Analysis of Jane Hamilton’s Novels

Jane Hamilton (born July 13, 1957) achieved early success with the publication of her first novel. In 1989, The Book of Ruth received the Great Lakes College Association New Writers Award, the Banta Award, and the Hemingway Foundation/PEN Award for First Fiction. The Book of Ruth and A Map of the World were selected for Oprah’s Book Club, helping them achieve best-seller status worldwide. Both novels were adapted for film, A Map of the World for the cinema in 1999 and The Book of Ruth for television in 2004. In 1998, The Short History of a Prince received the Chicago Tribune Heartland Prize and was short-listed for the Orange Prize. Disobedience was named to the School Library Journal’s list of the best adult books for high school students in 1991.


Critics often compare Jane Hamilton favorably to another midwestern author, Pulitzer Prize winner Jane Smiley, whose novels A Thousand Acres and Moo are set in farm country and explore human resiliency in the face of great obstacles. Hamilton’s novels are set in the Midwest, the area where she spent her childhood, attended college, and lived as a full-time writer. Her fiction is populated by rural and small town family members, mothers and fathers, and sons and daughters, who endure life’s tragedies with stoicism and frankness, traits often associated with inhabitants of the heartland; Hamilton, though, does not allow her characters to sink into caricature.

Jane Hamilton/Wikimedia

Orchards, fields, farmhouses, and main streets provide the backdrop for events that disrupt the quietude of the country environment. The murder of a mother-in-law in The Book of Ruth, allegations of child abuse in A Map of the World, the closeted life of a gay man in The Short History of a Prince, a mother’s extramarital affair in Disobedience, and a family secret in When Madeline Was Young seem drawn from the tabloids, but Hamilton avoids sensationalism. Instead, the challenges and shocks faced by her characters allow her to explore fundamental human values such as forgiveness, reconciliation, acceptance, and loyalty. Like its predecessor, A Map of the World is set in a rural community, but it shifts its focus to the lives of middle-class transplants who are viewed by the locals with suspicion after an accidental drowning occurs on their property. The Short History of a Prince is a departure from the first two novels in its third-person point of view, its focus on a male character, and its lighter tone. Disobedience examines the impact of a parent’s affair upon a family when discovered by a child. When Madeline Was Young presents an intriguing blended family in which the father’s first wife, the Madeline of the title, who has suffered brain injury, passes as his daughter in his second marriage.

The Book of Ruth

Hamilton’s debut novel was a critical success. The book’s title alludes to the Old Testament book of the Bible, and biblical passages appear throughout the novel to form a motif, and they are delivered by a preacher in his sermons and reinterpreted ironically by the dis-believing title character, Ruth. The book, too, is named for the story’s protagonist; The Book of Ruth is Ruth’s book. It is the story of her experiences from childhood through her mid-twenties, and it is narrated from her perspective. Additionally, the story tells of the books that provided Ruth a literary education that was denied her in the public school sys-tem. Also, a blind neighbor introduces a young Ruth to audio books. The classic stories Ruth reads, tales of men and women who endure and survive, run parallel to her own story. The suffering protagonists of Victorian tomes are her particular favorites. At one point, Ruth imagines entering Charles Dickens’s Bleak House (1852-1853, serial; 1853, book) to assist the novel’s heroine, Esther, with the numerous responsibilities she has in the service of others; ironically, Ruth does not recognize that she is the one who requires assistance in the form of rescue. When none arrives, she cheats death and rescues herself.

Ruth grows up marginalized by polite society because she is poor, has a plain physique, and has limited knowledge. Her life was punctuated by abuse from her mother and her husband. Ruth is neglected by relatives who otherwise should protect her. She is abandoned first by her father, who skips out on his family, and later by her brother, who leaves home permanently for higher education. She is kept at a distance from the aunt she idealizes. Though separated by only fifty miles, the two communicate solely through letters.

The larger community is also dismissive of Ruth. Despite being the sister of a gifted brother, Ruth is considered average and expendable by teachers at her school. She is on her own when her drug-addled and emotionally uneven husband, in a fit of fury, attempts to kill her and her mother; he succeeds in the latter and leaves Ruth seriously injured. That Ruth has penned her saga as a form of therapy and forgiveness is revealed on the final page of the novel. Ruth notes, “Perhaps I will write a fiction book when I’m through with this,” leaving open the possibility of transformation, at least through writing.

