A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius


Dave Eggers

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Themes and Colors
Self-Consciousness and Meta-Narration Theme Icon
Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Theme Icon
Death, Humor, and the Worst-Case Scenario Theme Icon
Identity Theme Icon
Guilt and Poetic License Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Theme Icon

In A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Eggers ties the idea of youth to a sense of possibility. When he is only twenty-one years old, he becomes the primary caretaker of his eight-year-old brother, Toph, because their parents both die within five weeks of one another. This is overwhelming at first, but in the aftermath of losing his parents, Eggers finds himself adopting a sense of optimism about the future. Rather than succumbing to depression under the weight of his new circumstances, he moves with Toph and their sister to California, where he learns to navigate adult responsibilities while maintaining a lighthearted outlook that champions the experience of being young. This attitude is largely for Toph’s sake, since Eggers wants his little brother to grow up unencumbered by grief. However, Eggers’s relative optimism is also the result of a certain kind of youthful exuberance, a worldview in which the idea of being young brings with it notions of endless possibility and freedom. After all, he—like Toph—is still growing up, and rather than locking himself into the sober role of a stereotypical adult parent, he embraces the fact that he’s an unconventional guardian who remains open to life’s many possibilities. By putting this perspective on display, he promotes the idea that maturity has less to do with age than it has to do with one’s ability to adapt to life’s difficulties in a dynamic, flexible way.

After his parents die, Eggers quickly establishes that he will raise Toph according to his own youthful worldview. This is how he shoulders the responsibility of suddenly becoming a guardian. When they move to California shortly after selling the family house, he and Toph wind along the coastal edge of Highway 1, feeling invincible as the radio blasts rock music. While the car “thrums loudly” and Eggers sings at the top of his lungs, he looks at Toph. “In this world, in our new world, there will be rocking,” he notes. Eggers frames his and Toph’s situation not as a bleak, sad existence, but as an exhilarating “new world,” and he goes out of his way to demonstrate to his little brother that this world will be different than the one their parents gave them. With Eggers as his guardian, Toph will lead a life of “rocking” and driving fast along scenic highways. By speaking of this lifestyle in terms of newness, Eggers exalts the exciting sense of opportunity that comes with his and Toph’s youthfulness and lack of parental supervision. Instead of wallowing in their shared misfortune, he encourages Toph to see their life in California as the beginning of something thrilling.

Of course, it’s not always easy for Eggers to maintain this optimistic outlook, especially since he has to serve as Toph’s guardian at such a young age. When he watches his brother’s baseball games, for example, he finds himself unable to fully assimilate into the standard realm of parenthood. “I watch, and the mothers watch,” he notes. “I do not know how to interact with the mothers. Am I them?” In these scenarios, he becomes acutely aware of his age, reminded of how strange and unexpected his circumstances truly are. Although this makes him uncomfortable at first—causing him to question his validity as a caretaker—he eventually strives to celebrate (once more) the fact that he’s young. “Fuck it,” he writes. “I don’t want to be friends with these women, anyway. Why would I care? I am not them. They are the old model and we are the new.” By referring to Toph and himself as the “new model” of parenthood, Eggers once again praises his position as a young caretaker, deciding that he can take on this kind of meaningful responsibility without sacrificing his life as someone who is himself still coming of age.

The world also feels full of opportunity to Eggers because he believes he and Toph are “owed” something for the hardships they’ve endured. “Every day we are collecting on what’s coming to us,” he writes, “each day we’re being paid back for what is owed, what we deserve, with interest, with some extra motherfucking consideration—we are owed, goddamnit—and so we are expecting everything, everything.” After his parents died, he could have lamented his family’s loss and buckled beneath the cruelty of life. Instead, he looks ahead, his misfortune ultimately fueling his appetite for everything that is still to come his way, all of the opportunities and rewards and delights that he has yet to experience. Indeed, he “expect[s] everything” rather than resigning himself to the idea that life is terrible and bleak. It is perhaps this forward-looking mentality that enables him to embrace his role as Toph’s guardian; he doesn’t see the future as a mirthless drudge toward an unrewarding existence, but rather as a path toward something wonderful. And though his optimism might be a bit overzealous, there’s no denying that his willingness to move on from his parents’ deaths while simultaneously assuming responsibility for his younger brother is a sign of maturity. In this way, he demonstrates that conventional markers of adulthood and responsibility—age, marriage, home ownership, etc.—pale in comparison to how a person responds to hardship, which is perhaps the best indication of maturity.

