Thursday, 8 December 2011

'We Need To Talk About Kevin' by Lionel Shriver

I was invited by Tea Time with Marce to join in on his discussion of 'We Need To Talk AB#bout Kevin' and I thought I'd toshare an essay I wrote on 'Kevin'. I shortened it, so it should be readable! Sorry if it's too long for a Friday ;)

It could be said that ‘We Need To Talk About Kevin’ revolves around the issue whether parents are responsible for a child’s actions. Many psycho-analytical theories have focused on the mother as being the parent who is most responsible for a child’s optimal development, the first being Sigmund Freud. One of the most influential however might be Melanie Klein’s theory. She argued that the mother was the most important person to a child because she was its prime nurturer and that any of its future problems were related to bad nursing experiences. In an article in the Guardian Shriver gives her opinion on this stream of psychology, saying how she was surprised to find out how nowadays parents are blamed for all of their children’s actions. Motherhood, but also parenthood in general, almost becomes a burden and you are not even allowed to complain about it. In the novel Franklin seems to share these thoughts, thinking it inexcusable to complain. Eva however, in Shriver’s words ‘allows herself to say all those things that mothers are not supposed to say[1]’.   
In order to perhaps understand how Shriver presents motherhood it is important to look at how Eva talks about being a mother and her child. Perhaps Shriver thought of Melanie Klein’s theory when writing Eva and Kevin’s trouble with nurturing. : ‘Sucking is one of our few innate instincts, but …his head lolled away in distaste.’ Eva sees it as her duty to provide for Kevin, he however refuses her which causes her to connect feelings of ‘suffering’ and ‘defeat’ with him from the very beginning of their relationship. She calls him a ‘writhing creature’ and almost cannot bear the sight of him. Before giving birth she and Franklin had had endless discussions in which they had discussed the possibility of having a child. In these conversations Eva had said: Motherhood, now that is a foreign country.’. What she meant was that it would be something new, something different but also something terrifying. Eva did not travel because she liked it so much but because she had set herself the challenge of travelling and had to go though with it. From the beginning what attracted her to motherhood was its ‘insurmountability’. To her it really was a foreign country and she felt ‘cheated’ at it being so. Maternal feelings did not come natural to her yet she could not say so, which represent Shriver’s view of a ‘gag law’ on parents about the bad sides of parenthood.
 Motherhood is presented in two different ways in the novel. On the one hand there is the relationship between Eva and Kevin which is, as I described above, a torture for Eva. On the other hand there is Celia, Eva’s daughter. In contrast to Kevin, Celia was completely Eva’s decision. Having Kevin was a reaction to a need of Franklin’s and Celia is a reaction to her need to connect to someone in a loving way. . For once Eva can be a normal mother and she does not have any of the problems she so painstakingly explained when Kevin was still a baby. However, even though Eva seems to be “doing everything right” as a mother Celia still has her faults. She is almost too dependent. Perhaps Shriver is trying to show that in the end as parent you have a limited influence on your child.

Throughout the entire book there is a constant debate between nature and nurture. Is Kevin born evil and was there nothing Eva could do? Or was he an innocent and ruined by the fact that Eva was not loving enough? Melanie Klein would argue the later, however there are also other opinions. In ‘Savage Spawn’ Jonathan Kellerman defends the opinion that some children are simply born evil and should be locked up ‘till they die’[2]. In the aforementioned Guardian article Shriver tells us she can remember being a ‘conscious agent’ and knowing exactly what she was doing. This would lead us to belief she also thinks some children know very well when they do something wrong and therefore choose to be evil and that parents cannot be blamed for everything their children do. This idea is also  represented in Ian McEwan’s novel ‘The Good Son’, in which a son starts showing psychotic and evil behaviour. Interestingly, motherhood is also important in this novel because in the end the mother has to choose between her own evil son and her good nephew. She chooses the latter. This also calls for the question whether a mother is responsible for her son’s evil actions. In contrast to this mother Eva seems to take responsibility for her son’s actions, even though she spends the entire novel making excuses. What does it say about McEwan’s novel-mother that she chooses the other “good” son and what does it say about Eva that she keeps on playing a “good” mother by visiting Kevin?

What do you think? Hop over to Marce's to share in the discussion-fun!

[2]  Jonathan Kellerman: ‘Savage Spawn: Reflections on Violent Children’. Ballantine Books (1999)


  1. Thanks for participating. I refuse to believe it was Eva's fault so Kevin must have been evil, terrifying thought but honestly the things he did as a baby and toddler wow.

    Thanks for recommending other books. I saw the movie The Good Son it was fabulous and I still remember the scene of her choosing, very powerful.

    Are you looking forward to the movie?

  2. That was very thoughtful. My own thought is that people can certainly be wired in their brains for sociopathy/psychopathy. I think there are actually studies in relation to this now. Certainly though, a parents approach to their child can contribute/increase any underlying predispostions to issues like these, even if not knowingly. Thats what I tend to think, but its not based on anything.