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Annabel Thwaite, The Emperor's Children



The narrative structure of Claire Messud's The Emperor's Children relies on multiple focalizers. Each chapter is assigned a a focalizer, and as the novel progresses the reader is made privy to the perspectives of many of its main characters. However, Messud also uses this structure to silence certain characters who are not granted positions as focalizers, for example, the fact that we never see the world directly through Ludovic emphasizes his dangerous, slippery nature. Likewise, her decision not to present us the perspective of Annabel, the do-it-all mother to Marina and husband to Murray, leaves the reader mostly in the dark about Annabel's interior world. The reader has no access to Annabel's feelings on this arrangement except through the observations of other characters, which generally paint her as a hard-working, successful, and content mother figure. Without access to her interior thoughts, however, the reader has no way of assessing the sincerity of Annabel's expressions of contentment.

Messud's portrayal of Annabel as a nurturing woman is often aligned with traditional definitions of femininity and motherhood. While Murray may be the intellectual center of gravity for both the novel's characters and its plot, Annabel provides stability for the family on a practical level, assuming responsibility for the everyday tasks of household upkeep (with help from the housekeeper Aurora, of course). When staying for dinner at the Thwaites', Danielle notes with criticism and some discomfort that “Neither [Annabel's] husband nor her daughter did anything to help” set the table or clear the dishes afterwards, and wonders if this bothers Annabel (47). However, she observes only that “Annabel didn't look annoyed; she looked distracted,” leaving Danielle along with the reader no evidence to suggest that Annabel does not enjoy fulfilling this role (47). Indeed, Annabel excels in situations requiring logistical or practical organization; she dominates the execution of Marina's wedding and shoulders the burden of helping Bootie's mother Judy with his funeral arrangements.

This mothering extends to the realm of emotional support as well. At nearly all times, Annabel remains level-headed, calm, and in control, while offering her support to others around her, blood-related or not. In the lead up to her wedding, Marina finds herself sidled with conflict in all aspects of her life with the exception of her relationship with mother, who from the engagement announcement repeatedly asserts her happiness for her daughter, even when administering cautionary marital advice. It is Annabel who fields the initial phone call from Bootie and curbs Marina's objections to him coming to stay with them, despite her own reservations. After Bootie arrives, she makes a concerted effort to welcome him, “[taking] him in hand” when they bring him along to a party on his first night in New York and encouraging Murray to take Bootie under his wing (148). Her nurturing tendencies define her professional identity as well, as she demonstrates a severe preoccupation with the well-being of her young clients. After leaving their country house for part of the Fourth of July holiday to come to the aid of DeVaughn, she expresses a strong sense of obligation to help him, going so far as to describe her decision not to bring him back with her as “a moral failing” (294).

While she is a stalwart supporter of her family, Annabel also inhabits a disciplinary role. Fielding Marina's outright displeasure at Bootie's imminent arrival in the household, she chides Marina for behaving like “a spoiled little girl,” and in response to Marina's suggestion that Bootie is imposing, reminds her that she herself is jobless and living with her parents (128). When Murray is petulantly reluctant to read and respond to Marina's book manuscript, she teases that he is “A little boy in a sulk” in order to spur him to bite the bullet (321). Marina, considering her own recent engagement, provides the most direct acknowledgement of the mother-son quality of her parents' relationship:


They never did argue. She spoke sharply to him on occasion, when he indulged in some particularly tyrannical rant or bluster; and then he might sulk, vaguely, or bolt, even, for a short while; and then it would pass. But they didn't argue. Now that Marina thought about it, this was her mother's doing, wholly, as Murray Thwaite could be querulous, even petulant. Danielle had long ago joked – to Marina's abiding annoyance – that Annabel seemed, sometimes, like Murray's mother (253).


This glimpse into their marriage paints Annabel as the disciplinarian as well as the party whose hard work keeps the relationship, and by extension, the household, functional. As the “indomitable” mother, she is reminiscent of the ubiquitous TV sitcom mom, who exists to keep in check the goofy dad.

These disciplinary moments may punctuate Annabel's role as the responsible parent shepherding her less mature and grounded daughter and husband, but they stop short of displaying dissatisfaction with that role. Her chiding tone is light-hearted and playful, and the instances are few and far between. For the most part, she allows the self-indulgent attitudes and self-involved projects (or lack thereof) of Marina and Murray. The implication, made more explicit by Danielle's quip that Annabel performed the household tasks despite being “the only one among them who had put in a day at the office,” is that Annabel's assumption of such responsibilities tacitly endorses both her husband's and daughter's behavior (47).

The word “tacit” is loaded; Annabel often plays the part of the good, silent wife by communicating nonverbally and keeping her thoughts in certain situations enigmatically to herself. Bootie interprets her silence about Murray's job offer to be misleading, noticing that she “smiled, too, her eyes on the wall, but said nothing... by which Bootie knew that she was fully party to this proposal, had perhaps even devised it” (208-9). This Mona Lisa smile appears again In Marina's reflection on telling her mother about her engagement: “Annabel's smile, slow and finite, suggested that she was not surprised by her daughter's arrival” (253). Throughout the conversation, Annabel maintains an air of careful self-censorship as she “gaz[es] intently at the lawn” (253). And of course, her most significant use of silence is her refusal to discuss Murray's exposed infidelity after his impossible return home from another city on September 11th. He tries to confess, but she shushes him and chooses to convey her own feelings through “a proprietorial kiss” that lets him know “she was saying what she wanted to say” (458). Murray attempts to interpret her unwillingness to speak, searching for her feelings about his actions:


Sometimes it seemed that this was his punishment, to be continually wondering what she thought, or knew, or imagined. Their most ordinary exchanges were, he felt, permeated by her silence, her imposition of silence, on the issue; but he could detect no wrath, no resentment (459).


Like the reader, Murray is left to conjecture whether she is truly forgiving of his untruthful behavior, and whether she is satisfied with the state of their relationship. He senses, though, that she wields some form of power given her ability to dictate how they will treat the situation. In this case as in others, Annabel lurks mysteriously at the edges of the narrative like the specter of a parent to a child who is getting into mischief, a child left wondering how much Mom knows (or cares) about what he is up to, and whether there will be consequences.

In the latter half of the book, Danielle comes to the realization that Annabel is perhaps more in charge than it would first appear:


Always, Danielle had seen Annabel as the odd one out, taking forlorn care of a husband and daughter whose passionate bond had no place for her. But on this day she felt enlightened: maybe, in fact, Marina and Murray so greatly needed Annabel, desired her attentions more than anything, that, unrequited, they turned to each other for consolation because the great, nurturing force of her was so widely dispersed... that they were left ravenous for more, clinging satellites to her sun. Danielle had seen Annabel as dispensable where in fact she was... The Family incarnate (369).


This reading of the family dynamic is triumphant for Annabel and allots her a substantial amount of power in her role as the traditional mother. However, because Messud cultivates her character's enigmatic, silent personality traits and never grants her a chapter as a focalizer, the reader cannot be certain what her needs are or whether they are satisfied. Her silent treatment of Murray, for example, may allow her to wield some power over him, but it does not feel fully satisfying as a punishment for such a serious offense. Her thoughts on the matter are, however, ultimately unknowable, and our inability to access the inner world of this binding force of a mother heightens the sense of being stranded in Messud's world of social criticism.