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Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility Quotes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

Below you will find the important quotes in A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius related to the theme of Coming of Age, Parenthood, and Responsibility.
Acknowledgements Quotes

[…] an incomparable loss begets both constant struggle and heart-hardening, but also some unimpeachable rewards, starting with absolute freedom, interpretable and of use in a number of ways. And though it seems inconceivable to lose both parents in the space of 32 days […] and to lose them to completely different diseases (cancer, sure, but different enough, in terms of location, duration, and provenance), that loss is accompanied by an undeniable but then of course guilt-inducing sense of mobility, of infinite possibility, having suddenly found oneself in a world with neither floor nor ceiling.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Eggers’s Mother (Heidi Eggers), Eggers’s Father (John Eggers)
Page Number: xviii
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 1 Quotes

Would we have enough towels? God no. We could use sheets, we have plenty of sheets— It might be only a few hours. Would that be enough time? What’s enough time? We would talk a lot. Yes. We would sum up. Would we be serious, sober, or funny? We would be serious for a few minutes— Okay okay okay okay. Fuck, what if we ran out of things to say and— We’ve already made the necessary arrangements. Yes, yes, we wouldn’t need to talk details. We’d have Toph come up. Would we have Toph come up? Of course, but… oh he shouldn’t be there, should he? Who wants to be there at the very end? No one, no one. But for her to be alone…of course she won’t be alone, you’ll be there, Beth’ll be there, dumb-ass. Fuck.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Eggers’s Mother (Heidi Eggers), Beth Eggers
Page Number: 24
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 2 Quotes

Only here are you almost sure that you are careening on top of a big shiny globe, blurrily spinning—you are never aware of these things in Chicago, it being so flat, so straight—and and and we have been chosen, you see, chosen, and have been given this, it being owed to us, earned by us, all of this—the sky is blue for us, the sun makes passing cars twinkle like toys for us, the ocean undulates and churns for us, murmurs and coos to us. We are owed, see this is ours, see.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 50
Explanation and Analysis:

They laugh, I chuckle—not too much, I don’t want to seem overeager, but enough to say “I hear you. I laugh with you. I share in the moment.” But when the chuckling is over I am still apart, something else, and no one is sure what I am. They don’t want to invest their time in the brother sent to pick up Toph while his mother cooks dinner or is stuck at work or in traffic. To them I’m a temp. A cousin maybe. The young boyfriend of a divorcee? They don’t care.

Fuck it. I don’t want to be friends with these women, anyway. Why would I care? I am not them. They are the old model and we are the new.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 57
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 3 Quotes

It’s an effort […] to let him know, if it weren’t already obvious, that as much as I want to carry on our parents’ legacy, he and I will also be doing some experimenting. And constantly entertaining, like some amazing, endless telethon. There is a voice inside me, a very excited, chirpy voice, that urges me to keep things merry, madcap even, the mood buoyant. Because Beth is always pulling out old photo albums, crying, asking Toph how he feels, I feel I have to overcompensate by keeping us occupied. I am making our lives a music video, a game show on Nickelodeon—lots of quick cuts, crazy camera angles, fun, fun, fun! It’s a campaign of distraction and revisionist history—leaflets dropped behind enemy lines, fireworks, funny dances, magic tricks.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Beth Eggers
Page Number: 88
Explanation and Analysis:

They are scared. They are jealous.

We are pathetic. We are stars.

We are either sad and sickly or we are glamorous and new. We walk in and the choices race through my head. Sad and sickly? Or glamorous and new? Sad/sickly or glamorous/new? Sad/sickly? Glamorous/new?

We are unusual and tragic and alive.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 4 Quotes

If when she comes over she questions anything about the state of the house—“Oh God, there’s food under the couch!” or even “Holy bachelor pad!”—or worse, any parental decisions made in her company or otherwise, she is first glared at in Toph’s presence, later lectured out of his earshot, and then becomes fodder for month-long trashings in conversations with Beth about people who know nothing about anything and how dare they say anything, these people, these lotus-eating simpletons who have never known struggle, who would never question other parents, but feel the right to question me, us, simply because we are new at it, are young, are siblings.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Beth Eggers
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:

You know, to be honest, though, what I see is less a problem with form, all that garbage, and more a problem of conscience. You’re completely paralyzed with guilt about relating all this in the first place, especially the stuff earlier on. You feel somehow obligated to do it, but you also know that Mom and Dad would hate it, would crucify you […]. But then again, I should say, and Bill and Beth would say—well, probably not Bill, but definitely Beth—that your guilt, and their disapproval, is a very middlebrow, middle-class, midwestern sort of disapproval. It’s superstition as much as anything—like the primitives who fear the camera will take their soul. You struggle with a guilt both Catholic and unique to the home in which you were raised. Everything there was a secret—for instance, your father being in AA was not to be spoken of, ever, while he was in and after he stopped attending. You never told even your closest friends about anything that happened inside that house. And now you alternately rebel against and embrace that kind of suppression.

Related Characters: Toph Eggers (speaker), Dave Eggers, Eggers’s Mother (Heidi Eggers), Eggers’s Father (John Eggers), Beth Eggers, Bill Eggers
Page Number: 115
Explanation and Analysis:

Anyway, with me you have this amazing chance to right the wrongs of your own upbringing, you have an opportunity to do everything better—to carry on those traditions that made sense and to jettison those that didn’t—which is something every parent has the chance to do, of course, to show up one’s own parents, do everything better, to upwardly evolve from them—but in this case, it’s even more heightened, means so much more, because you get to do this with me, their own progeny.

