Running in the Family: Chapter Notes – Eclipse Plumage

Lunch Conversation - The Passions of Lalla



Lunch Conversation (105-109)

·         This chapter recounts a lunch conversation Ondaatje had with his relatives about two incidents. The first incident is when David Grenier died when Doris (Ondaatje’s mother) was only nine. At the same time Lalla (his grandmother) was caught in a current that took her far out to sea but she decides not to fight it and “eventually came back in a semi-circle” (106). When she returns Lalla has to break the news of David Grenier’s death to Dickie, his wife.

·         The second incident is a wedding lunch about 55 years later which sheds light on the complicated relationship between Doris, Hilden and Trevor de Saram both of whom seemed to be in love with Ondaatje’s mother.

·         The fragmented nature of this chapter highlights the hardships Ondaatje sometimes encountered when trying to learn his family history. Events are vulnerable to time and perspective and it can be seen that everyone’s version is just a little bit different and difficult to piece together.


The Passions of Lalla (113-129)

·         This chapter focuses entirely on Ondaatje’s maternal grandmother, Lalla and describes the events that take place from the time that Lalla’s husband dies until her own death. The title of the section, ‘The Passions of Lalla’, is appropriate as this section describes and illustrates many of Lalla’s passions and her adventures after losing her husband and becoming her own person again. The foregrounding of her ‘passions’ over the character of Lalla herself suggests that these passions are in fact the most significant part of her and creates the impression that they are something akin to a powerful force, distinct from Lalla herself, that determine the direction that her life is going to take and over which she has no control. This image of a woman at the mercy of her eccentric and crazy passions is again an idealized, romanticisation of her character.

·         The beginning of the chapter describes Lalla in her childhood, youth and first marriage to Willie Gratien. Willie, however, died young leaving Lalla to raise her two children and look after their dairy farm. The first section then goes on to describe her various outrageous antics such as hiding her head milkman, Brumphy, from the police after he had stabbed a man, taking groups out to meals without being able to pay, playing jokes on her dinner guests such as the one with the live goat and attempting to marry her brother, who had wanted to be bachelor his whole life, to a woman who had wanted to become a nun.

·         The middle of the chapter focuses on Lalla’s life after she lost the dairy farm and all of her money. At this point in her life she sold her house and moved where ever she wanted to and did whatever she felt like: she loved flowers and stole them constantly from neighbours, she would throw parties for poor children and steal toys for them when she couldn’t afford to buy them, she would urinate in public and after her death she had donated her body to six different hospitals.

·         The end of the chapter deals with her death in 1947 when she steps drunkenly into the flood waters outside of the house in which she had been drinking with her brother Vere and floats away through the town





Alcohol is implicitly present in the chapter “Lunch Conversation” where most people who are at the wedding lunch are drunk, including Doris, Ondaatje’s mother. The effects of alcohol are once again destructive, making people argue with each other, as the case with Trevor de Saram and Hilden. More importantly, alcohol is what made this lunch conversation so confusing. Not only are the different accounts of that wedding lunch already made biased by time and perspective, they are also probably also made inaccurate due to the influence of alcohol.


Alcohol however is a more important recurring symbol in the Passions of Lalla where it helps to accentuate the sense of the freedom and independence of youth that has been established in the earlier chapters. Interestingly, Lalla drinks not when she is upset, for example when her fiancé left her for another woman Lalla threw a fit of rage and married another man and when her husband was dying she didn’t drink but instead prayed and offered her faith to give him good health. Instead Lalla is described as drinking with her brother Vere (‘a sweet drunk’) (120) and she grew “loud and cheerful” which suggests that alcohol is used as a fuel for celebration or for the creation of a good mood. Drinking is again romanticized in this chapter in the description of a friend of Lalla’s brother who was “brilliant when drunk” (121). Indeed when Lalla is nearly broke she continues to drink and seems not to care much for the idea of money. At the end of the chapter Lalla and her brother when stuck inside during a rainstorm make the best of their situation and drink while playing games and eating food.



Lalla does not seem to consider money to be very important. From the beginning of the chapter it is conveyed that Lalla did not come from a family of excessive wealth as she and her husband made money by running a dairy, which would not provide enough money to live an exceptionally sophisticated lifestyle. In addition, after her husband died Lalla survived on her “wits, character and beauty” rather than on money. Furthermore, Lalla spent much of her money on entertainment and spent much of it on poor children and would invite groups out for dinner without consideration of her lack of funds suggesting her generosity of spirit. Lalla also handed out gifts at parties “when she was rich” but “when she was poor she […] would go to the Pettah market […] and steal toys” (122).



