Everything I Never Told You

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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Appearances vs. Disappearances Theme Icon
Secrets, Lies, and Silence Theme Icon
Innocence vs. Guilt Theme Icon
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Theme Icon
Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Theme Icon

When Marilyn and James meet, they are both at a promising stage of their careers. James is an accomplished graduate student who may be on the brink of being hired as an assistant professor at Harvard; Marilyn is excelling as a Radcliffe undergraduate destined for medical school. However, in the 16 years following their initial meeting, both of their ambitions unravel. James is not hired by Harvard, and, although he secures another teaching position at the less prestigious Middlewood College, he is haunted by this earlier failure and by his persistent inability to achieve social acceptance. As a result of this disappointment, he pressures his children (particularly Lydia) to be likeable and popular. Marilyn, whose dreams of being a doctor are thwarted by marriage and motherhood, also projects her own ambitions and expectations onto her middle daughter. However, where James’ pressure for Lydia to be popular is somewhat gentle, Marilyn’s is all-consuming. Her insistence that Lydia fulfill her dreams of becoming a doctor is so intense that she loses her daughter emotionally even before Lydia’s eventual disappearance. Marilyn does not see Lydia as a person in her own right, but rather as a vehicle for correcting the disappointment that Marilyn feels has ruined her own life irrevocably.

Perhaps the most peculiar thing about James and Marilyn’s expectations of Lydia is their fatal rigidity. It is never made clear why James and Marilyn place the burden of their ambitions almost entirely on Lydia’s shoulders and not those of her brother or sister. This is especially strange in light of the fact that Nath does excel in science, and—like his mother and father—is admitted to Harvard. Yet despite his success, James and Marilyn seem only to be vaguely proud of their son, and remain single-mindedly fixated on Lydia. The inflexibility of James and Marilyn’s ambitions is precisely what makes them so dangerous. They cannot accept their children for who they are, just as they cannot accept how their own lives have turned out. It is only after their marriage and family are thrown into chaos as a result of Lydia’s death and James’ affair that James and Marilyn are able to return to a feeling of satisfaction in their romance, even if they remain disappointed by other aspects of their lives.

Frequently, the book depicts ambition and disappointment as existing in pairs. Where one person fails, another succeeds, and what one person sees as success, another sees as failure. This happens inter-generationally; for example, Doris wants Marilyn to become a perfect housewife like she was herself, and thus perceives Marilyn’s dedication to science as a failure. Similarly, James cannot feel proud of Nath’s academic success because Nath reminds James of himself and his own social failures. Lydia, meanwhile, hides Nath’s acceptance letter from Harvard as a result of her conviction that Nath’s success will further accentuate her own failure. Her discovery that Jack is secretly in love with Nath emphasizes this point, and seems to be the final straw that leads to her decision to jump into the lake.

Overall, the book suggests that expectations and ambitions will inevitably lead to disappointment. This is less due to the fact that the Lees’ lives are especially filled with failure—they arguably experience an average (if not greater than average) level of success in life—but rather because the events of life are impossible to anticipate. The unpredictability of life is particularly shown through the novel’s use of the thriller genre; each surprising twist is a reminder of how impossible it is to control one’s own life and fate. In this sense, disappointment is inevitable.

When Marilyn and James discuss his affair, they both speak in terms of disappointment. James speaks of Doris’ disappointment at the fact that he is Chinese, and Marilyn thinks that she is disappointed because she hoped James would be “different” from other men and not have an affair. However, after James returns from his drive to Toledo, he and Marilyn reconcile and feel a renewed sense of commitment to one another. This suggests that, rather than clinging to one’s original expectations and resisting disappointment, it is better to simply accept disappointment as an inevitable part of life.

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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment appears in each Chapter of Everything I Never Told You. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment Quotes in Everything I Never Told You

Below you will find the important quotes in Everything I Never Told You related to the theme of Expectations, Ambition, and Disappointment.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Upstairs, Marilyn opens her daughter's door and sees the bed unslept in: neat hospital corners still pleated beneath the comforter, pillow still fluffed and convex. Nothing seems out of place. Mustard-colored corduroys tangled on the floor, a single rainbow-striped sock. A row of science fair ribbons on

the wall, a postcard of Einstein. Lydia's duffel bag crumpled on the floor of the closet. Lydia's green book bag slouched against her desk. Lydia's bottle of Baby Soft atop the dresser, a sweet, powdery, loved-baby scent still in the air. But no Lydia.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee
Related Symbols: Lydia’s “Baby Soft” Perfume
Page Number: 1-2
Explanation and Analysis:

