A passage that struck me while discussing The Stone Sky in class was Nassun’s query into her symbiotic relationship with Schaffa which “she will have already decided that family will do” to define their bond. I began to wonder if family was the same as symbiosis, which typically means different organisms mutually benefitting off one another and what this meant for the relationship between Nassun and Essun.
Since I started with pure definitions, I looked up the origin of the word family. To my surprise, it initially meant “servants of a household” coming from the Latin word Familia with the full definition being “family servants, domestics collectively, the servants in a household“. Obviously, this is not the definition as Nassun meant it but I think it gives valuable insight to the nature of “family” and whether it truly can fill in for “symbiosis”. The basis of the original word for family was parasitic itself, with the head of the household benefitting off of servants or slaves without those servants benefiting in turn. The original definition of family set up an unequal balance of benefits among the participants.
Since family as we would define it is not the same as servants in a household, I looked into whether a modern definition of family was symbiotic. One of the definitions of family was “a group of individuals living under one roof and usually under one head“. While not as harsh as the original definition, this modern version still does not promise the symbiotic relationship Nassun is seeking. I think ultimately, Nassun is not sure what family really is and instead has a higher idea of family to try and fill in a relationship she always wanted. This explains why Nassun is so apprehensive about Essun; Nassun could not see that even though Essun put her daughter through physical pain she was doing it for Nassun’s safety. Ironically enough, this would be a symbiotic relationship if Essun was also benefitting, but she does not personally gain anything from this. Protecting Nassun is for the benefit of Nassun and not Essun because it turns Nassun away from her mother. This is definitely not a parasitic relationship but it is hard to label it as purely symbiotic without mutual benefit.
A better term to associate family with would be sacrifice rather than symbiosis. By looking at relationships in terms of either being parasitic such as how Schaffa seems himself since “he can no longer bring himself to feed on her like some sort of parasite” or as symbiotic like Nassun believes when she says “he’s not a parasite if she needs him, too, and if she gives what he will not take” Nassun disregards the possibility that “family” is not simply a trade-off between benefits. This black and white view ignores cases like that of Corundum. Essun killed Corundum because they were family and she refused to allow him to suffer the way she had. Corundum had no say in the matter but neither side benefitted and yet the act was still one of family. Essun was looking after her own and decided to take an action that she thought was best for her son. Similarly, this is how she raised Nassun by training her to protect her from the world without regard for how Nassun might view Essun’s actions. This was a sacrifice because Essun put what was best for Nassun without regard to herself. Nassun looks for and finds in Schaffa someone who needs her and who she needs herself. Nassun is much less concerned with the choice of family and gravitates towards necessity.
Nassun’s view of relationships as symbiotic or parasitic works a lot better when viewing the relationship between humans and the Earth as a whole. The relationship between a home and its occupants cannot involve sacrifice on both sides. Father Earth cannot be expected to make a sacrifice for humans because they occupy his space; they are not on equal footing. In a previous post, I looked at Nassun’s motivations and how I thought they were justifiable and after examining familial relationships and realizing the Earth can never experience that with humans, I see that the Earth’s motivations are justifiable as well. The Earth allows humans to reside on the surface and has discretion as to whether they can remain. It is up to humans to decide whether or not to benefit the Earth, but the Earth will exist with or without humans.