A Map of the World

In A Map of the World, Alice Godwin is guilty of a lapse in judgment; in the brief minutes during which she takes a breather from the responsibilities of motherhood, a neighbour child in her care drowns in a pond on her property. The tragedy separates Alice, her husband, Howard, and their daughters from the community, and eventually distances wife from husband and mother from children. The community ostracizes Alice further when an accusation of child abuse surfaces at the school where she is employed as a nurse. Eventually she is cleared of the charge, but not before the life she created, a relatively peaceful secluded existence with her family, is altered irrevocably.

Although written from the first-person perspective, the narrative voice is twofold. A Map of the World is divided into three parts; Alice narrates the first and third sections, while Howard voices the middle. He relays the story during the time Alice is in jail and cannot speak for herself, including the daily burden of caring for the farm and his daughters as a single parent. The novel explores the process by which a person, ostracized by her community and estranged from her family, works her way back into these folds. The novel’s overarching theme is forgiveness. Alice struggles to forgive those who have transgressed against her, and she can begin to do so only when she forgives herself.

The Short History of a Prince

A coming-of-age story, The Short History of a Prince is set in two interwoven decades, the 1970’s and the 1990’s. In the 1970’s, Walter McCloud is a teenage boy whose wish is to be a professional ballet dancer. He is cast as Prince Siegfried in the Nutcracker ballet not because he is talented but because he is the sole male dancer in his school old enough for the role. His growing awareness of his limited potential is heightened by adolescent angst, a crush on another boy, and the terminal illness of his older brother.

McCloud in the 1990’s is a man recently returned to a small midwestern community to teach English. The interval of the 1980’s, during which he worked in New York City in a doll factory, is alluded to but not fully realized. The allusion serves to heighten the contrast between his youthful wishes and his adult responsibilities. A lover of art, music, and books since childhood, McCloud experiences these solaces as a devotee rather than a participant.


Hamilton’s fourth novel is about a functioning dysfunctional family, a spying son, and the secrets that family members keep to hold their relationships together. A decade has passed and an older Henry Shaw narrates the events of his senior year of high school, the year of his mother’s infidelity. Though troubled by his mother’s behavior and his father’s apparent ignorance, he imbues his narrative with a sense of humor and compassion. Out of teenage curiosity, he begins to check his mother’s e-mail. When he discovers an illicit affair between his mother and a violin maker, his curiosity turns to voyeurism. He begins to feel like an accomplice in the affair because he is the one who set up his mother’s e-mail account.

Despite feelings of guilt for snooping, Henry charts the progress of the affair electronically, and wonders how its eventual revelation will impact other family members. His father, a teacher of history, seems blind to events occurring in his own time and in his own family. Henry’s sister, Elvira, like her father, prefers past lives, savoring her role as a soldier in Civil War reenactments. Even the mother, in her role as a pianist who performs with a group that plays classics, embraces the past through music. All the members of the Shaw family seem determined to avoid the here and now, even Henry, as he recalls events of ten years prior. The novel’s title, Disobedience, becomes a reference not only to the mother’s betrayal and Henry’s invasions of privacy but also to the behavior of an entire family.

Charles, Ron. “A Family Quartet Out of Tune with Itself.” Christian Science Monitor, November 9, 2000.
Hutchings, Vicky. “Boy Talk.” New Statesman130 (March 12, 2001).
Juhasz, Suzanne. “The Prince Is Wearing a Tutu: Queer Identity and Identificatory Reading in Jane Hamilton’s The Short History of a Prince.” American Imago: Studies in Psychoanalysis and Culture 61, no. 2 (Summer, 2004): 134-164.
Neville, Maureen. “When Madeline Was Young.” Review in Library Journal131, no. 12(July 1, 2006).
Steinberg, Sybil. “Jane Hamilton: A Kinship with Society’s Outcasts.” Publishers Weekly, February 2, 1998.
Strasser, Judith. “Daily Harvest: At Work with Novelist Jane Hamilton.” Poets and Writ-ers26, no. 3 (May/June, 1998): 32-45.
Taylor, Pegi. “Jane Hamilton: Good Writing Is in the Details.”Writer114, no. 1 (January,2001): 26-31.

Source: Rollyson, Carl E., and Frank N. Magill. 2000. Critical survey of Long Fiction. Pasadena, Calif: Salem Press.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Psychological Novels

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: