My Family and Other Animals often relays stories that exist fully in the realm of absurdity. In particular, the stories that Theodore tells often position the absurdity as being something inherent to Corfu—he proposes, essentially, that Corfu is a locale in which anything can happen, and if there's a way for something to go hilariously wrong, it will. This nonsensical quality of the island is something the novel attributes to the outlook shared by the locals, which suggests overwhelmingly that there's a great deal to gain from accepting the strange twists and turns of life in stride, viewing "absurdity" as normal, and thinking of it as a way to live a life that's far richer than anything one might otherwise consider normal.
Much of the absurdity and humor, in the first half of the novel especially, arises from the cultural and language differences between the Durrell family, who are English, and the local Greek population. Within hours of arriving on the island, the Durrells discover that by choosing to live on the island, they'll need to adapt to a way of life they find absurd. The driver that Mother hires to show the family villas, for example, is aghast that Mother wants a villa with a bathroom. In genuine horror and confusion, he asks Mother why she'd want a bathroom when she has the sea—a statement that causes Mother to respond with a similar combination of horror and confusion. This exchange, as well as the many other bathroom-related conflicts and misunderstandings that pepper the novel, suggest that the "absurdity" the Durrells observe is merely a matter of perspective and of cultural norms, reinforcing the idea that what's considered absurd or normal is highly subjective. This sense of individuality in regards to what's considered absurd does break down along generational lines, as do the degrees to which members of the Durrell family adapt to the "absurd" customs of the island. Mother never learns more than a few Greek words and phrases, which limits the extent to which she can integrate on the island, and she continues to use the in-house bathroom in all three of the family's villas. Gerry, however, is young enough to learn the language, and there's no evidence that Gerry ever uses indoor bathrooms: he spends much of his time in the sea and often bathes there, which suggests he took on the Greek custom.
Though the Greek culture on the island is considered absurd almost exclusively by the island's non-Greek residents, Theodore's stories about the island's numerous mishaps suggest that life on the island actually is colored by a local acceptance that life, people, and relationships are inherently absurd in their own right. At one point, Theodore recounts the town of Corfu's decision to upgrade their horse-drawn fire truck to an actual engine. The fire chief insisted that the engine be the best and biggest available, not taking into account the fact that the streets of Corfu aren't wide enough to accommodate the biggest engine. This, of course, results in disaster the first time the engine is called out. Among other mishaps, the engine must take the wider roads on the outskirts of town to reach the fire, and it arrives too late (and to a crowd of hilariously unconcerned onlookers, including off-duty firemen) to do much good. Even when the mishaps have objectively serious consequences, as in the case of the fire engine, Theodore overwhelmingly presents the trials and tribulations of Corfu as being considered delightfully unserious by the locals. This suggests that as absurd as the non-Greek residents find life on Corfu, there's immense value in accepting that life is wonderfully strange—and, indeed, that one can live a much more fulfilling life by accepting absurdity as normal and viewing it as a way to add richness to one's life.
Absurdity and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Absurdity and Storytelling Quotes in My Family and Other Animals
"Didn't you notice?" she asked. "None of them had a bathroom."
Mr. Beeler stared at Mother with bulging eyes.
"But Madame," he wailed in genuine anguish, "what for you want a bathroom? Have you not got the sea?"
As the days passed, I came gradually to understand them. What had at first been a confused babble became a series of recognizable separate sounds. Then, suddenly, these took on meaning, and slowly and haltingly I started to use them myself; then I took my newly acquired words and strung them into ungrammatical and stumbling sentences. Our neighbors were delighted, as though I had conferred some delicate compliment by trying to learn their language.
"Don't be ridiculous. Whoever heard of moving into a larger house because you've invited some friends to stay?"
"What's the matter with the idea? It seems a perfectly sensible solution to me; after all, if you say there's no room here, the obvious thing to do is to move."
"A most insanitary procedure," said Mother, "more likely to spread disease than cure it. I dread to think what would have caught if we'd really kissed his feet."
"But I kissed his feet," said Margo, surprised.
I toyed with the idea that it may have found itself without a pair of clean wing-cases to put on that morning and had to borrow its younger brother's pair, but I eventually decided that this idea, however enchanting, could not be described as scientific.
With the summer came Peter to tutor me, a tall, handsome young man, fresh from Oxford, with decided ideas on education which I found rather trying to begin with. But gradually the atmosphere of the island worked its way insidiously under his skin, and he relaxed and became quite human.
While I was at work on my masterpiece...Peter and Margo would take a stroll in the sunken garden to look at the flowers. To my surprise, they had both suddenly become very botanically minded.
A pot of black paint was produced and laboriously, in rather trickly capitals, I traced her name along the side: THE BOOTLE-BUMTRINKET. There it was; not only an unusual name, but an aristocratically hyphenated one as well. In order to ease Mother's mind I had to promise that I would refer to the boat only as the Bootle in conversation with strangers.
For a week or so the wind played with the island, patting it, stroking it, humming to itself among the bare branches. Then there was a lull, a few days' strange calm; suddenly, when you least expected it, the wind would be back. But it was a changed wind, a mad, hooting, bellowing wind that leaped down on the island and tried to blow it into the sea.
"Most people say that as one gets older one believes nothing and is surprised at nothing, so that one becomes more receptive to ideas. Nonsense! All the old people I know have had their minds locked up like grey, scaly oysters since they were in their teens."
The Magenpies, obviously suspecting Larry of being a dope smuggler, had fought valiantly with the tin of bicarbonate of soda, and had scattered its contents along a line of books, so that they looked like a snow-covered mountain range.
Once the thing was explained, of course, it was simple. It never even occurred to me that the procedure was unusual. I knew one wasn't allowed home for weekends from an English prison, but this was Corfu, and in Corfu anything could happen.
Mother had, after considerable mental effort, managed to commit to memory two or three Greek words. This lack of vocabulary had a restrictive effect on her conversation at the best of times, but when she was faced with the ordeal of exchanging small talk with a murderer she promptly forgot all the Greek she knew.
"I assure you the house is a death-trap. Every conceivable nook and cranny is stuffed with malignant faunae waiting to pounce...A simple, innocuous action like lighting a cigarette is fraught with danger. Even the sanctity of my bedroom is not respected. First, I was attacked by a scorpion...Now we have snakes in the bath and huge flocks of albatrosses flapping around the house, making noises like defective plumbing."