is Tom. This is what Tom does best. He lets you down” (Danielewski 277). Will’s tone here is a cruel one, cold at best. Not only is he claiming that Tom is letting him down again, but he implies it is what he does best, discrediting any other ability he has and looking down on his brother substantially. On the other hand, Tom seems to care deeply for Will. When Will does not resurface from the basement of the house, “Tom felt like a part of him had been ripped away…He started shaking and tears just kept welling up in his eyes…It was terrifying to watch. He loved his brother that much” (Danielewski 319). From this description, it would be a plausible assumption to say that Tom feels as if he cannot go on without his brother. His reaction to his disappearance is striking when only a few pages before, Will was making awful remarks about Tom behind his back. When one person cares more than the other in any relationship, it is easy to fall into the trap of doing anything for them and not expecting much in return, which is the case with the Navidson brothers.
            Conclusively, in any set of brothers, there is often a dominant one who overshadows the other, and in the case of House of Leaves, it is Will who dominates over Tom and manipulates him. This dichotomy has truly stood the test of time, since similar events were transpiring in the biblical days as well through Isaac’s sons Jacob and Esau. Unfortunately, this scenario leaves the more docile one with a less-than-ideal position in the relationship. This, in turn, can affect the docile sibling’s other relationships, and even their outlook on life. They often view their situation as hopeless and turn to the uncaring brother for support, a cruel twist of fate that only leaves the dominant brother with more power. Tom will forever be living in Will’s shadow, and he makes no attempt to change that situation, merely cheering Will on from the sidelines.


Kyle McManigle said...


I think demonstrating that there is a dichotomy between Will and Tom is definitely evident, and it obviously helps that the Bible story of the two brothers is parallel. It's interesting that I got to read your essay this week because I also wrote about Tom and Will, but I wrote about how they are really parts of the same people, dependent on each other. They have a couple things in common. They took care of each other growing up, and they have developed mechanisms to deal with absence in the forms of obsession. The difference is the actual mechanism: Tom using drugs and alcohol in his addiction, and Will using his work. Also, although Will does make a lot of jabs at Tom, there are instances where he does care and has compassion. For example, when helping drunken Tom off the floor when Tom says Will is always there for him, Will's cheeks flush, and there is another time where he tears up a little. He is also obviously crushed by Tom's death. I argued that this was a part of Will dying parallel to the quote you used about Tom feeling like a part of him was ripped out. Will abandons his family for the sake of his work, as he always did, to keep himself busy. I think you have an argument here that just needs more evidence because there is counter evidence to what you have said. If you were to use the Biblical reference more to pick up on some of the more subtle things, it might help. Also, it is noted that the rift between the brothers started with the birth of Chad because Tom lost Will's attention. Could it be that Tom is not necessarily manipulated by Will, but just much more dependent on him because he is the only good thing he has in life? The text also does say that there is evidence Tom thinks of Will and Karen of parental figures. If you could explore these little things and draw from them, you should be able shape the argument better to make your idea stronger.

Adam said...

What is the meaning of this dominance that you have demonstrated, at least partially?

At the beginning of the essay, I thought you were mostly just repeating the obvious. I was also mildly bothered by the fact that you don't seem to bother to look up the Biblical original (which has many odd and interesting details).

But you got more focused as you went. Once you got focused on these dual problems, it got more interesting.
a) Tom loves Will more than vice-versa, like Esau loves Jacob more than vice versa (critical, central fact: God loves Jacob more than Esau. Check out Romans 9:13 for another biblical reference to the story).,
b) Will dominates tom

You do a good job moving beyond the basics into interesting territory. What I wanted more of is why we care - what does it *mean* that Will is (to paraphrase you) dominant, manipulative, cold, and not loving?