It is a normal morning at the Lee house, but Lydia has failed to come down to breakfast. The reader knows that she is dead, but her family does not. Lydia’s mother, Marilyn, has gone up to look for Lydia in her room, and in this passage she sees everything in its place but no sign of Lydia herself. The description of Lydia’s bedroom gives an impression of Lydia’s life and personality, even before she has personally appeared on the page. The “rainbow-striped sock” and book bag convey that she is still young, an impression emphasized by the “loved-baby scent” of her perfume. Meanwhile, the “neat hospital corners” of Lydia’s bed and “row of science ribbons” on the wall evoke someone who is disciplined and accomplished.

However, Lydia’s bedroom and belongings only give a partial portrait of who she really is. There is clearly information missing, made obvious by the fact that Lydia herself is not there. Indeed, her mysterious absence seems to contradict the image of her as both youthfully innocent and a disciplined, dutiful student. This contrast introduces the discrepancies between appearances and reality that occur throughout the book, as well as the tension between appearances and disappearances. If Lydia’s life is as ordinary and orderly as it seems, why has she mysteriously vanished?


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Chapter 4 Quotes

When Nath had been born, then Lydia, Marilyn had not informed her mother, had not even sent a photograph. What was there to say? She and James had never discussed what her mother had said about their marriage that last day: it's not right. She had not ever wanted to think of it again. So when James came home that night, she said simply, "My mother died." Then she turned back to the stove and added, "And the lawn needs mowing," and he understood: they would not talk about it.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 80
Explanation and Analysis:

After Doris’ disapproving comments at Marilyn and James’ wedding, Marilyn never talks to her mother again, and when Nath and Lydia are young children, she gets a call informing her that Doris has died of a stroke. This passage describes Marilyn’s reaction to her mother’s death, revealing Marilyn’s profound and sustained anger at Doris. It also illustrates the extent to which Marilyn shuts out the memory of her mother. Not only does she never speak to Doris again, but she also refuses to mention Doris to James and the children. Marilyn enters a state of denial about her mother, making Doris “disappear” from her life even before she is actually dead.

Early in their relationship, Marilyn and James establish a pact not to discuss the past, and this mutual understanding brings them closer together. However, the novel calls into question how sustainable such a pact could be, since it involves such extreme suppression. Not only does Marilyn cut off Doris completely, she also prohibits any opportunity for her children to know their own grandmother. Although this specific instance arguably prevents the children from the possibility of experiencing racism at the hands of their own grandmother, Marilyn’s repression and silence are part of a behavioral pattern that ultimately comes to have a damaging impact on the Lee family.

So part of him wanted to tell Nath that he knew: what it was like to be teased, what it was like to never fit in. The other part of him wanted to shake his son, to slap him. To shape him into something different. Later, when Nath was too slight for the football team, too short for the basketball team, too clumsy for the baseball team, when he seemed to prefer reading and poring over his atlas and peering through his telescope to making friends, James would think back to this day in the swimming pool, this first disappointment in his son, this first

and most painful puncture in his fatherly dreams.

Related Characters: James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 92
Explanation and Analysis:

James has taken Nath to the Y to encourage his reluctant son to swim with the other kids. However, once Nath is in the pool the other children deliberately desert him in the middle of a game of Marco Polo before taunting him with racist insults. Upon realizing what has happened, Nath furiously rushes to the locker room, refusing to say anything to his father. This passage describes James’ conflicting feelings as a result of the incident at the Y. James feels sympathetic to Nath, particularly as James himself has experienced a lifetime of prejudice, bullying, and exclusion. However, it is this very parallel that discourages James from comforting Nath and instead makes him want to react with violence.

The anger that James feels is arguably not truly directed at Nath, but instead at himself. James is frustrated and disappointed in his own inability to become “normal” and popular, yet he takes these feelings out on his son. This illustrates one of the dangers of parents attempting to live out their own ambitions through their children—it can lead them to blame their children for things that are not their fault.

