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Submitted by Robert Waxler (profile)

Title and Author: Affliction by Russell Banks
Genre: Novel
Theme: Affliction of family violence and drinking, as it relates to male identity and growing up in small town.
Class type: Men

I find Affliction to be one of the more difficult, yet rewarding, novels in our CLTL program.

I use it near the end of the literature series, often during the final week. The story reminds the men - perhaps too often - of their own families and of the lives they have endured. They recall the revolving door of family violence, and they talk about the way such violence is perpetuated from generation to generation, as it is in the Whitehouse family in this novel.

The narrator of Affliction, Rolfe Whitehouse, tells this story about small town life and family violence in order to come to terms with what happened to his younger brother Wade and to discover why it didn't happen to him.

As the story opens, we meet Wade, who is middle-aged and divorced. He is a disappointed blue-collar worker whose best moments were back in high school (although even then he had to endure beatings from his father).

It is the beginning of the deer-hunting season in New Hampshire, and rituals of male violence permeate this small town culture. Wade is frustrated, unable to gain respect or control, whether over his personal relations or at work.

As readers, we eventually follow the narrative thread back to Wade's childhood, to his father's drinking and violence, to the father's inability to show compassion, and his relentless need for control. In the end, Wade spins out of control, killing the father, a desperate, almost tragic, attempt to release himself from the affliction of his life.

Ordinarily I limit the discussion of this novel to one session (two hours), but there is always more to be said, especially about such a richly textured and complex story.

I often begin our talk around the table with the opening scenes that show Wade nervous and uncomfortable as he picks up his daughter, Jill, taking her from Concord to his small town. Wade wants to love and care for Jill but also needs to feel he has control over her. He wants respect as a father but cannot discipline and respect himself. I want to know from everyone around the table what they have to say about Wade's opening struggle, whether they forgive him, whether we can understand his frustration.

Questions I might ask:

--Why does Wade want control over others?
--Does he have control over himself?
--Does he actually control others?
--What does it really mean to have power?

Such questions usually open the discussion to the relationship between power and manhood, and we are off and running as we move deeper into the story, exploring other characters, those in positions of power who are often manipulative and self-serving: Gordon LaRiviere (Wade's boss and powerbroker in the town), J. Battle Hand (Wade's lawyer for his custody case), Evan Twombley (labor leader shot and killed on his first day of hunting), Margie Fogg (Wade's lover and old friend), and Jack Hewitt (Wade's fellow worker who reminds him of his younger self).

As we move through the discussion, we finally arrive at the core: Wade's relationship to his brother Rolfe and to his father Glenn.

Rolfe - never connecting deeply to his emotions, never marrying or setting up a family of his own - has left the small town and gotten a job as a teacher. By contrast, Wade has struggled in his hometown, wanting at least to regain responsibility as a father. Since childhood, though, they both have been afflicted by the violence of their father.

Questions I might ask:

--Who is more courageous, Rolfe or Wade?
--Who has set up more defense mechanisms against raw feeling and emotions?
--Is Wade a mirror image of his father despite his desire to escape the legacy of violence?
--Can he escape?
--Why does Wade kill his father?

If time permits, I will also explore the shooting of Evan Twombley. It is never clear whether Twombley accidentally shot himself or was killed. The mystery is intriguing and evokes interesting discussion, often raising sophisticated issues about the telling of stories and the authority of narrative itself.

Questions I might ask:

--Whose version of the story do we believe? Why?
--Do we trust those in power when they tell us something?
--Why don't we believe Wade's version of events?
--Why do we believe Rolfe?
--What is a good story?

These are questions that are not only helpful in investigating this story but in investigating life itself. They underscore one of the central premises of Changing Lives Through Literature: good stories help us to change our lives because our lives are stories we can change.

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