Revising Leah

July 28, 2008

Mrs. Nells

Filed under: Uncategorized — J.M. Reep @ 10:45 am
Tags: , , , , , , ,

A few posts back, I wrote about the possibility that Heather, the girl who competes with Leah for David’s affection, functions as a villain (or at least an antagonist) in the novel. Another character who might lay claim to this title is Leah’s mother, Rebecca Nells. Leah and her mother are often at odds over Leah’s introverted behavior. Leah prefers to have as little contact with people and strangers as possible, while her mother pressures her to be more sociable. We see the conflict at the very beginning of the novel. In chapter one, while the two of them are out shopping at garage sales, the tension and pressure between mother and daughter builds until finally Mrs. Nells explodes:

“It’s the easiest thing in the world, Leah. You hand the woman the money, she thanks you, you take your book and go on your way. You are fourteen years old — you’re about to start high school in less than two weeks — yet you can’t even buy a book at a garage sale like any normal girl your age. I’m completely at a loss! I can’t understand what’s wrong with you!”

It’s not a pretty scene, and it establishes the point of conflict between these two characters.

As the book goes on, though, we get to know Mrs. Nells a little bit better. Like her husband, she works full time. She’s apparently unhappy with her career; she works in some middle-management position for a poorly run corporation that has been losing profits. She’s under pressure to perform, but her efforts are going mostly unappreciated by her bosses and her co-workers. She’s getting older and her age is starting to show on her face. She’s jealous of her husband who seems to be aging more gracefully than she, but otherwise her relationship with Mr. Nells remains strong. Leah reminds herself, at one point, that although her parents fight sometimes, they never yell and scream and lose control. Like her husband, she tends to romanticize her memories of her teenage years, and if her anecdotes are to be believed, she was quite popular when she was in high school — dating boys and going to dances whenever possible.

But it’s her strained relationship with her daughter that the reader mostly sees. Mrs. Nells doesn’t understand Leah. She privately disapproves of Leah’s reading habit and would prefer her daughter make friends and spend more time outside her bedroom. The reader might find the tactics that she uses to make this happen somewhat cruel, but Mrs. Nells would call it “tough love.” Later in the novel, she explains to Grandma why she places so much pressure on Leah:

“Because she has to learn how to do those things by herself . . . We just want her to learn to be independent, to stand on her own as an individual. If she keeps relying on us to do everything for her, then she’ll never learn how to survive in the real world. She’ll never make friends, and she’ll never learn how to relate to other people. She can’t waste her whole life in her bedroom reading books.”

One of the themes of the novel is the nature of individuality: what does it mean to be an individual and how does an individual fit into a larger society of other individuals? I like Mrs. Nells’ explanation above because it offers a solution to the question raised by the theme of individuality. I think most of us would probably agree with Mrs. Nells’ overall solution for her shy daughter even though we may not necessarily agree with her tactics. From her perspective, Leah’s shyness is preventing the girl from standing on her own two feet; she relies too much on her parents for support and isn’t making the kind of progress towards adulthood that a 14-year-old should be making.

So like Heather, Mrs. Nells is one of Leah’s antagonists, but she’s more complicated than a simple villain.

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