Chapter 6 Quotes

NaOH became Nath, his small face wide-eyed and reproachful. One morning, consulting the periodic table, instead of helium she thought He and James's face floated up in her mind. Other days, the messages were more subtle: a typo in the textbook––"the common acids, egg. nitric, acetic . . ."—left her in tears, thinking of hard-boiled, sunnyside up, scrambled.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Eggs
Page Number: 138
Explanation and Analysis:

In many ways, Marilyn’s disappearance to Toledo is turning out exactly as she’d hoped. The logistical matters of enrolling in community college and securing accommodation have all gone according to plan, and Marilyn relishes the opportunity to return to academic work. However, this passage describes Marilyn’s intense longing for her family, as she is unable to put the thought of them out of her mind even as she is focused on her studies. The disdain that she once felt about cooking eggs in the different styles that each member of her family prefers has turned to a painful sense of longing for this act of love and togetherness.

Note, however, that even as Marilyn is haunted by thoughts of her family, she doesn’t quite seem to feel guilty about leaving. Although she misses her husband and children fiercely, Marilyn still doesn’t seem to feel that what she has done is wrong. This suggests that, although Marilyn loves her family, her resentment of the traditional role of a housewife is perhaps even greater than that love.

It was a sign, Marilyn decided. For her it was too late. But it wasn't too late for Lydia. Marilyn would not be like her own mother, shunting her daughter toward husband and house, a life spent safely behind a deadbolt. She would help Lydia do everything she was capable of. She would spend the rest of her years guiding Lydia, sheltering her, the way you tended a prize rose: helping it grow, propping it with stakes, arching each stem toward perfection… She buried her nose in Lydia's hair and made silent promises. Never to tell her to sit up straight, to find a husband, to keep a house. Never to suggest that there were jobs or lives or worlds not meant for her; never to let her hear doctor and think only man. To encourage her, for the rest of her life, to do more than her mother had.

Related Symbols: The Betty Crocker Cookbook, Doctors
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:

After realizing that she is pregnant with Hannah, Marilyn decides to return home. When she first arrives back at the house, Lydia confesses that she “lost” the Betty Crocker cookbook (although this is a lie; Lydia actually hid it in her room). Rather than being angry, Marilyn interprets this as a “sign” that Lydia can grow up to have the science career that now seems permanently out of Marilyn’s reach. She decides to encourage Lydia toward “perfection” in a way that she believes Doris never did for her. However, Marilyn’s words highlight her hypocrisy. She promises not to “be like her own mother,” but by projecting her own ambitions onto Lydia, she is guilty of the exact same parenting style as Doris—just with a different goal in mind.

This passage is useful in demonstrating the way in which the harmful burden Marilyn places on Lydia originates with good intentions. Clearly, Marilyn loves Lydia, and wants her to have a happy and successful life. At the same time, Marilyn herself is also reeling from her return from Toledo and the death of her personal ambitions of becoming a doctor. It seems that the only way Marilyn can console herself is by silently promising to “encourage” Lydia to live out the dreams that Marilyn cannot. By making this promise, however, she treats her daughter as more of a project or an object than a person in her own right, as illustrated by the comparison of Lydia to “a prize rose.”

Chapter 10 Quotes

"I am disappointed." Marilyn's head snaps up. "l thought you were different." What she means is: I thought you were better than other men. I thought you wanted better than that. But James, still thinking of Marilyn's mother, hears something else.

"You got tired of different, didn't you?" he says. "I'm too different. Your mother knew it right away. You think it's such a good thing, standing out. But look at you. Just look at you."

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee (speaker), James Lee (speaker), Doris Walker
Page Number: 242
Explanation and Analysis:

Marilyn has discovered James’ affair, and has been spitefully questioning him about Louisa. She even suggests that Louisa would make a “nice little wife” and says that Doris spent her life trying to make Marilyn into the kind of woman that Louisa is. The mention of Doris infuriates James, who points out how much of a “disappointment” he was to Marilyn’s mother. In this passage, both James and Marilyn speak about disappointment, but mean two completely different things. Crucially, Marilyn does not fully explain her reasons for feeling disappointed in James, instead silently thinking “I thought you were better than other men.” This allows James to convince himself that Marilyn’s disappointment is not rooted in his affair, but in his race.

James also assumes that because Marilyn is white, she does not really know what it means to stand out, and thus cannot be said to have truly desired it. To some extent, James’ words suggest that he preemptively pushed Marilyn away on account of his belief that she would eventually grow tried of him. In reality, Marilyn has not grown tired of being marked as “different” due to her interracial marriage, but rather she is demoralized by playing the role of housewife and learning that James has cheated on her regardless of her sacrifices for their family. To Marilyn, the fact that she and James have collapsed into gender stereotypes is the greatest disappointment of all.

“I didn't care. I knew what I wanted. I was going to be a doctor." She glares at James, as if he has contradicted her. “Then—fortunately—l came to my senses. I stopped trying to be different. I did just what all the other girls were

doing. I got married. I gave all that up." A thick bitterness coats her tongue. "Do what everyone else is doing. That's all you ever said to Lydia. Make friends. Fit in. But I didn't want her to be just like everyone else." The rims of her eyes ignite. "I wanted her to be exceptional."

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee (speaker), Lydia Lee, James Lee
Related Symbols: Doctors
Page Number: 243
Explanation and Analysis:

The argument that began about James’ affair has escalated into a discussion of why both James and Marilyn feel dissatisfied with their life together. James has accused Marilyn of not truly understanding what it feels like to be socially marginalized, and Marilyn has replied that she experienced marginalization constantly as a female science student at Radcliffe. In this passage, she argues that this exclusion didn’t matter to her, because she was so fixated on her goal of becoming a doctor. Her words suggest that she blames James not only for ruining her own ambitions, but also for ruining Lydia’s. James’ pressure on Lydia to “fit in” directly contradicted Marilyn’s desire for her to stand out as an exceptional student and future doctor.

For the first time, James and Marilyn acknowledge that the pressures they put on Lydia pulled her in completely different directions. Although they do not say so explicitly here, the implication of this is that they are in some way responsible for Lydia’s feelings of sadness and alienation and, by extension, for her death. However, while Marilyn positions herself as an innocent party who simply wanted the best for Lydia, this does not, of course, represent the whole truth. In reality, both James and Marilyn put unjust and unwarranted pressure on Lydia and both of them made Lydia feel as if there was no way to be herself without disappointing them.

You loved so hard and hoped so much and then you ended up with nothing. Children who no longer needed you. A husband who no longer wanted you. Nothing left but you, alone, and empty space.

Related Characters: Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Doris Walker
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

Marilyn and James’ argument has come to a dramatic conclusion and Marilyn has ordered James to leave the house. After he goes, Marilyn sits and thinks about all the years Doris spent alone before her death. Suddenly, Marilyn feels a strong sense of identification with her mother’s isolation. Despite all the years of love, care, and work that both women put into their family life, both end up alienated from those closest to them.

Marilyn arguably exaggerates her own status as an innocent victim of her family’s desertion here; it was, after all, she who abandoned her family before her family abandoned her. On the other hand, Marilyn’s point about isolation speaks to more fundamental truths than just her own particular situation. Throughout the book, family life is shown to be more fragile than is commonly assumed, and Lydia’s death (and its consequences) highlight how easily family ties can be broken, cutting members of a family off from one another.

Chapter 11 Quotes

That long-ago day, sitting in this very spot on the dock, she had already begun to feel it: how hard it would be to inherit their parents' dreams. How suffocating to be so loved. She had felt Nath's hands on her shoulders and been almost grateful to fall forward, to let herself sink… Don't let me sink, she had thought as she reached for his hand, and he had promised not to when he took it. This moment, Lydia thought. This is where it all went wrong.

Related Characters: Lydia Lee, Marilyn Lee, James Lee, Nath Lee
Related Symbols: Water/Swimming/the Lake
Page Number: 273-274
Explanation and Analysis:

After learning about Jack’s love for Nath, Lydia reaches a kind of breaking point. That night, at 2am, she sneaks out to the lake. While sitting on the dock, she thinks about the day when Nath pushed her into the water, concluding that “this is where it all went wrong.” Lydia’s thoughts in this passage reveal a curious mix of perceptiveness and irrationality. On the one hand, Lydia has a sharp understanding of the way in which her parents’ attention has been “suffocating,” such that she has crumbled under the pressure of James and Marilyn’s love. On the other hand, her interpretation that the day in which Nath pushed her into the lake was the single moment “where it all went wrong” is arguably naïve; as the book shows, the problems in Lydia’s life originated decades before she was even born.

Lydia articulates two contradictory feelings about the prospect of “disappearing” into the lake; she feels relieved to disappear even as she also resolves to take Nath’s hand and let him pull her to the surface. These conflicting feelings provide an insight into why—in only a few minutes from this scene—Lydia jumps into the lake and drowns herself. Part of her hopes to “stay afloat” using the support of her brother, as well as her own determination, to survive. However, throughout her life the lake seems to have been pulling her toward it, beckoning her with the temptation to escape everyone’s attempts to control her life and to succumb to the mysterious power of the water.