Related Characters: Toph Eggers (speaker), Dave Eggers
Page Number: 119
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 5 Quotes

Then, at the moment that I am turning the corner, I become convinced, in a flash of pure truth-seeing—it happens every time I leave him anywhere—that Toph will be killed. Of course. The baby-sitter was acting peculiar, was too quiet, too unassuming. His eyes had plans. Of course. So obvious from the beginning. I ignored the signals. Toph had told me Stephen was weird, repeatedly had mentioned his scary laugh, the veggie food he brought and cooked, and I just shrugged it all off. If something happens it’ll be my fault. He will try bad things on Toph. He will try to molest Toph. While Toph is sleeping he will do something with wax and rope. The possibilities snap through my head like pedophilia flashcards—handcuffs, floorboards, clown suits, leather, videotape, duct tape, knives, bathtubs, refrigerators—

Toph will never wake up.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Stephen
Page Number: 125
Explanation and Analysis:

[…] maybe they’d just be sitting around, at Moodie’s usually, watching cable, getting ready, and I would be there, on the couch, with a beer from the fridge, savoring every minute, not knowing when it would come again, and they would be casual, having no idea what it meant to me, even when I’d be a little manic about it all, a little overeager, laughing too much, drinking too quickly, getting another from the fridge, no problem, okay, hoping for something to happen, hoping we’d go somewhere good, anything to make the night count, make it worth it, justify the constant red/black worry, the visions—I felt so detached sometimes, went for weeks at a time without really being around people my age, like living in a country where no one understands your words[.]

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Moodie, Stephen
Page Number: 127
Explanation and Analysis:

You wouldn’t believe what people will believe once they know our story. They’re ready for anything, basically—will believe anything, because they’ve been thrown off-balance, are still wondering if any of this is true, our story in general, but aren’t sure and are terrified of offending us.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 139
Explanation and Analysis:

I tell her how funny it is we’re talking about all this because as it so happens I’m already working to change all this, am currently in the middle of putting together something that will address all these issues, that will inspire millions to greatness, that with some high school friends […] we’re putting something together that will smash all these misconceptions about us, how it’ll help us all to throw off the shackles of our supposed obligations, our fruitless career tracks, how we will force, at least urge, millions to live more exceptional lives, to {standing up for effect} do extraordinary things, to travel the world, to help people and start things and end things and build things…

“And how will you do this?” she wants to know. “A political party? A march? A revolution? A coup?”

“A magazine.”

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Meredith Weiss (speaker)
Page Number: 147
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 6 Quotes

Everyone’s seen the show. We all despise it, are enthralled by it, morbidly curious. Is it interesting because it’s so bad, because the stars of it are so profoundly uninteresting? Or is it because in it we recognize so much that is maddeningly familiar? Maybe this is indeed us. Watching the show is like listening to one’s voice on tape: it’s real of course, but however mellifluous and articulate you hear your own words, once they’re sent through this machine and are given back to you, they’re high-pitched, nasal, horrifying. Are our lives that? Do we talk like that, look like that? Yes. It could not be. It is. No.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker)
Page Number: 167
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 7 Quotes

We’ve reached the end of pure inspiration, and are now somewhere else, something implying routine, or doing something because people expect us to do it, going somewhere each day because we went there the day before, saying things because we have said them before, and this seems like the work of a different sort of animal, contrary to our plan, and this is very very bad.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker)
Page Number: 287
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 9 Quotes

While the ill are ill, if you can be there you should be there. I know these things. Bizarre, self-sacrificing gestures are important. On days that you cannot possibly come visit, you must visit. When you get home one night, and Toph says, “So, are you going to pretend to be a parent tonight, or what?”—which he means as a kind of joke, because you two have been eating fast food for weeks, and you’ve been napping on the couch every night after dinner—you should take a breath and know that this is okay, that this sort of thing, this struggle and sacrifice, is essential, that he does not understand but someday will.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers, Shalini Malhotra
Page Number: 330
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 10 Quotes

The idea, I suppose, is the emotional equivalent of a drug binge, the tossing together of as much disparate and presumably incompatible stimuli as possible, in a short span, five days, together constituting a sort of socio-familial archaeological bender, to see what comes of it, how much can be dredged up, brought back, remembered, exploited, excused, pitied, made known, made permanent.

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker)
Page Number: 359
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 11 Quotes

To hear anger from him is a great relief. I had worried about his lack of anger, had worried that he and I had been too harmonious, that I hadn’t given him enough friction. He needed friction, I had begun insisting to myself. After all the years of normalcy and coddling, it was time to give the boy something to be pissed about. How else would he succeed? Where would he find his motivation, if not from the desire to tread over me?

Related Characters: Dave Eggers (speaker), Toph Eggers
Page Number: 413
Explanation and Analysis: