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Literature / His Family

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His Family is a 1917 novel by Ernest Poole.

It is set 1913-15, and it tells the story of Roger Gale, a New York City businessman who runs a press clipping agency. Roger is a widower of "not quite sixty years of age" whose wife Judith has been dead for 16 years. On her deathbed Judith told him "you will live on in our children's lives", but that hasn't really come to pass, as Roger has remained rather uninvolved in the lives of their three daughters. Those daughters are:

  • Edith, a conventional Edwardian Era housewife who is married with four children, a fifth on the way.
  • Deborah, a feminist, suffragette, and political activist who runs a school dedicated to serving the poorest children in New York's slums.
  • Laura, the youngest, still in her late twenties, a party girl who is devoted to pleasure above all things.

A narrow escape from bankruptcy leads Roger to reassess his life and reminds him of his wife's dying words. After considering that his daughters are all three grown women with their own lives, Roger decides to honor his wife's dying wish and involve himself in their lives again. And so he does, learning more about his daughters and about life in a rapidly growing, rapidly changing New York.

His Family and Ernest Poole are largely forgotten today, except for one thing: this novel won the first Pulitzer Prize for fiction.



  • Aluminum Christmas Trees: It may seem hard to believe that anyone, even in the pre-radio age, could have made a living, much less ran a successful business, clipping out news articles about various people. But press-clipping services of the type that Roger Gale runs were totally a real thing, and in modified Internet form are still a real thing.
  • Arc Words: "For you will live on in our children's lives." Judith's dying words, repeated throughout the novel. In context, it's Judith anticipating that Roger will meet her in the afterlife to tell her about the children. But Roger comes to realize that it's more about how the family has existed for generations before him and will for generations after.
  • Arms Dealer: World War I is a boon to Laura's husband Hal, who makes a fortune selling weapons. Deborah is disgusted.
  • Big Applesauce: One of the themes is the difference between the whiter, more genteel New York of Roger's youth, and the new New York filled with immigrants from Eastern Europe and Italy. Roger is rather discomfited by all the new arrivals, but Deborah has dedicated her life to their betterment.
  • Buxom Is Better: With a dose of Squick and maybe even some Incest Subtext, as Roger is describing his youngest daughter, Laura.
    "The blue evening gown she was wearing to-night (doubtless not yet paid for) made her figure even more supple and lithe, set off her splendid bosom, her slender neck, her creamy skin."
    • Later he does this again, thinking "What lips she had, what a bosom" as Laura is getting dressed.
  • Diabolus ex Machina: Edith's husband Bruce is hit by a car and killed. This sets in motion a whole series of events, as it turns out Bruce was broke, which leaves Edith and her five children to stay with Roger, whose own finances become strained from having to support her.
  • End of an Age: Not just all the immigrants, but the rapid pace of industrialization and the coming of the automobile make for a rapidly changing New York. ("Yes, here the old was passing.")
  • For Doom the Bell Tolls: Early in the novel Roger hears the toll of a bell sounding ten o'clock. "And as he listened it seemed to say 'There is still time, but you have not long.'" Later, Roger is startled when a bell tolls while he's talking with terminally ill Johnny. And right at the end, when Roger is dying, he hears another tolling bell in his dreams.
  • Go into the Light: Roger's death in the last paragraph of the novel is described this way. He has a dream in which "The sun rose strangely dazzling. It filled the heavens with blinding light. He felt himself drawn up and up."
  • Hangover Sensitivity: As Laura's wedding to Hal is about to get started, Roger hears an usher, hurting after the bachelor party, say "God, what a terrible head I've got!"
  • Have a Gay Old Time: As with most literature of the era, "gay" and "queer" are used in accordance with their original meanings.
  • Incurable Cough of Death: While going on the rounds with Laura, Roger sees one immigrant family where the husband is coughing and gasping for breath. He's in the last stages of tuberculosis.
  • Inspirationally Disadvantaged: Johnny Geer, the young boy Roger meets while making the rounds with Deborah. Johnny is severely crippled with Pott's Disease, a fatal tuberculosis of the bones. Roger bonds with Johnny and eventually takes him into the family business.
  • It Will Never Catch On: The outbreak of war in Europe is hurting Roger's business. A panicked Deborah says "The war can't go on—it's too horribly big!"
  • Locked Out of the Loop: No one tells Johnny that his diagnosis is terminal, but he eventually figures it out.
  • Mercy Kill: At Deborah's request, Dr. Allan Baird shoots a terminally ill tuberculosis patient full of a lethal shot of morphine.
  • Politically Incorrect Hero: Roger is rather bigoted towards immigrants. "But he had a deep aversion for those millions of foreign tenement people." He sometimes describes them as "swarthy". But his daughter Deborah is tireless in her charity work for New York's immigrant poor, and eventually she brings Roger around. Towards the end of the book he's hosting youth group meetings in his house.
  • Posthumous Character: Judith has been dead 16 years when the novel starts, but she is mentioned througout, as Roger thinks about her and their lives together and what she told him right before she died.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Most of the book is third-person limited from Roger's POV, but occasionally it leaves Roger to go with other characters, like when Deborah and Allan are having an emotional conversation when Roger isn't present.
  • The Talk: Deborah and Edith's children want to get to the family farm in time to see a calf being born. This leads to thoughts of how animals are born, and leads 11-year-old Elizabeth to ask her aunt "Won't you please tell us about—about—"
    Deborah: About Paris! Aunt Deborah's trip to Paris!
    • Later, right before Laura is getting married, Roger tries to bumble his way through this, only for Laura to say "You needn't tell me anything! I know more than you think—I know enough!"
  • Title Drop: The phrase "his family" is said more than once, but most powerfully in the last line of the novel, describing Roger's death:
    For he had left his family.
  • The Three Faces of Eve: Roger's daughters. Edith fits the "wife" face exactly, nurturing and motherly and dedicated to her children to the exclusion of everything else. Laura is definitely the "seductress", as she is sexy, she dresses sexy, she likes to party, and she Really Gets Around. Deborah isn't quite the "innocent", as she is a hard-working social activist, but she is somewhat virginal.
  • Worst News Judgment Ever: Roger is irritated to see a front-page newspaper headline about some society woman getting divorced.