Will Eisner might be the most influential graphic novelist of the 20th century.  Contrary to some, he didn’t “invent the graphic novel,” but his ouvre is awesome nonetheless.  Although I’m a big fan, I only recently discovered what might be his greatest work of all: The Name of the Game.  It’s the story of three generations of an elite New York Jewish family, running roughly from 1890 to 1960.

At first glance, The Name of the Game is an expose of patriarchy.  Families pressure their daughters into “good marriages” to wealthy, successful men.  But the daughters end up miserable – or worse.  You could easily use Eisner’s novel to refute my infamous claim that women during the Gilded Age were freer than they are today.

If you read the book carefully, though, you’ll notice two key anomalies. 

First, families exert similar pressure on their sons to marry the “right kind” of women.  And most of the men end up unhappy with their marriages, too.  Some are bored; others endure constant emotional abuse.  If The Name of the Game is an indictment of anything, it’s not patriarchy but parentarchy.

Second, characters in The Name of the Game occasionally stand up to familial and social pressure.  And what happens to them?  Little or nothing.  The character Eva, for instance, defies her mother’s match-making, moves to New York, and becomes a model.  No one disowns or shuns her; in fact, she manages to worm her way into high society.  The Name of the Game isn’t a story about men or women who never had a choice.  It’s a story about men and women who bow to empty threats.

Of course, it’s just a novel.  But Eisner lived through much of the era he’s writing about, and his account rings true.  Parents love their kids; always have, always will.  Sometimes this leads parents to threaten to disown and disinherit children who won’t do what they’re told.  For the most part, though, parents are paper tigers.  They usually love their kids too much to actually follow through on such dire threats.  The lesson: What Eisner’s “trapped” characters lack is neither freedom or opportunity, but the courage to say “no.”