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Claire Messud, The Emperor's Children Reception History Part 2



As Amanda noted in her Publication of Reception History, Claire Messud originally envisioned The Emperor's Children as social satire but changed her approach after the events of September 11, which she says “helped [her] be more sympathetic to [her] characters” (Interview with Madeleine Brand on NPR, 2006). Perhaps because of this shift, her readers' interpretations of her tone span a wide range; where some identify overt criticism of the novel's privileged Manhattanites, others see at most light-hearted chiding of characters that are, at the end of the day, meant to be endearing. Based on reviews both popular and professional, I have found that readers struggle with understanding Messud's project, often attempting to sort her overarching aim into one of three categories:


  1. The novel is satire, or at least a comedy of manners.

  2. The novel contains satirical elements, but that in the end it is Messud's sympathy for her characters that is most important.

  3. The novel attempts satire but fails to offer much beyond caricatures whose shallowness renders the book difficult to enjoy.


Of course, these categories are fluid, and many readers and reviewers (myself included) find themselves unsure of how to define Messud's tone and struggle to identify the novel's intent. However, the categories serve as a framework through which to parse the wildly contradictory interpretations of both professional and popular readers.

In general, more popular readers find the novel frustrating, whereas professional reviewers are more forgiving of both Messud's complex sentence structure and her questionable tone. This difference does not preclude disagreement on the part of professional reviewers as to how straightforwardly Messud uses satire. Megan O'Rourke of The New York Times identified the book as “a masterly comedy of manners” that is “full of satirical chiding,” chiding that may be light-hearted but is still solidly located in the realm of self-conscious cultural critique. Ron Charles of The Washington Post compares Messud's project to that of Edith Wharton, and both Slate and Bookforum magazines published reviews that categorize The Emperor's Children as satire. On the other hand, Alfred Hickling of The Guardian writes (in a thoroughly negative review) that the book is “ostensibly a novel about identity and growth.” While he finds Messud's attempt unsuccessful, Hickling defines her project as one in which the humanity of her characters trumps satirical elements. Similarly, Scott Tobias of The A.V. Club, an entertainment website published by The Onion, found that Messud's ability to portray “fully formed, deeply flawed human beings rather than mere caricatures” was the most compelling aspect of the novel.

Popular readers have also displayed different readings of Messud's intentions in reviews posted on Amazon.com and Goodreads.com. Many echo Scott Tobias's sentiments, noting that the characters “are so real they seem to be people you actually know and care about,” while others intimate that Messud's prose is aimed more at social satire. Interestingly, those that fall into the latter camp tend to couch their opinions in inquiry. Readers suggest that the characters making themselves unlikeable “might be the point,” or “guess [that] as the readers it [is] our responsibility to call them out on it.” While these readers tentatively point towards Messud's goal as social critique, others lose patience with the privileged, irresponsible world of Manhattan elite and respond with the most ire. A common complaint is that Messud and her characters occupy a space of privilege and entitlement, and ask average readers to spend time on their hard-to-relate-to problems; as one reader put it: “only self-absorbed people presume that all others are like them, and will therefore relate to self-absorbed characters.” What is evidenced in these reactions is that readers' reactions to The Emperor's Children often depend on whether they perceive themselves as insiders or outsiders in relation to the characters, which is interesting considering that Messud, as Amanda has pointed out, considers herself as both an insider and an outsider to the elite world about which she is writing.




Works Referenced:



Charles, Ron. Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Washington Post 10 Sept. 2006. Web.


Hickling, Alfred. “Point of Collapse.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. The Guardian 8 September 2006. Web.


Messud, Claire. Interview by Madeleine Brand. “Sept. 11 Plays a Role in Coming-of-Age Novel.” NPR, 2006. Web.


O’Rourke, Meghan. “The End of Irony.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. The New York Times 27 Aug. 2006. Web.


Proctor, Minna. “Upper stressed side.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Bookforum 2006. Web.


Roiphe, Katie. “Thirtysomething: Claire Messud and the robust genre of the very-late-coming-of-age novel.” Rev. of The Emperor’s Children, by Claire Messud. Slate 28 Aug. 2006. Web.


Scott, Tobias. “Claire Messud: The Emperor's Children.” Rev. of The Emperor's Children, by Claire Messud. The A.V. Club 19 Oct. 2006. Web.




The following are full quotes from various reviews, grouped as discussed above:



  1. This is satire. We are meant to read the characters critically, or at least as a comedy of manners.


Set mostly in New York City at the turn of the 21st century, “The Emperor’s Children” is a masterly comedy of manners — an astute and poignant evocation of hobnobbing glitterati in the months before and immediately following Sept. 11... In their way, these three embody the different methods by which American privilege is accrued and idly sustained... “The Emperor’s Children” is full of satirical chiding, but it’s one of the more delightful — even delicious — forms of such chiding I’ve encountered... Even if, now and then, Messud’s critique of American culture seems to miss the mark, the result is at the very least interesting and worthy of debate. (Megan O'Rourke, The New York Times).


If you're one of them or if you can't resist the delicious pleasure of pitying them, you'll relish every page of The Emperor's Children... The three wunderkinds at the center of Messud's engrossing satire are friends from Brown... Yes, they're spoiled, they're self-absorbed, and they're whiny, but above all else they're irresistibly clever and endowed with the kind of hyper-analytical minds that make them fascinating critics of each other and themselves... Messud is that bold spectator in the crowd willing to shout out that the emperor has no clothes -- and neither do his children... A number of gifted young people in New York will luxuriate in the masochistic pleasure of reading this novel... Messud's real audience, though, is broader, in the same way that Edith Wharton focused on a particularly rarefied class but spoke to any reader who could relish her piercing cultural commentary. (Ron Charles, The Washington Post).


