As the ‘Reading Group Questions’ in the back of We Need to Talk About Kevin indicate, there is much to be made of the nature/nurture argument in the text. To me, however, this argument inevitably leads back to the concept of control. Who has it? Are Kevin’s character and his resulting actions an inescapable consequence of genes (nature) or does he, Eva or society have control over these factors (nurture)?
There are some fundamental mistakes I find students (meant broadly) make when discussing such issues in fiction texts.
The first is that they discuss the characters as though they are real people. Statements such as Eva’s coldness towards Kevin from the start was an inevitable catalyst for his actions or Franklin’s blind adoration for Kevin more than compensates for Eva’s lack of affection, though fodder for discussion and debate, miss the very nature of the fiction text: these are not real characters but constructs – in this case of Shriver – designed to be read in a more symbolic way. To discuss them as real is to ignore the very nature of fiction.
The second is to then reduce this concept to its most simple – and fruitless – argument: Shriver wrote the text, therefore she is in control and the nature/nurture argument is moot. This over-simplification removes the actual narrative from the debate. If this mindset were to be adopted when discussing all texts then plot, characterisation, themes and so on would all become meaningless – just imaginative ejaculations from an omnipotent author.
The real substance of texts lies between these two approaches – looking at the narrator and narrative rather than at plot or authorship. In Shriver’s novel, the entire plot is presented through the perspective of Eva – a fascinating stylistic decision on the author’s part as Eva is arguably the character least in control of events. As such, her narration of events leading up to and following ‘Thursday’ is in itself a quest for understanding and an attempt to wrest control of events back.
From the start of the novel, Shriver depicts Eva’s story as one of gradually relinquishing more and more control. At the start of the plot she is a jet-setting travel writer and owner of AWAP, whose ‘tales were exotic imports’ (p.1) and who ‘had always regarded the United States as a place to leave.’ (p.43)1 However, the actual conception of Kevin, the decision to move house and the ‘softly softly’ approach to raising Kevin are things taken out of her control. By doing this, Shriver identifies the lack of control Eva has and the symbolic handing over of control to the male characters in her life, first to her husband and then to Kevin. It is no surprise that Eva’s visits to Kevin are done more out of obligation than anything else; it is as if Kevin is still controlling her life and actions.
Yet to understand the full significance of this, we need to pay close attention to the opening of the novel. It is clear through the various events narrated that Eva’s identity now almost entirely relies on Kevin. Her surname itself, an attempt to retain some sense of heritage and tradition, is now entirely coloured by Kevin’s actions. She is no longer identifiable as an ethnic citizen but as mother of K.K. In this way, Shriver perhaps suggests that Kevin’s identity has shaped that of Eva more than she ever shaped his – certainly something of a role reversal – and Eva’s fears about having a child are borne out. One could argue that Kevin’s murder of his father and sister is perhaps the most brutal event of the narrative, yet arguably allowing Eva to survive is more brutal as everything that she was has been stripped away from her. Ironically, by trying to create an identity in Kevin she has simply resulted in destroying her own.
As such, Shriver intricately develops (and perhaps undermines) the nature of influence between parent and child. Far from the question being simply about the development of the child, it is a question of identity. Shriver shows that Kevin’s ability to inexorably and irrevocably change Eva’s identity is far more powerful than her ability to influence his. As a result, identity is no longer a case of parents or society nurturing the young but of the inevitability of children superseding their parents. In many respects, We Need To Talk About Kevin is a modern re-envisioning of the Oedipal complex as Kevin literally kills the father and symbolically possesses the mother (at least in terms of her identity), but this is a post for another day.
1. Lionel Shriver, We Need to Talk About Kevin (Now York: Counterpoint Press, 2003)