The afterlife of family romance

Michael McKeon

Research output: Chapter in Book/Report/Conference proceedingChapter


‘The Afterlives of Eighteenth-Century Fiction’ is a rich topic that can be approached from several directions. I would like to conceive it as a question of the afterlives of fictional conventions in order to emphasize both the collective and the temporal nature of the phenomenon. More specifically, my guiding question will be: how and why did the ancient convention of family romance enter into the formation of the novel genre in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Britain? The British novelists on whom I will focus when I engage this question in the latter part of the essay are Richardson, Fielding, Burney, and Austen. I The convention of family romance was given its name by Sigmund Freud, who observed that it was extraordinarily common not only in literary works, such as romances and novels, but also in less consciously regulated fictions: folk tales, fairy tales, daydreams, and nocturnal dreams. To Freud, this gave evidence that family romance possesses a universal fascination, which was confirmed for him by what seemed the universal significance of its content. Liberation from parental authority being essential to normal development, family romance plays an important role in facilitating this separation by expressing a young child's earliest capacity to distance himself (Freud's paradigm is male experience) from them. The form taken by the child's critical detachment is a ‘feeling of being slighted’ (Zurücksetzung), a dissatisfaction with his parents for being poor, vulgar, distracted, or in other ways inadequate to the child's sense of self-importance and to his wish to be closely attended to and cared for. Over time the child becomes convinced that these inadequate and unworthy figures cannot be his real parents, that he must have been adopted by them or at least must be no more than their stepchild. The feeling of being slighted is expressed through ‘a phantasy in which both his parents are replaced by others of better birth’. One day the real, ‘new and aristocratic’ parents, resplendent in every way, will appear or be discovered, and they will free their child from the undeserved mediocrity of its existence. Developmentally speaking, this is the first stage of the family romance. As yet, the child knows nothing of how children are produced, although ‘the influence of sex’ is already evident in the boy's greater hostility toward and greater need to be freed from his father than his mother.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Afterlives of Eighteenth-Century Fiction
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages29
ISBN (Electronic)9781107294424
ISBN (Print)9781107054684
StatePublished - Jan 1 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • General Arts and Humanities


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