They are 30 and filled with the particular anxiety of self-definition that age now inspires... Messud shares Murdoch's satirical richness... (Katie Roiphe, Slate).


Yes, I get swept up in the story, plow through the pages like potato chips. But as I do, I am waging a small, private, fearsome debate with the consumptive heroine (and her creator, and, by extension, her creator's whole social world)... Thus a book like The Emperor's Children, Claire Messud's decidedly bourgeois and deliciously yarny novel, trumps a reader like me. It's a drawing-room drama in which Messud deviously transposes all of the tawdry ambitions of Victorian society to the Upper West Side, and lo and behold, the parlor starts to look bitterly familiar... But Messud's project is far more elaborate than simple verisimilitude. Once the personalities insinuate themselves into the realm of the familiar—at times, off-puttingly familiar—they then subtly venture into the staginess that certifies a satire: dramatic speeches, fisticuffs, lackadaisical suicide attempts. All of this serves Messud's barbed vision of a social class whose sense of self-importance is misplaced... Stepping elegantly through the varieties of irony, Messud lifts superficially superficial characters out of the trivial; she endows them with tender complexity and then rips the carpet out from under their poor feet... The Emperor's Children wouldn't be such a pitch-perfect, utterly irresistible satire if anything of consequence really hung in the balance. (Minna Proctor, Bookforum.com).


"The Emperor's Children" is a wonderful example of social satire. If you buy this book, you should be aware that Claire Messud has written a piece of genre fiction, which is fully in the long tradition of social satires, or comedies of manners. (Peter Baklava, Amazon).


However, there is something aloof in her writing in this book that makes it hard to care about the characters or the story - which might be the point. (Mary Barrett, Amazon).


They were all unknowing of their own shallowness although it was evident like the emperor with no clothes, I guess as the readers it was our responsibility to call them out on it. (Nancy Turley, Amazon).


About a third of the way in, I found myself wondering how we are meant to take the characters in this book, as in, how seriously, and how we are to judge them, because there does seem to be an invitation to judgment. (It is, after all, a novel of manners. That's what we're supposed to do with them, right?) Some of the reviewers seem inclined to write the book off because they deem the characters to be shallow, but I think that some degree of shallowness, or hypocrisy, was the point. Actually, I'd like to get into this conversation with someone...is the book supposed to be an indictment of the people in it, or the world it portrays? (Katherine, Goodreads).





  1. There is an element of satire in The Emperor's Children, and the author purposely wrote flawed characters, but at the end of the day she also sympathizes with them. Messud tries to redeem her characters, and in doing so moves beyond bald satire.


Though they each suffer harsh appraisal at times, it's a tribute to Messud's empathetic gifts that they come off as fully formed, deeply flawed human beings rather than mere caricatures. (Scott Tobias, AV Club).


The Emperor's Children is ostensibly a novel about identity and growth, as Seeley tutors Marina to realise that her father has built a career out of "offering up tired maxims as if they were original gems". This would be fine if Messud's book were a work of great stylistic mastery: yet the discovery that the emperor has no clothes seems a pretty tired old maxim itself. (Alfred Hickling, The Guardian).


They aren't all likeable in the usual sense, but are so real they seem to be people you actually know and care about. (Sharon J. Mastrosimone, Amazon).


The characters in this novel are all superbly drawn and voiced, each seems like a separate, distinct being with individual loves, fears, insecurities, desires and above all, disappointments... there is room for a sarcastic and ironic view of what the characters are thinking. Each character has the capacity to be at once selfish and utterly selfless, or to show generosity and greed in the breath. (Rebekah, Goodreads).


  1. There is an element of satire in The Emperor's Children, and the author purposely wrote flawed characters, but at the end of the day she also sympathizes with them. I can't follow her there because these people make me too angry – they are shallow/bad people.


In my opinion, none of the main characters are anywhere near as adorable as the author keeps insisting they are. Their most notable characteristic is a non-stop (and rather interchangeable) flow of campy repartee that might convey intellect, success, pretension, heartbreak, or whatever to someone steeped in their milieu but which kept me at a considerable emotional distance... If so many New Yorkers of this age group truly were so wrapped in their own petty self-absorptions during this time period, God save our country. Could any of the characters see outside their own small contrived world?” (D. West, Amazon).


With such lack of variety among its dramatis personae, one is left to wonder how the book's jacket can make the breathtaking claim to be about 'the way we live in this moment'. Does Ms. Messud presume that the ruminations of six Manhattanites parked in front of their word processors will have something to say to ambulance drivers? Surfers? Teenagers? I like to write occasionally, and even I quickly grew tired of these navel-gazers. Perhaps the cruel joke Ms. Messud has played on herself is that only self-absorbed people presume that all others are like them, and will therefore relate to self-absorbed characters. (Gary Malone, Amazon).


The main characters are nothing but egotistical pretentious self-proclaimed "intellectuals" that did nearly nothing but whine the whole time. (Ruthie, Amazon).


Shallow, solipsistic characters about whom I couldn't even bring myself to care - neither could the author apparently, as some were nothing more than lazy ciphers... (David, Goodreads).