Running in the Family: Chapter Notes ¡V What We Think of Married Life

Tea Country ¡V The Bone



Tea Country (165 ¡V 167)

¡P         Onndatje describes his personal experience returning back to Colombo and visiting the tea estate and his half-sister Susan and her husband Sunil.

¡P         He recounts the drive to the estate, lightning hitting the fuse box, and the morning after the monsoon storm

¡P         Finally, the ending part of this chapter describes the landscape that surrounds the house and his parents¡¦ marriage.


¡§What we think of married life¡¨ (168 ¡V 172)

¡P         In this chapter Ondaatje chronicles the arguments that his parents had while they were living together. He creates the impression that his mother would over-react when his father was getting drunk as a form of revenge knowing that his father was essentially a shy man

¡P         The narration reveals the difference in personality between his mother and father where his father was quieter while his mother was louder and more theatrical.

¡P         However, the chapter goes on to mention that despite the differences, they share a certain, intimate bond of humor and wit.

¡P         Finally Ondaatje describes how Doris, Mervyn and the children are now constantly separated from each other and never all in one place at the same time


Dialogues (173 ¡V 178)

¡P         The chapter is composed of a total of 11 stories told by Mervyn and Doris¡¦ immediate family, relatives and friends

¡P         The quotations further reveal some of the most memorable points in their marriage and their changing attitudes towards one another

¡P         The stories from the siblings serve to show the embarrassment and shame created by the occasionally absurd and ridiculous behaviour of the older generation

¡P         Even after the divorce the impression is created that Mervyn still cares about Doris


Blind Faith (179 ¡V 180)

¡P         This passage mainly relates to Ondaatje¡¦s feelings about his parents¡¦ divorce and how he, as their child, understood very little of it.

¡P         He wishes to know more about the relationship between his parents and regrets that he was unable to truly get to know his father.

¡P         He finishes this chapter with references to Edgar and Gloucester from King Lear suggesting that, like Edgar, he remains loyal to his father to the very end, even though his father will never really see or understanding this loyalty


The Bone (181 ¡V 182)

¡P         This chapter is written from the point of view of a character called Arthur, a friend of Mervyn¡¦s and is another outrageous train story where Ondaatje¡¦s father escaped from a train, ran off naked into the jungle and was later found walking around having caught a series of local dogs. The image created is a disturbing one of Mervyn speaking a subterranean language as he holds the dogs off the ground by the ropes around their necks

¡P         At the end of the chapter the dogs are cut loose and Mervyn is taken back to Columbo by Arthur and Stephy



Motifs / Symbols & Imagery

The Bone

Bones have been associated with Mervyn since the opening chapter where Ondaatje dreams about his father as ¡¥chaotic, surrounded by dogs, and all of them screaming and barking into the tropical landscape.¡¦ This comes shortly after the line ¡¥What began it all was the bright bone of a dream¡¦ and the echo between this line and the chapter title perhaps suggests that this may be the story that first piqued Ondaatje¡¦s interest in his father. Indeed opening lines of this chapter are ¡¥There is a story about my father that I cannot come to terms with¡¦ and this perhaps creates the impression that it is his attempt to make sense of this story about his father that has led Ondaatje back to Ceylon in an attempt to reconstruct his family history and learn about the relationship between his parents. Bone also obviously refers to the structure of the human skeleton and thus oblique reference to foundations may be related to the sense that we get throughout the memoir that Ondaatje is attempting to uncover his roots and come to a better understanding of himself.


The Dogs

The dogs seem to be a symbol for darkness as Mervyn is described as having ¡§captured all the evil in the regions he passed through¡¨ (182). However, perhaps their main function is to echo the darkness in Mervyn who at this point seems to have become so lost in alcoholism that he has lost much of his humanity ¡V hence the descriptions of his conversation with the dogs as ¡¥subterranean, volcanic¡¦. The fact that the dogs are strays and, perhaps, outcasts may also echo something about Mervyn¡¦s character and status within society.



The destructive effects of alcohol are demonstrated throughout this section as it is alcohol and Mervyn¡¦s drunkenness that eventually tore the Ondaatje family apart. This may suggest that although drinking during their ¡§flaming youth¡¨ brought no serious consequences, alcohol was ultimately responsible for the gradual decay in Mervyn¡¦s character seen in his later life.



In earlier chapters, the idea of identity revolves around the identity of Ceylon, but in this section, Ondaatje¡¦s own identity is more in focus. This can be seen in the chapter ¡§Blind Faith¡¨ where he seems to question his connection with his family and his own role in the scheme of things. He draws upon the feeling of wanting to meet his father and to discuss the past with him to reveal that he is trying to develop a greater understanding of his father and is perhaps in need of a guide.


Edgar & Gloucester

These characters from Shakespeare¡¦s King Lear are two of the most powerful symbols in this section. Gloucester is the self destructive father who never really knew his own son, a clear echo of Mervyn, while Edgar is the loyal son who remains devoted to his father even when he has been cast out by him. Edgar¡¦s attempts to teach Gloucester about suicide by pretending to help Gloucester throw himself off a cliff perhaps echoes Ondaatje¡¦s similar attempt to rehabilitate his father. More convincingly, the fact that Edgar feels close to his father and is heartbroken by his suffering but never reveals who he is reflects the distance between Ondaatje and his own father despite their closeness. The tragic nature of the play may also echo the sense of tragedy we feel as we witness the destruction of the Ondaatje family. The link between Ondaatje and characters like Edgar (and Fortinbras) is cemented by the fact that both of these characters are among those who survive the tragedy and live to tell the tale. Indeed, Fortinbras speaks the closing lines in Hamlet when he encourages the survivors at the Danish court to honour the dead prince and orders Horatio to relate to everyone the story of what happened. The connections to Ondaatje here are evident.


The Tea Estate

In the chapter, ¡§Tea Country¡¨, the magnitude of the tea fields surrounding the old Ondaatje family is used to emphasize the sense of isolation Doris seems to feel when living there. The vast expanse of these fields, although tranquil, creates a sense of imprisonment with its uniformity and silence. The fact that she could not see beyond these fields accentuates the distance between her and Colombo, where all the excitement is going on. In addition, Ondaatje describes the landscape and nature, surrounding the tea estate through repeated use of the colour green creating the impression that the place is natural, vibrant and even ¡§regal¡¨ a description which helps to evoke the sense of a pastoral idyll. This sense of peace is reinforced by the ¡¥word sleepy¡¦ which suggests the quiet, slow and relaxed atmosphere of the country, where nothing out of the ordinary happens, and the fact that ¡§the loudest noise is the excited breathing of two dogs.¡¨


The North Pole

In ¡§What we think of married life¡¨, Ondaatje describes his father as the North Pole. Partly this may be used to suggest the cold distance that he associates with his father who, now that he is dead, is unreachable and this echoes the sense we get later on in Blind Faith that Ondaatje regrets not having had the opportunity to develop a proper reltionshp with his father. Alternatively the symbol of the North Pole may have been used because when navigating it is the point of origin or the fixed point against which bearings are taken. This may suggest that he is the origin of this generation of Ondaatjes and that they move in accordance with him.




Post-modernism and The Vulnerability of History to Time and Perspective

The post-modern idea of the fractured narrative and the impossibility of obtaining an objective truth is evident in both the Bone and Dialogue sections where we are given stories from different perspectives. Not only does this reveal how these stories have to be stitched together by someone before they can be understood (suggesting the possibility of bias, misunderstanding or inaccuracy) but ¡¥The Bone¡¦ in particular reveals the unavoidable influence of the author¡¦s perspective on the story being told as Ondaatje admits that this is a story that does not fit with his image of his father. In addition, because the narrative perspective in ¡¥The Bone¡¦ is that of Mervyn¡¦s friend, Arthur we are left unsure as to the reliability of the story and this sense of unreliability is accentuated by the clear exaggeration evident in Arthur¡¦s narrative where he describes Mervyn walking towards him, huge and naked, holding five dogs in one hand.




Mervyn Ondaatje

Mervyn¡¦s character is explored in more detail in this section of the memoir. He is described as being a private man who ¡§swallowed the heart of books and kept that knowledge and emotion to himself¡¨ (168). Ondaatje also creates the impression that he is also gentle and loving, and was only violent and impulsive when he is was drinking. We are also given a clear impression that, despite their differences, he bonded with Dorisas the shared the same ¡§secretive and slightly crooked humor¡¨ which would make them both double up with laughter (170).


Doris Gratiaen

Doris is depicted as being similar to Lalla in their shared sense of theatricality where everything she says or does is dramatic and somewhat exaggerated. Ondaatje nicely emphasizes this when he says that his mother  could make a situation so dramatic that, even from the isolated Tea Estate where they lived, the news of it would quickly reach Colombo. In addition, she is seen to be very determined in her attempts to stop Mervyn from drinking. Ondaatje says that ¡§she drew on every play she had been in or had read and used it as a weapon¡¨ to make him sober again (171). Her strength and determination can also be seen when she moved back to England to work in a hotel in order to support the children.


Christopher, Janet and Gilian Ondaatje

Ondaatje¡¦s siblings who are described as having ¡§a sense of the dramatic ¡K [and] ¡K the determination to now and then hold the floor¡¨ (168) and the implication that they have inherited this from their parents echoes again the theme of things running in the family and reinforces the sense that Ondaatje is trying to discover more about himself through coming to a greater understanding of himself. This attempt to understand the self through understanding you parents is also evident in Ondaatje¡¦s comment about his half sister Susan who is portrayed as being gentle, calm, quiet and ¡§utterly humble¡¨ (168) ¡V as a result of the difference between them Ondaatje concludes that he most have inherited his taste for the dramatic from his mother¡¦s side of the family.



Narrative Style

The first person narrative style of ¡¥Tea Country¡¦ is perhaps used to create an impression of the very real, and moving beauty of the Tea Estate. The first person voice here may have been used to evoke the same powerful impression of beauty on the reader as it seems to have done on Ondaatje. This contrasts with the third person view used in ¡¥What we think of married life¡¦ where the distance here perhaps allows the arguments and tempests of married life to take on a slightly comical hue.


The narrative style of ¡¥Dialogues¡¦ stands out as it is composed of a series of different stories that are pieced together chronologically. Not only does this echo the process that Ondaatje would have undergone as he constructed this memoir but it also reinforces the sense of post-modern uncertainty that we associate with the unreliability of information from multiple sources that has been selected and then re-framed to tell a story from a certain perspective.


In this section, Ondaatje¡¦s narrative the becomes more serious as he recounts the disintegration of his parents¡¦ marriage. However, he continues to interject moments of humour, for example, as he mentioned that Doris would hold her breath until she fainted to force Mervyn to stop drinking.


The confused and dark narrative style used in ¡¥The Bone¡¦, befits the darkly disturbing image of Mervyn created therein and the lack of romanticisation gives this section a much more realistic feel which shows the seriousness of the situation and implies that, at some level, Ondaatje is aware of the destructive effects of alcohol and does not view it only as a fuel for the flaming youth. Perhaps most interestingly Ondaatje begins narrating this chapter in first person but ends it by directly addressing his father. This direct address in the lines ¡¥I am the son you have made hazardous but who still loves you¡¦ and the fact that Ondaatje says ¡¥I am writing this book about you when I am least certain about such words¡¦ creates the impression that Ondaatje has been left with unanswered questions and that the writing of this memoir is, at least in part, an attempt to answer them. The short sentences and rhetorical questions here help to intensify this sense of loss.



Relation of Part to Whole

The entire section continues to develop the sense that Ondaatje is on a quest to find out about his family. Nature is incorporated into every part of the text, and is used as a tool by Onndatje to convey his impressions and feelings of his homeland. In this section, he is seen doing just that, as it opens with his description of the tea-estate, leaving the readers with the impression of a laid-back countryside. In contrast to this, there are times in the text where we see the power of nature and how people have to work tirelessly to keep it in check, this is evident in the lines, ¡§Such precision would be jungle in five years if left alone.¡¨


This section is also crucial in painting a picture of the relationship between Ondaatje¡¦s parents. The fact that the title of the section is taken from the comment on Doris and Mervyn¡¦s honeymoon photo reinforces the impression that it is their relationship that is to be the focus here. On one Ondaatje reveals the effects of Mervyns¡¦ alcoholism and how Doris tries to combat it in response and we learn that while his siblings saw it as ¡§a nightmare¡¨ there were still moments of hilarity that are suggestive of the golden age of Mervyn and Doris¡¦ flaming youth. Rather than paint his father as an alcoholic villain the quotation ¡§a bomb to disturb a butterfly,¡¨ actually suggests how outrageous Doris¡¦ actions are, and the lengths to which she will go to try and embarrass her husband into sobriety.


Finally, in ¡§Blind Faith,¡¨ Ondaatje reflects on his role as the ¡§remnants [left over] from the earlier generations¡¨ and questions himself about how little he actually knows; what did ¡§love, passion, [and] duty¡¨ actually mean to his father. It is this chapter more than any else that, when read from an autobiographical perspective, may reveal some of the motivation behind Ondaatje¡¦s decision to write this memoir. Despite being made hazardous by his father, which denotes perhaps how nightmarish his childhood may have been, it is clear that Ondaatje still loves his father and in some senses may want to rehabilitate or ¡¥save¡¦ him in the same way that Edgar ¡¥saves¡¦ Gloucester. The depths of Ondaatje¡¦s feelings are further suggested when, in contrast to previous chapters, Ondaatje reveals his own feelings and directly addresses his father instead of narrating indirectly.