Animal imagery is a recurring image throughout the memoir where they are often used to reveal elements of Lalla’s personality. In the first part of the chapter, Lalla is compared to her neighbour’s noisy chickens; “Lalla and the chickens would wake him before dawn every morning” (114) which suggests her lively vociferousness. She is then compared to a rooster as she “swept into the school at noon […] fluttering down the halls in her long black clothes loose at the edges like a rooster dragging its tail” (117) which evokes a sense of her noisy and magnificent disarray. She is also described as loving the company of “cows, adults, babies, dogs” (119) where the incorporation of both humans and animals reinforces Lalla’s kind and giving spirit but also the sense of eccentricity and uniqueness that surrounds her as she holds cows on the same level as adults.



Both David Grenier and Lalla drowned and in the first chapter of the memoir Ondaatje is described as being carried away on another wave of the party which reflects the idea that things run in the family and there is a unity and common fate that binds these people together and perhaps ground Ondaatje and give him a sense of the personal identity that he appears to feel he is missing. This idea is also echoed by the fact that Lalla gets drunk on the same brand of alcohol that is ‘destroying’ Mervyn Ondaatje.


The Fake Breast

Lalla has gone through 4 fake breasts in total and she has lost each one in a different, unique and slightly absurd situation which helps reinforce the sense of Lalla’s liveliness and the impression that she (like her breast) has a life of her own and does not live according to the rules of appropriate behaviour according to which other people conduct their lives.




The Vulnerability of History to Time and Perspective

Throughout Running in the Family, this theme is evident, especially in chapters, Tropical Gossip and Lunch Conversation. The disjointed, fragmented and hard to follow structure of this chapter reflects the troubles that Ondaatje (as any chronicler of the past) faced when trying to research his family history – his task being made more difficult by the many rumors, biases and absurd little tales that cloud an individual’s view of events. In “Lunch Conversation”, the conversation about the incident that happened is very confusing and rather hard to follow. There are the multiple settings, the relationship between Trevor and Doris was disputed and Ondaatje had to confirm Doris’s age three times before he was convinced that she was nine at the time of the drowning of David Grenier. These differences in opinions and confusions with the actual details of the event reveal the vulnerability of memories and history to time and perspective. The fact that most of these people were drunk at the time of the incident also contributes to this point. How much can they remember accurately if they were not sober? Which version of what they are saying is truer than the others?


In the end these snapshots and stories may actually tell us more about the person telling the story than the events that are actually being narrated themselves … and indeed this is an idea that we might apply to ‘Running in the Family’ as a whole. On reflection this text perhaps actually tells us more about Ondaatje (his desire to romanticize the past; the attraction he feels to the halcyon image he has painted of Ceylon in the 1920s and 30s; the need he seems to feel to rehabilitate the image he has of his father; the distance that he seems to feel towards his mother even though he sympathises with her, etc) than it does about the people or country about which he is ostensibly writing.


Freedom & Independence

In a similar way to Mervyn’s mother, we get the impression that Doris’ mother, Lalla, also gained more freedom once her husband died. After her husband’s death, Lalla becomes increasingly independent in that she was free to be spontaneous and play jokes on her friends for example at one dinner party, she serves one of her friends a pot containing “a baby goat [that] jumped out a skittered down the table” (118). This perhaps echoes the freedom the Ceylonese experienced after independence.


The Fragility of Love and Marriage

Ondaatje once again creates the impression that engagements and affairs were easily created and broken as Lalla is engaged to “a very good looking and utterly selfish man” (113) who then leaves her for another woman while she proceeds by “quickly [marrying] Willie Gratiaen [...] on the rebound” (114). The rapiity with which she transfers her affections to another man shows the lack of seriousness put into relationships. Western culture usually values the idea of a long lasting unity between a man and woman while in Ceylon love affairs more romantically rainbow over marriages and long lasting couplings. After Lalla and her neighbour Rene’s husbands both die they decide that “neither of them [were] to marry again” (115) which perhaps implies that the idea of marriage has lost its appeal and the sense of security that it might have brought to some women has begun to seem like a confinement. Indeed as we see later Lalla seems to have developed an aversion to being ‘grabbed’ or ‘contained’ by anyone, even her grandchildren. Lalla also remains connected to all her past lovers as “she refused to lose friends” (123) despite having had an affair with him as “her first beau”. Ondaatje presents all of Lalla’s “old flames” in a tone that suggests that there is something romantic about their lingering involvement with one another and that it is difficult to let go of the past.


The Romanticisation of the Past

The ‘Passions of Lalla’ chapter is a celebration of Lalla’s character. Lalla’s character could have been perceived as overbearing and excessive (indeed Mervyn seems to have had little patience with her while Ondaatje’s sisters were embarrassed) but Ondaatje seems to find her appealing, depicting her as lively, vibrant and fun-loving rather than an annoyance. The way in which Ondaatje paints an indulgent picture of even her worst extremes (stealing flowers from gravestones, urinating in public, etc) is a clear indication of the way in which he has created a romanticised ‘gesture’ of this woman rather a realistic and accurate portrait of her.





Her character continues to be seen as very carefree and she still gives off the feeling that she is in some senses disconnected from the real world. When she is caught in the current in the sea, she does not fight back like a normal person would and remained relaxed until the current takes her back to the shore. It seems like she never panics and knows what she is doing. This can be related back to her reaction when being groped by a man; she was calm and was smiling despite being in a potentially awkward situation. We do, however, get an increasing sense of her almost childish aversion to responsibility when she casually lied to Dickie about David’s death. It was a moment of seriousness where Dickie should have found out the truth, but Lalla disregards the importance of this situation by lying in such a casual manner. This sense of childishness can also be seen when “she is suddenly very tired. She hates hurting anybody” where these two statements make her change of mood seem extremely abrupt, just like the fast-changing moods of children.


We are also given the impression that Lalla is ‘physically selfish’ and that, although she loves her family, she could not stand to be ‘grabbed’ or ‘contained’ and so she would not even hold her grandchildren’s hands if they asked her too. Once again we can see that Ondaatje tends to reinterpret potentially negative traits (e.g. the potentially irresponsible and rash way in which she jumped into her marriage with Willie Gratien) in a more positive light, e.g. as spontaneity, vibrancy, energy or being care-free.


Lalla is also portrayed as lighthearted and humorous. She asks her grandchildren to “fetch her tit” (124) in the middle of a formal dinner; makes witty jokes in the courtroom despite the possible charges against her and even her death is depicted as a “last perfect journey” (128) where she fantastically floats through the streets carried away by a flood into the arms of a blue jacaranda tree. Throughout each of these serious events she maintains a contrastingly light, unconcerned character giving the sense that she is living in her own world, reflecting perhaps again her selfish and inwardly focused nature.



Hilden seems to be a typical young man in his “flaming youth” who was drunk at the incident that was discussed during the chapter, “Lunch Conversation”. He seems to be quite flirtatious and playful since he was perceived as flirting with Ondaatje’s mother.


Doris Gratiaen

A sense of mystery continues to surround this character, because Ondaatje still has not given much concrete description about her. From here, it can be seen that she seems to be charming and attractive since she supposedly catches the attention of both Hilden and Trevor. Her fun and playful nature can be seen by the fact that she was “quite drunk” at the wedding reception where the story about David Grenier’s drowning was being told for the first time (105). The lack of description of Doris makes it clear, however, that the focus for Ondaatje in this memoir is really on his father. It is as if, leaving his father at such a young age, it is this man that Ondaatje feels he has to get to know. Mervyn stayed in Ceylon while Doris left to work in England and so his father and the country he was born in seem to take on equal importance in Ondaatje’s writing as he struggles to find out more about his past and where he came from in his quest for a better understanding of his personal identity.



Narrative Style:

The Passions of Lalla is written in a more linear and broadly chronological (from age of 20 till her death) style than much of the rest of the memoir. Nonetheless within each broad period of Lalla’s life the order of events remains ambiguous. The story of Lalla loses the first person voice present when Ondaatje is writing about himself and takes on a third person omniscient position. However, the narrative stance remains closely tied to Lalla’s character suggesting an intimacy between Ondaatje and Lalla that a more distant narrative voice would lack. The misleading omniscience of this third person voice is more evident in this section than perhaps any other part of the memoir as the account of Lalla’s death contains events and feelings that could not possibly have been known by the author. The contrast between the apparent credibility of the narrative voice and its unreliability helps to accentuate the elements of creativity and story-telling in Ondaatje’s memoir and this in turn emphasizes the post-modern idea of uncertainty that runs throughout the text. This uncertainty and unreliability however, is celebrated by Ondaatje and it becomes clear that, through the use of fiction, Ondaatje is able to create a romanticised and (in some respects) almost magic realist feel to the events he describes, giving them a greater depth and vibrancy and fully immersing the reader in the imaginative experience.



Relation to the rest of the text:

The main purpose of this chapter is to provide an insight into Lalla’s life and it answers some of the questions raised by the previous chapters, for example how the false breast came to be and how exactly she died. The fact that a whole chapter is devoted to Lalla marks her out as one of the most important characters in the memoir (second only, perhaps, to Ondaatje’s father) and her romanticised death (which is possibly partly an allusion to Ophelia’s death in Hamlet) makes it clear that she is the focus of much of Ondaatje’s idealism and romanticism. It could be argued that, for Ondaatje, Lalla is the most striking symbol of the care-free, laissez faire attitude that Ondaatje seems to find so attractive about the ‘golden days’ of Ceylon. She is the archetypal example of the ‘flaming’ life which exemplifies the past (and in particular the past of Ceylon) as a time of euphoric freedom and irresponsibility.


The title of the section, Eclipse Plummage, also echoes the stages of Lalla’s life. Some birds (ducks in particular) lose their bright feathers after the mating season and become a grey drab for the rest of the year. This dull coloration of feathers is called the eclipse plumage and can be seen as a metaphor for Lalla’s life and death. The loss of such a vibrant individual may be like a duck replacing its colorful feathers for dull grey ones.