Every major character in the book is excluded from the world around them and suffers from feelings of loneliness. The narrator describes the Lee family as “a family with no friends, a family of misfits.” To some extent, this family-wide social isolation is initially created by the personal isolation of both James and Marilyn. When the two meet at Harvard, both are socially marginalized as a result of prejudice—James because of his race and Marilyn because of her gender. They are attracted to each other in part due to a feeling of understanding created through their shared experience of isolation. As they get older, they fail to make any friends or truly participate in the Middlewood community. Both James and Marilyn partly blame their lack of professional success on this exclusion; James believes he was not hired as a professor at Harvard because he did not fit the social and racial profile required of Harvard professors, and Marilyn feels that she was denied the chance to have a career as a doctor due to the gendered pressure to become a housewife.
James and Marilyn pass on this experience of social exclusion to their children. Nath and Lydia are the only non-white students at school, and are socially marginalized on this account. Indeed, the experiences of the Lee family fit into the literary tradition of depicting mixed-race people as inevitably alienated from society at large. This is sometimes understood through the idea of the “tragic mulatto,” a half-white, half-African American figure who is excluded from both communities because they are seen as not truly fitting into either. Although the Lee children are half-Chinese instead of half-black, their experiences nonetheless evoke this literary trope.
At the same time, James and the children’s marginalization is also rooted in racist stereotypes particular to Asians and Asian Americans. Even though James was born in the United States, “he had never felt he belonged here.” The ban on Chinese immigrants meant that James’ father had to lie about his parentage in order to immigrate; meanwhile, James and his family adopt false, English names in an attempt to assimilate into American society. Ultimately, this attempt to integrate fails, and both James and his children suffer from racist exclusion and hostility throughout their lives.
After their children are born, James struggles with loneliness more intensely than Marilyn. Where Marilyn projects her own (failed) dreams of becoming a doctor onto Lydia, James obsesses over Lydia’s social life. He constantly asks after Lydia’s friends, encourages her to pursue the same activities as her peers, and at Christmas buys her three books with instructions on how to “win friends” and “be popular.” Ironically, the only real effect of this act is further estranging Lydia from her father. More than anything, Lydia wants her father to accept her for who she is, but instead James exacerbates her feelings of loneliness and isolation by implying that she is a social failure. Jack, the one real friend that Lydia does have, suffers from fear of homophobic prejudice. When Lydia discovers that Jack is in love with Nath (and thus doesn’t want to sleep with her), she threatens to tell everyone in school about Jack’s feelings, a fact that suggests that experiencing prejudice herself does not necessarily deter Lydia from wanting to inflict it on others.
James’ ongoing struggle with notions of social acceptance and popularity contrasts with Marilyn’s acceptance of the inherent isolation and loneliness of life. Haunted by her own frustrated ambitions, Marilyn values professional success more than popularity. Yet despite having (reluctantly) dedicated her life to being a housewife, Marilyn is also isolated from her family. After discovering James’ affair and ordering him to leave the house, Marilyn thinks to herself: “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.” Although James and Marilyn eventually reconcile upon his return, Marilyn’s despair over ending up alone still resonates in the context of her inability to truly connect with Lydia before her death. While the book optimistically hints that the Lee family learn to accept one another and grow closer after Lydia’s death, this is inevitably tainted by the fact that Lydia herself is lost to them forever.
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice ThemeTracker
Loneliness, Exclusion, and Prejudice Quotes in Everything I Never Told You
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.
Marilyn, unaware that her youngest is listening so closely, so longingly, blots her eyes and replaces the diaries on the shelf and makes herself a promise. She will figure out what happened to Lydia. She will find out who is responsible. She will find out what went wrong.
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.
The story––as it emerges from the teachers and the kids at school––is so
obvious. Lydia's quietness, her lack of friends. Her recent sinking grades. And, in truth, the strangeness of her family. A family with no friends, a family of misfits. All this shines so brightly that, in the eyes of the police, Jack falls into shadow. A girl like that and a boy like him, who can have––does have––any girl he wants? It is impossible for them to imagine what Nath knows to be true, let alone what he himself imagines.
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.
She followed him all the way to the lake and to the end of the little pier. The houses on the other side of the water looked like dollhouses, tiny and scaled-down and perfect. Inside, mothers were boiling eggs or baking cakes or making pot roasts, or maybe fathers were poking the coals in the barbecue,
turning the hot dogs with a fork so that the grill made perfect black lines all over. Those mothers had never gone far away and left their children behind. Those fathers had never slapped their children or kicked over the television or laughed at them.
He must really hate Nath, Lydia thought. As much as Nath hates him. She imagined them in class together all these years: Nath sitting close to the front, notebook out, one hand rubbing the little furrow between his eyebrows, the way he did when he was thinking hard. Utterly focused, oblivious to everything else, the answer right there, sealed inside his mouth. And Jack?
Jack would be sprawled in the back corner, shirt untucked, one leg stretched into the aisle. So comfortable. So certain of himself. Not worried about what anyone thought. No wonder they couldn't stand each other.
It happened so quickly that if she were a different person, Hannah might have wondered if she'd imagined it. No one else saw. Nath was still turned away; Lydia had her eyes shut now against the sun. But the moment flashed lightning-bright to Hannah. Years of yearning had made her sensitive, the way a starving dog twitches its nostrils at the faintest scent of food. She could not mistake it. She recognized it at once: love, one-way deep adoration that bounced off and did not bounce back; careful, quiet love that didn't care and went on anyway. It was too familiar to be surprising. Something deep inside her stretched out and curled around Jack like a shawl, but he didn't notice.
“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."
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.
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.
What made something precious? Losing it and finding it. All those times he'd pretended to lose her. He sinks down on the carpet, dizzy with loss.
Then he feels small arms curling round his neck, the warmth of a small body leaning against him.