Academic Writing

Naïveté, Retribution, and Belonging: America in We Need to Talk About Kevin

The events of We Need to Talk About Kevin take place in a pre-9/11 America, yet Lionel Shriver is writing in a post-9/11 world. The violence of such an attack and the reactions it catalyzed across the nation necessarily affect the presentation of America in the novel. Through the lens of middle-class motherhood, Shriver explores what it means to be American, as well as what home means to Eva, the novel’s narrator. In Eva’s cutting disdain for what she sees as American traits, there are arguably some of Shriver’s own beliefs, which influence her desire to leave her country behind. At the same time, Eva experiences such dissociation from both her inherited and constructed worldviews that she must eventually come to terms with her role in life. In We Need to Talk About Kevin, America emerges as a country of naïveté and retribution, always looking for someone to blame. However, by the end of the novel, Shriver shows American identity as unavoidable, shaped by a social environment larger than oneself.

With his trusting nature and unquestioning patriotism, Franklin embodies Americanism at its core, particularly the naïveté Eva scorns. Shocked that she marries an American, Eva expresses an essential component of Franklin’s nationality; not only is Franklin simply born in the United States, but he is “American by choice as well as by birth” (Shriver 36). The list of characteristics that Eva ascribes to this chosen Americanism spans several paragraphs, including patriotism, conservatism, and a sincere belief that “the United States was by far and away the greatest, richest, and fairest empire that had ever dominated the earth” (37). Though she describes it as naïveté, Eva also questions that very definition, as she suggests that Franklin is “naïve on purpose” (38). In fact, this very question informs the reading of Franklin’s gullibility, which becomes applied to things far more serious than his patriotism. Franklin is also incredibly naïve in his interactions with Kevin. From birth, Kevin puts on a noticeably different attitude with his father than he does with Eva. He stops crying and talking when Franklin comes home and acts every bit the cheerful son, requesting trips to historic sites and afternoons spent playing with baseballs and Frisbees. Eva watches these encounters and comments that Franklin would “be so enchanted that I couldn’t bring myself to raise the possibility that he was pulling your leg” (183). This act of Kevin’s repeats itself continuously throughout the novel, as he explains away each suspicious circumstance that involves him, resulting in Eva’s coining of “Dad the Dupe,” which is how she suspects Kevin feels about Franklin (350). Franklin’s naïveté persists until the end of the novel. Finding the scene of Celia’s and Franklin’s murders, Eva imagines a reconstruction of the scene, including Franklin’s thoughts once he sees Celia impaled by Kevin’s arrows. Importantly, Eva believes that Franklin pauses, that is unable to believe what he sees because “This was America. And you had done everything right. Ergo, this could not be happening” (389). Here, Franklin directly exhibits an essential quality of Americans that Eva derides earlier in the novel. During her dinner with Kevin, he provokes her into a diatribe against America, and she remarks that “they think that if you follow the instructions on the label, the product has to work” (278). Unfortunately for Franklin, the product of his son does not work in the warm, familial way he imagines, and though Eva despises this quality throughout the novel, it is an inextricable part of his undeniable Americanism, for which he eventually dies.

Eva expounds in the same speech that Americans lack accountability, a fact that presents itself continuously in the events of the novel. According to Eva, “Everything wrong with an American’s life is somebody else’s fault” (277). America becomes a country seeking retribution, and the act of both attributing and accepting blame becomes a central issue throughout the novel. Though 9/11 has yet to occur in the world of the Khatchadourians, the attack and the United States’ swift aggressive response seem to inform Shriver’s image of America. For Shriver, the Gladstone community’s response to Kevin’s massacre acts as a microcosm for US response to 9/11, as the American community attempts to rationalize unconscionable violence and prevent it. In the end, blame and retribution proves to be futile, especially when “an apology brings no one back” (391). While Kevin’s crimes require much more than an apology, attributing blame is no more useful in reversing or preventing such acts of violence. Nevertheless, the first scene of the novel illustrates the rather spiteful revenge Mary Woolford seeks on Eva, as she breaks the carton of eggs Eva is buying. The particular image of the broken eggs illustrates the pointed attack on Eva and her motherhood, as though her eggs somehow contributed to the “bad egg” that Kevin turns out to be. Despite the fact that Kevin is arrested and imprisoned, the residents of New York continue to persecute Eva, for as Kevin remains unapologetic, Eva has doubts over her capacity and necessity to claim fault, a decision that is largely made for her. Notably, Kevin himself echoes Eva’s earlier statement in his documentary interview, saying, “One of the things I can’t stand about this country is lack of accountability. Everything Americans do that doesn’t work out too great has to be somebody else’s fault. Me, I stand by what I done” (352). Though he assumes the blame, it does not prevent the nationwide persecution and discussion of motherhood and violence. It is precisely this blame, and even shame, that the community thrusts onto Eva that displaces her from her sense of home, as she relates, “My neighbors now regard me with the same suspicion they reserve for illegal immigrants” (45). In fact, her house is vandalized with red paint, marking her and the home as the origin of violence. Eva admits that she sometimes assumes this guilt, describing it as a “greedy gorging on fault,” yet she also keenly cautions against blame as “an awesome power” that “by implication makes tragedy avoidable” (65-66). Even though Eva accepts moments of guilt regarding the murders, her overall attitude towards the American need to blame someone remains consistently negative throughout the novel.

