The Symbolism of Trains In Literature

The Train To Timbuctoo

Why are trains so useful to storytellers? Well, first of all they get your characters from one place to another. But there’s more to it than that. Trains are found in literature more than trains are ridden in real life.

First up, trains are an example of a heterotopia.  For more on that see this post.

French philosopher Michael Foucault had a bit to say about trains:

A train is an extraordinary bundle of relations because it is something through which one goes, it is also something by means of which one can go from one point to another, and then it is also something that goes by.

Foucault

When it comes to writers and picking things to function as symbolic, that which is multi-layered is ripe for the picking. Take any word which means two different things at once; or a tree, which can be covered in leaves or bare; or a sea, which has a surface and also great depth; blackberries, which are delicious but also a pest; the colour yellow, which means happiness but also decay… You get the picture. As Foucault mentions above, trains are great, symbolically, because the audience has not only two but THREE different relationships with trains.

TRAINS IN CHILDREN’S LITERATURE

Trains have been hugely important in children’s literature in particular.

Train journeys occur at initiatory or climactic moments of large numbers of classic children’s utopian fantasies; in these journeys, the railway functions as a protean, paradoxical space, not merely instrumental but instead active. Long after it vanished from the landscapes of the real world as a functional means of transport, the steam train in particular continues to feature in works of fantasy aimed at children, operating by laws often unlike those of the realms through which it passes, and providing a space for the dramatization of spriritual and emotional adventure. […] Railway journeys serve an important role within the metaphoriacal as well as the narrative economy of utopian texts; this role is sometimes a subversive one, and ultimately calls into question the relationship of reader to text.

Railway trains in utopian fantasy literature operate like alternative worlds, allowing space and time within the narrative for establishment, subversion, and clashing of the logics and values of the other realms of the text. In this way they can be described in terms of Foucault’s well-known formulation of “heterotopia“. […]

Utopian and Dystopian Writing for Children and Young Adults, edited by Carrie Hintz, Elaine Ostry

The train station as a place of beginnings and endings is seen in many stories. One especially memorable train station for me is that depicted in Anne of Green Gables.

For a younger generation of readers, it is of course the train of Harry Potter which resonates.

The train station platform functions identically to the bus station platform.

You can probably think of many resonant scenes set in train and bus stations.

Another, for an adult audience (inaccessible to young viewers because of its uniquely adult emotion — regret), is the train station scene in Remains of the Day.

Other memorable bus station scenes for me happen in Mr Holland’s Opus and in Hud, where there is also the strong feeling of regret at what could have been in another parallel life.

That sense of the ‘parallel’, imagined life that could have been is perhaps why trains (and express service buses, which travel along their own invisible, pre-laid tracks) lend themselves to well to stories in which we’re encouraged to consider fate, and our own hand in it.

TRAINS AND JAPAN

Trains are a huge part of Japanese life and are also a huge part of Japanese storytelling, perhaps especially in manga culture. Trains afford Japanese children a freedom Western children rarely have — the train network is so reliable, so crowded and easily navigated that children are often trusted to ride trains without adult caregivers in a way I wouldn’t see here in Australia.

In Japanese towns and suburbs, trains travel regularly across your path, and you must stop at the gate and the lights. The threat of death is near. All you’d need to do is disobey the signs.

This low-level fear is utilised in The Girl Who Leapt Through Time. The way a train hurtles unstoppably forward is at symbolic odds with the fact that, should you stand in front of it, your life comes to an immediate halt. Symbolically, you’ve now got this juxtaposition between how an individual’s life ends suddenly but the world continues on.

Even Miyazaki’s fantasy world of Spirited Away includes a train.

The trailer of  5 Centimeters Per Second shows us that almost the entire film (comprising 5 interconnected short stories) takes place in trains and train stations.

TRAINS IN KATHERINE MANSFIELD

In her paper on Katherine Mansfield’s short story “The Escape”, Masami Sato has this to say about train symbolism, in which every aspect of the train is ripe for close-reading, including the doors (open or closed?), the rails on the balcony, and the carriage shared with others:

Using trains symbolically is a technique found frequently in literary history. It has been used as a place where people accidently meet, separate, take time to think, work on something, and even as a place of rest and relaxation. We can see some of this symbolism in the last paragraph of “The Escape”.

The door of the carriage seems to refer to the threshold, or border, between the wife’s world and the husband’s heavenly (maybe, by implication, his ideal) world. The door is open, which denotes that he is still connected with his wife’s world, even though he does not want to be completely submerged in it. However, since he is holding on tightly to the brass rail with both hands, this could possibly signify his effort in trying to cling to his sense of happiness, having escaped, if only momentarily, the space which is dominated by his turbulent relationship with his wife.

The train carriage, for the wife, could be seen as a place to relax: as mentioned before, the wife is talking contentedly with the other passengers, while the husband is absorbed in his solitary emotions of happiness, apart from her, in the corridor. Their juxtaposition refers to two different worlds, and suggests that from a gender point of view, the worlds of men and women do not cohere seamlessly.

The story began with the couple missing their train and ends with a scene on a train. I would suggest that Mansfield intentionally uses the symbol of the train journey at the beginning of the narrative to demonstrate the emotional gulf between the husband and wife, a state which is shown to be highlighted if they spend time in too close proximity to each other. In the story’s ending, Mansfield suggests, by their positions in the separate (yet adjoining spaces) of the train compartment and the corridor, that perhaps, in a marriage, a certain amount of distance between individuals is more comfortable for both of them.

Katherine Mansfield’s Portrayal of Marriage In “The Escape”

TRAINS IN ALICE MUNRO

Alice Munro has also written short stories which take place on trains, my favourite being “Chance”.

 

 

 

The Electric Grandmother and Resonant Imagery

The Electric Grandmother is basically a Twilight Zone episode for kids.

The teleplay (and a short story adaptation of “I Sing The Body Electric”) was written by Ray Bradbury, and was later remade by the Disney Channel as a full-length Made for TV movie called “The Electric Grandmother”.

TV Tropes

 

The Twilight Zone for a modern audience is of course Black Mirror. I wonder if Charlie Brooker watched “The Electric Grandmother” growing up, as well as The Twilight Zone. “The Electric Grandmother” reminds me very much of “Be Right Back“, in which a woman orders a synthetic version of her deceased boyfriend.

I’m not the first to have noticed this, and Charlie Brooker counts The Twilight Zone as one of his influences.

It took me a few minutes to place the father, played by Edward Herrmann, who later played the grandfather in Gilmore girls.

The friend who shared this remembers The Electric Grandmother fondly, and hadn’t forgotten the songs. Apart from the songs, I think the most resonant scene, remembered long after the name of the story and the plot is forgotten, is the one where the grandmother squirts milk from her forefinger.

grandmother finger milk

Every story needs a resonant scene like this — one which the audience remembers after details are long gone.

This Milk Finger scene resonates for several reasons:

  • The audience hasn’t seen this exact thing before.
  • Memory experts advise people to put dissonant things together in order to remember them. For instance, if you want to remember to buy cabbage at the supermarket, imagine the entire supermarket made out of hollowed-out cabbage. We can utilise this when telling stories, too. And next time you need to remember milk at the supermarket, maybe think of yourself squirting milk from your finger, like this scene from The Electric Grandmother.
  • This milk finger scene is the first time the audience sees what The Electric Grandmother can do. Until this point, the electric version of the grandmother has seemed just like the dead one.

RESONANT IMAGERY IN STORYTELLING

Is there terminology writers use to describe ‘the part of a story which remains with the audience’ forever?

David Lynch uses a term called ‘The Eye Of The Duck’ to describe a critical moment in film.

I’m not sure Lynch would describe the Milk Finger image in The Electric Grandmother as an example of what he’s talking about, but it’s the closest I’ve come so far to a description of these moments/images in a story which feel perfect, and perfectly memorable.

He used the phrase in an interview with the “Daily David”, in which Lynch talks to an audience about storytelling stuff. You can also see it on YouTube.

Why does he call it that? Because when you look at a duck, you feel like its eye couldn’t be placed anywhere else on its body. The eye of the duck feels like it’s in exactly the right place.

Lynch compares film as a whole with the body of a duck and claims that every film has a scene that can be compared to the eye of a duck on a metaphorical level. The placement of the eye, the jewel, within a duck’s body is crucial because it would not make sense anywhere else. It “feels correct” and completes the overall appearance of the body. The very same thing applies to a film (the “body”) and a certain scene (the “eye”).

An eye of the duck scene is not necessarily readily identifiable.

The Eye Of The Duck is not always critical to advancing the plot forward. The insights they convey do not necessarily affect the story of the film to a great deal. Instead it affects the way the audience perceives the film. It’s a concept used by writers who don’t really believe in story structure. David Lynch has said that he eschews traditional story structure. These people (Chatman is another one) believes that an audience provides structure to a story if they need one.

(Others say that although David Lynch prides himself on having no structure to his stories, he actually follows story structure pretty conventionally.)

It will be the scene which sticks in your memory long after you’ve forgotten the rest. For me, an eye-of-the-duck Twin Peaks moment is the dancing dwarf in the red room, but I also remember the phrase, “It’s on the turn” to describe a piece of fruit (and use it often).

Lynch’s medium is film and TV, but Flaubert came up with a very similar phrase to describe ‘the exact word or phrasing’ in a text: le mot juste.

HOW TO COME UP WITH YOUR OWN EYE OF THE DUCK

Lynch advises storytellers to remain open to ideas. Sometimes something suddenly feels complete after a new idea, when you’d assumed it was finished before. Dive within. This ‘eye of the duck’ doesn’t come from the intellect but from intuition.

“Stay true to the ideas. If you love them stay true to them… Maybe some fish comes that is not part of this dinner. Put it away and save it for another time… If something needs to be said twice there’s a feeling, a knowing that it’s correct… Stay on your toes because a thing isn’t finished until it’s finished.”

This is important advice because sometimes, in this age of minimalism, writers are urged to cut, cut, cut. But sometimes, even if a scene exists purely for its aesthetic value — not because it adds obviously to plot, character, theme or setting — you should still keep it there.

 

The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)

“The Blue Hotel” is a short story by Stephen Crane, published serially in Collier’s Weekly (1898) and then in the collection The Monster and Other Stories (1899). The story was inspired by Crane’s travels to the American Southwest in 1895.

Encyclopedia Britannica

I recently took a close look at “The Woman At The Store” by Katherine Mansfield. By coincidence I came across “The Blue Hotel” by Stephen Crane, which is a similar case study in some respects: Continue reading “The Blue Hotel by Stephen Crane (1898)”

Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?

Schitt's Creek

Schitt’s Creek is a CBC sitcom written by father and son team Eugene and Daniel Levy. You’ll either find it funny or you won’t — I think it’s the funniest thing on Netflix at the moment.

That said, I agree with all the reviewers who’ve said something like this:

Season 1 is decent, but Season 2 is where it really takes off.

NYT, Margaret Lyons

From a writing point of view, it’s interesting to consider why this show took an entire season to really get funny. Continue reading “Why does Schitt’s Creek take a season to get ‘good’?”

How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

How To Write Like Katherine Mansfield

When writing short stories you’ll want to develop your own style, not ape the style of anyone else. Nonetheless, I have collected a number of pointers from a short story great. Mansfield borrowed from those who came before her and we may do the same. In fact, it’s inevitable. It pays to know our own influences, if only so we don’t mimic them too closely.

HOW TO NARRATE LIKE MANSFIELD

Mansfield is known as the first to bring modernist short stories to the West. She took her cues from Chekhov (who was Russian). She read early English translations of his work.

(If you want to narrate like Katherine Mansfield, you’re also narrating like Chekhov, and many other stylists who came after.)

  • Mansfield was a pioneer in interior monologue.
  • Mansfield generally makes use of shifting viewpoints, never settling on one character in particular. Because the ‘camera’ never settles, we expect her to shift viewpoints. That means you can’t settle in one head for too long. “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House” are examples of this. Other stories remain with a single character, in close third person narration. Examples are “The Tiredness of Rosabel” (until the final sentence, considered by some to be a writing mistake), “Miss Brill” and “The Wind Blows“.
  • Language is succinct, both at a sentence level and at a scene level. The prose is akin to lyric poetry with much thought given to prosody and scansion.
  • Mansfield wrote about a relatively narrow range of material: children exploring the world alone, children reacting to adults, lonely women in a hostile world.
  • To finish off a story, Mansfield sometimes switches point of view to that of another character who hasn’t had much airtime until now. (“The Escape”, “The Doll’s House”)

STORYWORLDS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD

  • Though Mansfield expressed disdain for her home country of New Zealand, as she approached death, her thoughts returned to her homeland and her last, most accomplished stories are all set in and around Wellington.
  • Some of her settings are ambiguous, such as “A Dill Pickle”, which is almost certainly London, but set in a cosmopolitan cafe which could be many places.
  • Mansfield lived in France and is now buried there. A number of her stories are set in France.
  • Others are set in Germany. Her collection In A German Pension is set in Germany, though Mansfield later said she didn’t like those stories.
  • Mansfield wrote contemporary tales, which means they’re all set in the late 1800s, early 1900s.
  • World War One (and events leading up to it) makes an appearance in some of her stories, if only to underscore how unimportant world events are to her characters, who must go on with their own small lives regardless. (“A Dill Pickle”, “The Fly”.)
  • Mansfield knew how a well-to-do, moneyed household worked. Her New Zealand natal family went by that exact description, and because English immigrants were still very English in their custom, she knew how that class of English people lived, too. Bertha of “Bliss” is presumably English born, but she’s no more English in character than the young fictional women who grew up in New Zealand.

HOW TO STRUCTURE YOUR STORY

Tiny, quotidian moments make for sufficient plot:

  • Being late for a train then losing your parasol off the cart (“The Escape”)
  • Going home after work to fantasise about a brief encounter you had with another young woman’s beau (“The Tiredness of Rosabel”)
  • Sitting on a park bench at the gardens, voyeuristically listening in to other people’s conversations (“Miss Brill”)
  • Riding the Picton Ferry with your grandmother, in charge of looking after her umbrella (“The Voyage”)
  • Preparing for a party (“Bliss”, “The Garden Party”, “Sun and Moon”)
  • Killing an irritating fly in your office after a former employee drops in with some news (“The Fly”)
  • Showing two classmates your new doll’s house even though those girls aren’t allowed in the yard (The Doll’s House)

However ambiguous Mansfield’s stories seem after a first reading, they’ll make sense to the careful reader after a second read-through. Symbolism is King. In common with writers like Joseph Conrad and Annie Proulx, Mansfield’s stories are about ‘delayed decoding‘. That’s a fancy way of saying the reader doesn’t know what’s happening until later, and often not until after a second read.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Get the mood first, and focus on the psychology of the characters. Some of your stories will require a cast of characters who are all equal as ‘main’ characters, because the themes are about the problems in a community:

  • Families, especially those with lots of money, are nicely dysfunctional for narrative purposes (“Prelude”)
  • Isolated women such as Beryl of the “Prelude” trilogy, “Miss Brill” and Rosabel from “The Tiredness of Rosabel“. These women tend to be fantasists, escaping regularly into their own fantasy worlds to compensate for lack of affection in real life.
  • Overbearing businessmen fathers (“The Fly”,  the Comical Stanley Burnell from the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Adolescents or women young beyond their years (“The Wind Blows”, “The Tiredness of Rosabel”)
  • In stories which include children, there’s a division between the adults and the children, with emphasis on how the adults’ behaviour is affecting the children as easily influenced little people, with reader empathy lying firmly with the children. We also realise these children will turn out exactly like their parents.
  • And where there are young children there is often an elderly character who Mansfield aligns them with. (“The Voyage”, “Sun and Moon”.) This has the effect of making the reader view a lifetime as a package all at once, and a life in terms of snapshots in a photo album, rather than viewing the very old and the very young as completely different creatures.
  • Older women tend to live with their younger, extended families and although they play an important role in the household, they are without much power. (“New Dresses,” the “Prelude” trilogy)
  • Young women have been taught that the most important thing about them is the way they look. They’ll probably love the way they look, aesthetically, when trying on a new hat in the mirror, but judge others harshly for their imperfections, especially imperfections of skin. This will lead some readers to conclude narcissism, but we are reminded that narcissism is borne of deep insecurity.
  • A main weakness of many Mansfield characters is that they absolutely love party preparation and even the parties themselves, but that after party clean up period (even though there are usually maids to do it) tends to remind them of death and decay. They can’t bear the flip side of carefully managed perfection. (“The Garden Party“, “Sun and Moon“)
  • Many of Mansfield’s characters have trouble with the falseness, ostentation and the sterility of modern life — especially characters from the upper classes.
  • Though Mansfield isn’t well known as a ground-breaking feminist writer, women in her stories are often at a disadvantage due to gender roles of the time. (New Dresses, “Her First Ball”, “The Daughters of the Late Colonel”.) “A Dill Pickle” is an obvious display of white male privilege, and the tough decision a white woman must make — does she marry an ass and gain some social status, or does she continue life as a middle-aged single woman?
  • Mansfield created characters with weaknesses designed to explore ‘the irreconcilable cleavage between the rich potentialities of live and the inescapable brutalities of human experience which must evoke despair.’ – Berkman
  • In many of Mansfield’s stories she’ll compare a character to a bird at some point. She uses quite a wide range of birds, though. The Kelvey girls are chickens in The Doll’s House, to underscore the motherly nature of the older Kelvey girl. “The Birdcage” is the ultimate example of a character as bird.
  • If you really want to immerse yourself in how Katherine Mansfield viewed people, you probably want to read Principles of Psychology by William James (brother of Henry James). James was what psychologists call a ‘vitalist’ (alongside Henri Bergson). James believed that behaviour influences emotion, whereas previously it was thought that a person’s emotion influences their behaviour. We now know that it’s more of cycle than a cause and effect kind of thing. James also came up with the phrase ‘stream of consciousness’, which describes modernist authors (a phrase which had entered literary criticism by 1918). Vitalism affected how modernist writers viewed ‘character’. Beforehand, the self had been understood in terms of a single transcendent ego, but modernists put it to their readers that ‘self’ was not only multiple, but also mutable. The self is not one single, never-changing thing. We change from moment to moment, as situations change. (Bergson added to this theory by making a distinction between superficial personality and deeper consciousness, which is exactly how storytelling gurus tell writers to create characters today.)
  • Vitalism also probably encouraged Mansfield to question the nature of time. She does all sorts of interesting things with time in her stories. She achieves The Overview Effect in “Prelude” and links children to the elderly. She picks symbols (e.g. the aloe in “Prelude“) for their interesting relationships with time. According to Henri Bergson, these separate selves don’t begin and end (I guess the would make it multiple personality disorder), but each personality extends into another. It’s impossible to respond in exactly the same way to a single thing twice in succession. That’s because you’ve already had one reaction, and that will inevitably influence all subsequent reactions. It’s impossible to remain the same person, even from moment to moment. This is why so often Mansfield’s characters seem to be high on something one moment — the next downcast. e.g. Beryl in “At The Bay“, first viewing herself as a ‘lovely, fascinating girl’, then ‘All that excitement and so on has a way of suddenly leaving you’. (She has become aware of a nearby ‘sorrowful bush’.)

DESIRE

Characters must all have a surface desire which connects to a deeper one. The surface desires tend to be quite shallow, such as getting from point A to point B, or finding a hat suitable for a party, but the deeper desires include:

  • To repress difficult emotions by focusing with determination on pleasant, surface things (“Bliss”, “The Fly”)
  • To view oneself as a valued member of society (Miss Brill)
  • To avoid dwelling on one’s own mortality (“The Fly”, “Miss Brill”, “The Garden Party”, “Her First Ball”, Sun and Moon)
  • To pretend nice things will always be nice, and to deny the fact of entropy (The Garden Party, “Sun and Moon”)
  • In true Freudian style, dreams (and daydreams) are significant insights into a character’s longing. They are supposed to tell us more about who characters really are, and their deeper, subconscious desires. When the husband in “The Escape” slumps into a daydream, he wishes to be away from his marriage, at least for a little while. In “Prelude”, Linda dreams of birds.

OPPONENT

Characters don’t necessarily even know who their opponents are. Opposition a Mansfield story is very low grade (compared to a war battle), but has devastating consequences for the main character.

  • Mother and daughter form opponents in New Dresses to the point where the adults are causing their daughter serious psychological damage. And all because the mother wants her daughter to look clean and tidy and presentable.
  • Rich and poor make for natural opponents. Both rich and poor have already learned their place, even when the characters are children, as in The Doll’s House. No one’s trying to climb outside their designated social rank. They’re trying to live within it, as best they can. “The Tiredness of Rosabel” is another example.
  • In stories about couples, lovers make for natural opponents, because they are in and out of love with each other at different times. (Bliss, “Prelude”) In the Prelude trilogy, Linda both loves and hates her husband at the same time.
  • Sometimes the object of one’s affection doesn’t even know it. (“The Wind Blows”, “Bliss”.)
  • An emotionally mature character is a natural opponent for an emotionally immature character. (For Mansfield, maturity has nothing to do with age in years.) (New Dresses, “The Fly”.)

BATTLE

  • The battles in Mansfield short stories are very subtle and often entirely inside a character’s head. The kitchen girl in “Prelude” regularly has arguments with her employers which take place only inside her head. Her witty (unsaid) comebacks make her feel much better.
  • Mansfield would often make use of the language of battle as proxy for an actual fight. “The Wind Blows” is an excellent example of that, in which the language of a fight is used to describe the adolescent brother and sister’s evening walk down to the seaside, where they will see the boat.

SELF-REVELATION

The experience of an epiphany is a key aspect of modernist writing: Virginia Woolf and James Joyce also tried to articulate flashes of realisation, revelation, insight and understanding. Woolf described these as ‘moments of being’.

  • Epiphanies are experienced in many of Mansfield’s stories, although they do not necessarily lead to complete comprehension. Rather there is awareness, intimation and possibly just a glimpse of something beyond a character’s everyday perceptions. Miss Brill thinks she’s realised something amazing as she sits on her park bench — that everyone is an important character in some kind of play. But her real realisation, though she doesn’t fully understand the reason behind her sudden downcast mood, is that she is old.
  • Mansfield makes much use of symbolism in helping the reader to understand more about the character than the character knows about themselves. The fox fur in “Miss Brill” is a great example of that.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

  • Some of Mansfield’s characters seem to have a revelation then we’re told they’ve forgotten all about it. This is why Mansfield’s work is referred to as ‘Freudian’, drawing upon Freud’s theories of suppression and repression. (“Her First Ball”, The Doll’s House)
  • This repression might be provoked by something trivial which causes some glimmer of hope. (“Daughters of the Late Colonel”)

OTHER TECHNIQUES

  • Make heavy use of pathetic fallacy — whatever a character feels, everything around them will seem to feel like that, too. An aloe tree or a pear tree (“Bliss”) might make a character feel buoyantly happy, but for another character (“The Escape”), a beech tree will make him feel suffocated. (Nothing inherently to do with the tree.) Miss Brill feels sad and lonely, so her fur fox (or stoat, or whatever it is) also looks sad to her.
  • Feel free to use the three dot ellipsis when ‘ending’ a sentence.
  • You may repeat words, to make the rhythm of the prose work more like poetry.

The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield

The Woman At The Store text

“The Woman At The Store” is one of Mansfield’s earliest stories, written for the magazine Rhythm. The aesthetic goal of this magazine was pity, brutality and a carefully wrought plot with adequate foreshadowing. It is now thought that this story is far from Mansfield’s best work. Continue reading “The Woman At The Store by Katherine Mansfield”

Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles

The Christmas Chronicles is this year’s tentpole festive family movie from Netflix. Directed by Clay Kaytis, the script is written by another two men, David Guggenheim and Matt Lieberman.

The nice thing about The Christmas Chronicles is that a few of the old gender tropes have been inverted. Instead of an adventurous younger brother juxtaposed against a surly teenaged older sister, we have an adventurous younger sister juxtaposed against a surly teenaged brother. Instead of killing off the mother, they’ve killed off the father to allow the kids to go out on their own Christmas Eve jaunt completely unsupervised.

But as I have said before, inversion doesn’t equal subversion. Continue reading “Fake Gender Equality In The Christmas Chronicles”

At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield

Wellington 1893 Lithograph

“At the Bay” (1921) is considered one of Mansfield’s best short stories, by a writer at the height of her powers. This is one of the three about the Burnell family, who also star in “Prelude” and “The Doll’s House”.

Read “At The Bay” at the Katherine Mansfield Society website.

“At The Bay” is an interesting case study for writers, for so many reasons. Notably:

  • The way Mansfield creates her characters in pairs, to compare and contrast them. If one character goes visiting, so does her counterpoint character.
  • This is an example of a story in which no one has any big self-revelation. Like Mad Men famously achieved, the characters go about their own lives, continuing to make mistakes, learning little, and that is how life really is. This is the ultimate realism, though it can feel to the reader like ‘nothing happens’. We tend to say of these stories, ‘It’s not got any plot’. Or, it’s an ‘anti-plot’.
  • But apart from the lack of growth, “At The Bay” does conform to classic story structure, and even the lack of Self-revelation is replaced by characters who suddenly change their emotional valence, either because they are practising ‘opposite action’ or because they suddenly become scared or whatever.
  • Mansfield’s scenes each feel complete in their own right because the emotional valence changes from beginning to end. Linda starts off with no emotional affect, but ends the scene beaming at her baby boy. Beryl starts off scared with Mrs Kembers than feels jubilantly free for a second. Stanley rushes into the water triumphant to be first and is immediately irritated to find he is not first after all. Mansfield’s emotions swing from one extreme to the other. If we find our own scenes emotionally flat, a read of “At The Bay” should set us back on the right track.
  • Mansfield also has a real affinity for children. She recreates play scenes and child interactions so authentically, without glossing over the fact that the hierarchy between children can be brutal. There’s nothing mawkish about these children.

Continue reading “At The Bay by Katherine Mansfield”

Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie

Good Morning Mr Pancakes

I first heard of Australian author illustrator Chris McKimmie on Children’s Books with Kate De Goldi.

Listen also to the interview between Kate and Chris at the Adelaide Writer’s Festival.

One of the secrets to success as an illustrator is having an instantly recognisable, one-of-a-kind style. McKimmie’s various book covers will give you a glimpse of his style.

The naive style of art also works really well to encourage children in their own illustration. The Dog Man series by Dav Pilkey, and the treehouse books by Andy Griffiths and Terry Denton do the same thing. Kids look at these pictures and think, you know what? I can do that. It doesn’t have to be realistic. Realistic art is sometimes confused for ‘good’ art.

Art is ‘good’ when it makes its audience feel something. That’s the only criterion. In picture books, art also tells a story.

Two Peas In A Pod Continue reading “Good Morning Mr Pancakes by Chris McKimmie”

Prelude by Katherine Mansfield

Prelude Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield wrote “Prelude” in 1916 then revised it the following year. “Prelude” is the first in a trilogy of interlinked short stories. The other stories starring the Burnell family are “At the Bay” and “The Doll’s House“. Although “The Doll’s House” is populated by the same characters, the themes and motifs of “At The Bay” are so closely aligned to “Prelude” that these two stories might be considered a diptych. “New Dresses” is thought to have explored an earlier version of the Burnell family dynamics.

For me, “Prelude” is chiefly about all the various ways in which people live in their own fantasy worlds. Each of the characters in this story has a different relationship with reality, whether it’s make-believe games or pranks played by children, a romantic fantasy played out by a young woman, the slightly crazed imaginings of a ‘desperate housewife’, or the delusions of grandeur enjoyed by the man of a busy household.

Read “Prelude” online at The Katherine Mansfield Society.

Plotwise, “Prelude“, stars the Burnell family, who is moving from the city of Wellington into the nearby country. Mansfield’s own family made a similar move when she was a child, perhaps to escape a bacterial infection which was killing lots of people in central Wellington in the late 1800s. She probably drew on memories of that time. Mansfield called her house in central Wellington ‘a horrid little piggy house’. It was small and plain compared to the house they moved into. (If you visit this original house in Wellington today, you may be surprised at how small it is by modern standards.)

Mansfield originally called “Prelude” “The Aloe”. An aloe (which flowers only once every 100 years) makes a symbolic appearance in this short story, as a beech tree is symbolic in “The Escape” and the pear tree is symbolic in “Bliss“.

The aloe plant has a tall, thick, swollen stem with long, sharp thorns.

Linda looked up at the fat swelling plant with its cruel leaves and fleshy stem. High above them, as though becalmed in the air, and yet holding so fast to the earth it grew from, it might have had claws instead of roots. The curving leaves seemed to be hiding something; the blind stem cut into the air as if no wind could ever shake it.

In this story it has been said to symbolise:

  1. Separate things merging together: past and present, Kezia and Linda.
  2. Linda’s sexual fears
  3. Thorns represent the destructive powers of sex and the dominant role fulfilled by the male head of household.
  4. Power (for Linda) to escape (corresponding with money for Beryl)

In her revision, Mansfield also made her plot less ‘obvious’, leaned more heavily on symbolism to suggest and, in short, turned the story into something far more muted than before. Between revisions she had lost her brother in the war. In the revision, Linda is now pregnant with a male child. Some readers have speculated that this is perhaps in honour of Mansfield’s deceased brother.

What Happens In “Prelude”

Continue reading “Prelude by Katherine Mansfield”