Happy families? How exploring family relationships can unlock new ideas about GCSE texts

By York Notes Series Consultant, Mike Gould


As schools approach the festive season, the seasonal pleasures and challenges of family life can kickstart new ways of exploring set texts, especially in respect of how families are presented and the impact they have on core themes and issues.

Obviously, any discussion of ‘family’ with a class must be handled sensitively; this is intended as a way of focusing on the texts rather than the students’ own experiences.

Here are four suggestions for how you can look at core set texts through the lens of the family.

1. Defining families

Try categorising families. Give students a number of words commonly applied to families (or family life, if you wish to broaden it) in the ‘real world’. These might include ‘dysfunctional’, ‘perfect’, ‘happy’, ‘complicated’, ‘chaotic’, ‘close-knit’ and ‘straightforward’, to name a few. Then, ask them to match them to families in the books they are studying. Once you have categorised a family in this way, you could subject it to scrutiny – is this the only term that could be applied? What evidence is there to support any such categorisation?

For example, students may well apply ‘dysfunctional’ to the Birlings in An Inspector Calls given the fault lines between the generations and the sexes. However, you could also consider perspective: how would they (or at least Mr and Mrs Birling) like to be seen? ‘Happy’ and ‘close-knit’ perhaps?

2. Families as drivers of the plot

Students are used to exploring the ramifications of individual characters’ choices and actions but are perhaps less used to thinking about how families as a whole – whether through a symbolic head (like Mr Birling) or as a unified force – create impact. This is easy to see in a play such as Romeo and Juliet where Juliet’s family – as represented by Capulet’s bullying, Lady Capulet’s inability to communicate, and Tybalt’s hostility – are in one sense unified in creating the claustrophobic prison from which Juliet feels she has to escape. Indeed, when the Nurse fails to support Juliet, she herself becomes part of the same unified enemy to Juliet’s desires.

A question you could ask students is: to what extent are families responsible as a whole for the way events unfold in the texts they read? In An Inspector Calls one might argue that none of the terrible individual choices made by each of the Birlings and Gerald lead directly to Eva/Daisy’s suicide, but in combination they do.

3. Auditing families

How well do students actually know the families in their set texts? This may seem a trite question, but running an audit (or perhaps ‘census’ is a better term) on the family concerned can be helpful. Who are the parents? What do they do? (Do we even know?) How old are the children? Are they at work or in school? Do they live at home or independently? What is the family home like? For example, we learn that the Cratchits in A Christmas Carol live in crowded conditions; they all work – including the children, if they can – and Tiny Tim is unwell. Using an audit like this leads students towards context as they do not need knowledge of the Industrial Revolution to know that life for families on low wages was hard.

While auditing the family does not tell us whether the Cratchits were migrants (as many were) who had come en masse to the cities from rural areas for work, it does nevertheless reveal they are products of that huge social change. But beyond contextual issues, what else does the audit of this family reveal? That they are functioning and close-knit, dependent on sharing wages for survival, and that one sort of happiness is achieved by communal support not selfish individualism – a central message of the book.

4. Substitute or absent families

Even in texts without conventional families, many of the questions raised above are still pertinent. For example, in Lord of the Flies there is no family in the traditional sense – but you could argue that Ralph and Jack are in loco parentis and in their own way have ‘jobs’, too, trying to mimic what adults would do. To the first readers of the novel (which was published less than a decade after the end of the Second World War), the reminders of evacuation and refugees would have been very powerful, not least in emphasising the impact on the traditional bonds of family. In Macbeth, families are also absent or destroyed. The childless Lady Macbeth is contrasted with the nurturing Lady Macduff; the filial tie between Banquo and his son becomes a motive for murder, and the word ‘kinsman’, used by Macbeth as an argument against killing Duncan, suggests that he murders a sort of father figure.

Families or their proxies appear in nearly all the texts students will study. Talking and writing about the similarities and differences between them, noting cross-connections, touching on social and political changes, are all great ways for students to understand that you can view texts through a variety of lenses, each illuminating ideas and themes in a different way.

Mike Gould is a former Head of English and Drama and author of over 150 books and other educational resources. He has worked as a lecturer in English and education at Brighton University.

Like what you read? If you want to delve deeper check out our Study Guides on An Inspector Calls, Romeo and Juliet, A Christmas Carol, Lord of the Flies and Macbeth.