Though this vision of America as naïve and uselessly vengeful persists in We Need to Talk About Kevin, it is still a novel of growth; thus, by the end of the novel Shriver suggests that American identity is not something to be wholly scorned as Eva does. Rather, this identity fosters a sense of belonging that one must accept, even with its definition being largely outside of individual control. Throughout the novel, Shriver consciously distances Eva and the reader from political events and controversy. Having Kevin commit the murders with a crossbow sidesteps discussions of gun control, and Eva herself feels numb and disengaged from the 2000 election that serves as the political backdrop to the novel’s events. At the end, Eva writes that “politics seems to have dissolved for me into a swarm of tiny, personal stories” (291). In fact, this novel, in its epistolary form, is a tiny, personal story of Eva’s own. In addition to her political detachment, the events of that Thursday displace Eva from any sense of home or belonging. More so than any of the places she travels, Eva remarks, “Kevin has introduced me to a real foreign country” (392). The close of the novel illustrates the way Eva reconciles this displacement and makes peace with her role as a mother, as she says, “if only out of desperation or even laziness I love my son” (400). Eva’s experience with motherhood closely mirrors many of the thoughts and opinions she has about America, and this passage in particular exemplifies that identity, both maternal and national, is not something Eva can actively create, but that it is instead something she falls into, almost lazily. It is something to be accepted, with all of its flaws and complications. Eva’s anti-American sentiment is a defining factor throughout the novel, and it shapes the relationships she has with Franklin and Kevin, yet her dismissal of her country is a forced act. Lauding herself for her worldliness, Eva must simultaneously admit that the foreign experiences on which she built herself and her business were all trips she “really didn’t want to take” (366). The last trip Eva takes becomes incredibly important, as it is on that trip that she decides to devote herself to parenting Kevin, and she comes home to the new house Franklin buys.

The house itself embodies so much of what scares Eva about America, and it forces her to confront her own identity, especially in the aftermath of the massacre. While moving into the house, Franklin and Eva “dispensed with most of the detritus of my old Tribeca life in frighteningly short order. Even the internationalia assumed an inauthentic aura” (153). In light of the slick, modern build of the house, Eva’s individual identity is washed away; moreover, she realizes that this identity is one constructed of material objects. Furthermore, the house is completely open, with no doors, reflecting an American sense of expansion from which Eva seeks to hide, preferring enclosed spaces and privacy. She remarks that the house is “some other family’s Dream Home,” yet she has “never seen a Dream Home that works” (133). This proves true for the Khatchadourians, as once Eva claims a room for herself, Kevin destroys it, suggesting the foolishness of hoping to achieve the American Dream. Eva is also unsuccessful in trying to avoid becoming her mother. Her mother is agoraphobic, which Eva defines as having the “fear of open or public spaces” (30). Despite Eva’s own insistence at the apparent opposites created by her mother’s agoraphobia and her rampant traveling, she also admits, “I am much like my mother,” and indeed she is, as it is the open space of her home, the inability to hide, that terrifies her about the house (31). In Eva’s failure to force herself into these variety of identities, Shriver suggests that attempts to close oneself off from this American identity is futile. Though it is the events of Thursday that first separate Eva from any sense of this constructed identity, it is Eva’s acceptance of the role of motherhood and all it entails that allows her to fully accept her American identity. More than just introducing Eva to a foreign country, Kevin “fosters a piercing and perpetual yearning to go home” (392). For Eva, who “had always regarded the United States as a place to leave,” home remains an ambiguous concept throughout the novel (37). However, her conclusion of the story illustrates the act of creating a home by leaving open “a second bedroom in my serviceable apartment” for Kevin (400). Motherhood and family becomes a home for Eva, even as it is something she only passively accepts, after years of fighting against society’s attempts to shape it for her.

In We Need to Talk About Kevin, Shriver explores the meaning of identity and motherhood in an American context, drawing cleverly on the figure of the ostracized mother. Her use of a violent massacre as the conversation point in the novel is no accident, and serves to further illustrate the idea of America as one of naïveté and retribution. This view is one that her main character, Eva, shares, and she works near tirelessly against the trap of American identity over the course of the novel’s events. However, at the end of the novel, Shriver portrays this American identity as not entirely abhorrent, and instead as a sort of home that constructs a sense of belonging when all other identifiers are lost.

EnglishSarah Burk