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The Lottery by Shirley Jackson Short Story Study

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson (1948) is an excellent example of a short story which contains so much you might as well have read a novel. What can writers learn from this story?

STORY WORLD OF THE LOTTERY

Unfortunately this story will continue to speak to new audiences. As I re-read this in 2017, I’m thinking of what’s going on right now in Australian politics as citizens vote whether or not to afford marriage equality to all.

SEASONS AND JUXTAPOSITION

The symbolism of seasons is utilised ironically here. Normally spring weather and fine days indicate good things to come, or at the very least ‘change’, but here the nice, fine day is juxtaposed against the horrific events to come:

The morning of June 27th was clear and sunny, with the fresh warmth of a full-summer day; the flowers were blossoming profusely and the grass was richly green.

— opening sentence from The Lottery by Shirley Jackson

This is a ‘storybook village’, replete with a square, a post office, a bank. I’m not sure readers of 1948 would have seen this village as particularly cosy. Certainly by 2017 any village with all of those amenities still in operation feels like an island of convenience. We are told the population of this village is about 300 people. I live in a village of 3000 people, so I am confident everyone here knows everyone else. It is clear Jackson wants this village to feel cosy… at first.

Notice, also, the man who conducts the lottery is called Mr Summers — an ironically symbolic name.

The lottery was conducted–as were the square dances, the teen club, the Halloween program–by Mr. Summers

(Notice how this heinous tradition is juxtaposed in the same sentence alongside joyous events which bring the community together.)

SYMBOLISM OF THE BOX

The black ballot box symbolises tradition itself. It has fallen apart and parts of it have been replaced, but it remains a black box. Mirroring this description: The tradition of stoning someone each year to make the crops grow is as old as the box and although small parts of the tradition have been modified, the tradition itself remains.

The original paraphernalia for the lottery had been lost long ago, and the black box now resting on the stool had been put into use even before Old Man Warner, the oldest man in town, was born. Mr. Summers spoke frequently to the villagers about making a new box, but no one liked to upset even as much tradition as was represented by the black box. There was a story that the present box had been made with some pieces of the box that had preceded it, the one that had been constructed when the first people settled down to make a village here. Every year, after the lottery, Mr. Summers began talking again about a new box, but every year the subject was allowed to fade off without anything’s being done. The black box grew shabbier each year: by now it was no longer completely black but splintered badly along one side to show the original wood color, and in some places faded or stained.

Shirley Jackson uses the box to open and close the story, providing readers with a sense of circularity and therefore inevitability:

Although the villagers had forgotten the ritual and lost the original black box, they still remembered to use stones.

FEMINIST MESSAGES

The unseen narrator tells us that the men speak of important farming issues whereas the women ‘gossip’ — the word ‘gossip’ is used to dismiss women’s speech. This is a community who doesn’t listen to women. So when it is a woman (Mrs Adams) who points out (only after her husband tentatively introduces the matter) that other places have stopped the stoning tradition, she is dismissed out of hand by Old Man Warner.  The general misogyny of the community is underlined in the scene where women aren’t allowed to draw, and if their husbands are incapacitated, ideally this job goes to his young son. Mr Summers is pitied because his wife is ‘a scold’. Again, this is a heavily gendered word used to describe women who don’t agree with men. Though we don’t get to hear directly from Mr Summers’ wife, could she be in strong opposition to her husband’s continuing this tradition?

Mrs Hutchinson is almost late to the event and jokes that she couldn’t be leaving the dishes in the sink. This would be considered shameful for a woman in this milieu, but only reflecting on women. This is the detail women are expected to be caught up in, distracting them from things like wanting a say in civic life.

This outcome, says Jackson, is what you end up with when communities don’t afford women equal say in matters.

STORY STRUCTURE OF THE LOTTERY

“All right, folks.” Mr. Summers said. “Let’s finish quickly.”

“Get in, get out.” This is common advice to short story writers. But this is a story in which the abrupt ending can only be shocking after quite a bit of mundane detail. Anyone who has ever been in a meeting will recognise the characters’ clinging on to traditions and focusing on the minutiae of procedure while forgetting all about the bigger picture, or perhaps as a deliberate distraction to avoid thinking about the bigger picture.

WEAKNESS/NEED

Like Annie Proulx’s Brokeback Mountain, this is a story about a community, not about a ‘main character’ or a ‘hero’. We are given names to lend verisimilitude — Jackson speaks to us as if we, too, are a part of this community and would know Bobby (by his first name) and Harry Jones and Dickie Delacroix.

The great weakness of this village is that they are small and insular and hew to outdated traditions without there being any outside influence to make them examine their lethal traditions. At one point someone points out, “Other villages have stopped doing this”, but without fully examining why, this change is dismissed out of hand.

DESIRE

The community is suffering from a bad agricultural year. They desire a good crop and will go to any lengths to achieve this.

OPPONENT

Nature is the main opponent here, but ‘nature’ is never an interesting opposition because it has no will/desire of its own. Opponents must have a human face. In this story we have:

  • The unseen character of Mrs Summers (who I’m guessing is a ‘scold’ due to her disagreeing with her husband)
  • “They do say,” Mr. Adams said to Old Man Warner, who stood next to him, “that over in the north village they’re talking of giving up the lottery.”
  • “Some places have already quit lotteries.” Mrs. Adams said.
  • Tessie, who says the system isn’t fair.

PLAN

They will randomly select a village member to sacrifice.

BATTLE

The battle scene of this story is the argument that takes place between the chosen and those who chose her.

This battle is so chilling because there’s so little to it. Notice the word choice:

  • Bill Hutchinson was standing quiet, staring down at the paper in his hand.
  • “Be a good sport, Tessie.” Mrs. Delacroix called. (As if this is a sport and not a murder.)
  • “It wasn’t fair,” Tessie said. (She didn’t shout or scream.)
  • “How many kids, Bill?” Mr. Summers asked formally.

There is no real screaming until the final sentence, which is where a story draws most of its power:

Tessie Hutchinson was in the center of a cleared space by now, and she held her hands out desperately as the villagers moved in on her. “It isn’t fair,” she said. A stone hit her on the side of the head. Old Man Warner was saying, “Come on, come on, everyone.” Steve Adams was in the front of the crowd of villagers, with Mrs. Graves beside him. “It isn’t fair, it isn’t right,” Mrs. Hutchinson screamed, and then they were upon her.

SELF-REVELATION

The village has no revelation and this is its tragedy. The reader, however, should have had some sort of revelation.

  • Clinging on to old traditions can be cruel, no matter how ‘fair’ it looks.
  • The thing about the feminist messages: You have to be feminist to see them. The narrator offers no judgement. We see how the women are treated and form our own conclusions. A non-feminist reader wouldn’t necessarily conclude that misogyny had a single part to play in the lethal tradition of this community.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

When Old Man Warner tells us he’s been in this lottery 77 times, this prepares the reader to know, for certain, that this same tradition will carry on next year, too. Likewise, we are prepared to extrapolate this information when the two women in the back mutter to each other that the lotteries seem closer and closer together these days.

 

RELATED READING

The Lottery is a cultural influence on more modern works such as Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan (an Australian writer; universal short story). If you’ve read The Hunger Games you’ll be put in mind of that.

As for story structure, The Last Spin by Evan Hunter (1960) is very similar. Most of the narrative details the rules of a game, and ends shockingly and suddenly.

11 Facts About Shirley Jackson’s Lottery from Mental Floss

Shirley Jackson Predicted America’s Fascination With The Murderess from Electric Literature

The Blood Bay by Annie Proulx

At around the same time Annie Proulx published “The Blood Bay”, an episode of Six Feet Under saw Claire in big trouble for stealing a severed foot from her family’s funeral business and taking it with her to school. That episode, like this story, was darkly funny and made use of someone’s severed foot.

Six Feet Under, like The Blood Bay, uses a severed foot as prop in a darkly humorous episode.

Scene from Six Feet Under

It was inevitable that a TV series called something about feet would have to at one point make use of an actual foot. Dark comedy involving the loss of someone’s severed foot was used more recently in episode seven of season two of Animal Kingdom. (“Dig”)

While this is icky, North Americans haven’t been so squeamish about carrying around rabbits’ feet for good luck. Larry McMurtry writes of that practice in his cowboy novels. (Only the left hind foot is lucky.)

Severed human hands have a stronger history in folklore than severed feet. Characters with severed hands tend to be either victims, or monster-like villains. For more on that see Severed Hands as Symbols of Humanity in Legend and Popular Narrative by Scott White. The severed, walking hand also makes for a memorable horror scene.

STORY WORLD OF “THE BLOOD BAY”

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Job History by Annie Proulx Story Technique

Reading “Job History” in 2017, I propose an updated subtitle: “The Life and Times of a Trump Voter”.

Job History Wyoming

A gas station in Wyoming, taken 1984.

 

Annie Proulx doesn’t seem to go public with her voting decisions but her interest in the environment and the ideas in her fiction suggest she’s probably not on board with what’s going on in the USA this year:

[Annie Proulx’s] voice rises: “Nobody can visit the big trees again; the huge forests do not exist. The understorey has gone, and the smaller plants and animals – the ecosystem has been damaged. Change is right with us, and you can get frightened.” I ask if the thought of Donald Trump, a denier of manmade climate change, in the White House frightens her. “I think the country has more or less brought this on themselves,” she says. “I don’t have personal feelings about it because that’s not who I am, but I am watching.”

The Guardian

Whatever the author’s political thoughts, I’m 100% certain Proulx would’ve seen the era of President Trump coming a mile off. Having lived most of her live in rural Wyoming, the story of Leeland Lee, who in 2017 would be about the same age as Donald Trump himself, is a portrait of a Trump Voting Everyman. It’s well worth a read for that reason alone, if you can stomach it. Continue reading

The Mud Below by Annie Proulx

“The Mud Below” was first published in the 1998 summer issue of The New Yorker and is the second short story in Proulx’s Close Range collection, retitled Close Range: Brokeback Mountain And Other Stories after the movie adaptation.

Wyoming is central to a story such as The Mud Below

The cowboy is so central to Wyoming identity that a bucking bronco features on its licence plate.

It was the super popular S-Town podcast that made me return to this collection of Wyoming stories by Annie Proulx. I read Close Range about 10 years ago and had forgotten all but the most brutal scenes. But I was moved to revisit after learning our real-life tragic hero of S-Town, John McLemore, calls this collection “the grief manual” and was in the habit of reading the entire collection over and over.

As evidenced by John McLemore’s identification with Proulx’s characters, these stories pack a powerful punch with men. They are written in a specifically masculine voice. Not only that, they’re about male culture. “The Mud Below” is a case in point — our tragic hero Diamond Felts is a rodeo performer. Women exist only peripherally in that scene. We all know a good writer has to be “genderless”. That’s often said. But can you think of any iconic male writers who have so successfully portrayed specifically female arenas, over and over? What Annie Proulx has done here is truly amazing. She is able to cross gender boundaries better than anyone else I can think of, and it’s a skill that’s almost expected of female writers rather than admired as something extra. Historically, men write about men; women write about men and women.

Does Annie Proulx write about women, though? These stories are all about men, with women on the periphery. What Proulx does so well is she manages to write about masculine culture while at the same time setting that against femininity. Here we might read the landscape as ‘feminine’. Animals, too, are associated with femininity. According to these try-hard cowboys, animals, the landscape, and also women themselves are there to be tamed and conquered.

 

The Mud Below as it appeared in The New Yorker

STORYWORLD

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Works to Compare and Contrast with Hilda Bewildered

Hilda Bewildered is an illustrated short story book app published by Slap Happy Larry. Here are some other stories to compare and contrast.

Non-fiction: Short: Walking Tall When You’re Not Tall At All

Short Walking Tall When You're Not Tall At All Cover

Both boys and girls are highly rewarded for conforming to — and exaggerating — our own masculinities and femininities. For women that means: curvaceous but small, hairless, large-eyed, soft-haired. For men this means different things, including (increasingly) muscular and (always) tall.

 

Fairytale: Sleeping Beauty

Aurora from Disney's 1952 Film Adaptation

Aurora from Disney’s 1952 Film Adaptation

The princess shall indeed grow in grace and beauty, beloved by all who know her. But, before the sun sets on her sixteenth birthday, she shall prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel and die.

Though Hilda Bewildered is not a magical tale — rather, a tale of realism set in a parallel universe — Princess Hilda is likewise ‘beloved by all who know her’ (and especially by those who don’t). Like the princess of the fairytale, she has ‘indeed grown in grace and beauty’. Beauty, in fact, is mandatory for a princess. ‘Aurora’ is named so because of the light she seems to emanate. Though Princess Hilda does not prick her finger and die on her sixteenth birthday, we can treat the death at the onset of adulthood in a metaphorical way, in which case Hilda is right to be afraid.

The forest is significant in Sleeping Beauty as it is in Hilda Bewildered: The good fairies “planned to raise Aurora in the deep forest until the age of sixteen, when the curse finished, and then to take the princess to the castle again, with her parents.” Likewise, Princess Hilda wishes to escape to the forest, but has only her imagination.

Short Story Study: Sleeping Beauty by Charles Perrault

For Adults: The Bloody Chamber by Angela Carter

The Bloody Chamber Angela Carter

Like Hilda Bewildered, this modern fairytale is:

  1. set in a castle somewhere in Europe
  2. is about a girl coming of age, this time prompted by marriage
  3. makes use of the juxtaposition between warmth and cold: I stealthily sat up, raised the blind a little and huddled against the cold window that misted over with the warmth of my breathing, gazing out at the dark platform towards those rectangles of domestic lamplight that promised warmth, company, a supper of sausages hissing in a pan on the stove for the station master
  4. is about the loneliness of the wealthy: Into marriage, into exile; I sensed it, I knew it–that, henceforth, I would always be lonely….my new rank forbade overtures of friendship to the staff. The sun is described as ‘cold‘ and another time as ‘black‘.
  5. includes a heavy, expensive ring with a starring role: My husband liked me to wear my opal over my kid glove, a showy, theatrical trick–but the moment the ironic chauffeur glimpsed its simmering flash he smiled, as though it was proof positive I was his master’s wife.
  6. Hilda of Hilda Bewildered practises ‘doubling‘ to get through a minor ordeal, including the juxtaposition of wealth and poverty in her fantasy. The narrator of The Bloody Chamber represents two sides of wealth in poverty without having to imagine an alter ego. She has grown up in poverty but is now surrounded by immense wealth. ‘…I, the little music student whose mother had sold all her jewellery, even her wedding ring, to pay the fees at the Conservatoire.
  7. Reflections, everywhere: Our bed. And surrounded by so many mirrors! Mirrors on all the walls, in stately frames of contorted gold, that reflected more white lilies than I’d ever seen in my life before. He’d filled the room with them, to greet the bride, the young bride. The young bride, who had become that multitude of girls I saw in the mirrors, identical in their chic navy blue tailor-mades, for travelling, madame, or walking.
  8. The themes of innocence/guilt: And, in the red firelight, I blushed again, unnoticed, to think he might have chosen me because, in my innocence, he sensed a rare talent for corruption.
  9. Both stories feature a protagonist uncomfortable wearing finery: I sprang out of bed and pulled on my old serge skirt and flannel blouse, costume of a student, in which I felt far more at ease with myself than in any of my fine new clothes.
  10. Duplicity everywhere: waiting there to see if indeed I had obeyed him; that he had sent a moving figure of himself to New York, the enigmatic, self-sustaining carapace of his public person, while the real man, whose face I had glimpsed in the storm of orgasm, occupied himself with pressing private business in the study at the foot of the west tower, behind the still-room.
  11. Silhouettes as strangers who can’t help you out: The faceless housekeeper trudged along with a great basket

Short Story: Louisa, Please Come Home

Troubled Daughters Twisted Wives cover

Short Story Study: Louisa, Please Come Home

Novella: Sugar And Spice by Vera Caspary (1943)

Sugar and Spice is another story from the Troubled Daughters, Twisted Wives collection. It is an ordinary but well-told story of life-long mutual jealousy (leading to murder) involving a rich woman of plain appearance (repeatedly described as a “vipress”) and the poor but beautiful woman who lives in her shadow.

Whose story is this? It’s narrated by someone other than the protagonist. This is a female narrator who knows a guy that they knew back in the old days — a very baroque way of telling a story. In her introduction, Weinman describes this as an ‘inverted detective story’. What is the reason for filtering the story through this fringe character? That’s something to think about.

This is about two cousins growing up in a small town then moving to NY. One isn’t so pretty, the other is very pretty. The one who isn’t so pretty has everything and gets away with a lot. This is a story about class and opulence.

Although “Sugar and Spice” might easily be categorized as a mystery, the story still focuses on the psychology of two women and their desire to be independent and find happiness–unfortunately a man gets in the way of things.  In this case it is two women, cousins, who have something of a rivalry going on growing up.  One is beautiful but poor and the other plainer but rich.  Caspary turns the story on its ear so to speak in several regards.  The story is told by a third party just as the crime has happened and is being investigated, the reader’s perceptions of what each woman is like and capable of is questioned time and again.

– A Work In Progress Blog

Another standout is 1943’s “Sugar and Spice” by Caspary, who wrote fiction, stage plays and screenplays. The story of two cousins who are lifelong rivals for familial and male affections, “Sugar and Spice” is effectively told through flashbacks in a vivid cinematic style that Caspary later perfected in screenplays, most notably “A Letter to Three Wives.” The story also features a strong and independent female character, not unlike Caspary’s iconic career woman in the 1943 novel “Laura” or the author herself.

LA Times

This story is quite different from Hilda Bewildered. Indeed, this is the sort of story Princess Hilda might rather be reading, instead of giving her speech: a female-centric crime story about two women, one pretty, one plain.

Bluebeard by Charles Perrault

I never encountered the story of Bluebeard growing up, as it was left out of my childhood fairytale anthologies.

illustration by Beauge Bertall

With horrific images like this, I’m not surprised. (illustration by Beauge Bertall)

As a mental mouthwash, I suggest you read Angela Carter’s feminist version of Bluebeard after reading this much earlier one by the misogynist Perrault. Carter’s story is called The Bloody Chamber.

The original French title is La Barbe bleue.

Disturbing as it is, the Bluebeard story has an influence on many modern stories, so is worth a read for that reason.

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The Rats In The Walls by H.P. Lovecraft

The Rats In The Walls Lovecraft

If you’re a fan of Renovation Rescue or Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and think you’ve seen some good horror stories, you might consider turning brief attention to the story of H.P. Lovecraft, and I don’t actually mean his tragic life story in which he only achieved fame after an early, lonely death; I’m talking about the one in which a guy decides to restore his ancestral home after the death of his only son only to find he is hated by the locals… For creepy reasons which are none of his own fault. Then things get far, far worse.

Kingsley Amis said that this story achieves ‘a memorable nastiness’. Other short stories that have had this same effect on me: Singing My Sister Down by Margo Lanagan and The Lottery by Shirley Jackson.

A lot has already been said about The Rats In The Walls, not least in the Wikipedia entry.

The Rats In The Walls is a great example of a story which has been woven out of an Urban Legend: The Piltdown ManContinue reading

An Affair Of The Heart by Frank Sargeson

“An Affair Of The Heart” is one of New Zealand author Frank Sargeson’s best-known short stories.

The Stories of Frank Sargeson contains An Affair Of The Heart

Was Sargeson essentially misogynist? Frankly, I think not as there are positive women characters in some of his stories – including the wrenchingly sad one in An Affair of the Heart. But women-as-controlling-bitches is one recurrent motif.

Review by Nicholas Reid, with introduction by Janet Wilson

I’m lucky coming from New Zealand in that there is a pretty good gender balance when it comes to reading ‘The Local Canon’. Along with Sargeson (and Shakespeare) we read a lot of Patricia Grace, Fiona Kidman, Janet Frame, Keri Hulme and Katherine Mansfield. But as Reid points out, students of New Zealand English may well come away feeling a bit icky about Sargeson’s mid-century attitudes towards women. Whatever you conclude about Frank’s corpus, this short story is one of the most positive in its view of femininity. For this reason, I recommend it.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”

The narrator is a grown man who has ‘not been what people call a success in life’. He looks back on the days when he would go with his mother and brother to the bach (holiday house) at the beach. There was an old woman, Mrs Crawley, who lived there all year round with her daughters and son, Joe, who she favoured. Once, the narrator’s mother sent them some Christmas cake. It was revealed later that the girls hadn’t received any of it. Joe had eaten it all.

‘An Affair of the Heart’ is a story of two linked sections. The first half finishes with ‘It certainly made us a bit sorry to think that we wouldn’t be seeing the Crawleys that summer, but I don’t think we lost much sleep over it. I remember we talked about sending a letter. But it never got beyond talk.’

The second half begins: ‘What I’m going to tell you about happened last Christmas.’

In the first section, the narrator makes references to the fact that it was a long time ago and that circumstances are different now. ‘It was all very interesting and romantic to me and my brother.’

At the end of the first section is a small intermediary piece which bridges the large time gap between childhood and the present. ‘Anyhow, the next thing was our family left off going to the boy. My brother and I were old enough to go away camping somewhere with our cobbers…’

The second section is full of nostalgic references: ‘The bach was much the same…’ The second part is written in much more recent times, when the narrator visits the beach. He calls in on Mrs Crawley. She says she is waiting for Joe. There are much luxurious Christmas items laid out for his arrival. To satisfy the narrator’s curiosity, the narrator asks the bus-driver what sort of person Joe is. The bus-driver reveals that Joe has recently stopped coming altogether and that only one daughter bothers to keep in touch with Mrs Crawley by writing.

LEVELS

There are two levels in most of Sargeson’s work:

1. Social – this has endeared him greatly to leftist reformers

2. Existential – concerned with people more than ideas. His view is sourly compassionate. At times he probes more deeply than he perhaps realises. An Affair of the Heart leaves no room for anger or judgment. Mrs Crawley’s love for her son, though it eventually destroys her sanity, carries its own terrible justification. Truly hers is an affair of the heart.

CHARACTERS IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”

Sargeson uses  male narrators of limited education, simple vocabylary and sentence structure and is often retrospective, with the narrator looking back to events and people of his youth.

are introspective and capable of considerable compassion

His tolerance extends to all lost men, cranks and sexual perverts. It is the self righteous whom Sargeson most condemns. He is on the side of the ‘down and outer’. In subtle ways he criticises society and its hypocrisy and narrowness.

Essentially lonely men; not men without emotions but men who suffer from a sort of impediment of feeling or who cannot establish a relation where their emotions can be adequately expressed. Incapable of being articulate about a feeling unless it is one which has a gregarious discharge; anger for example, or laughter. The softer feelings they must always keep to themselves, or express obliquely through action.

formed in the hostile environment of the industrial working-class or the subsistence farm.

Frank Sargeson is New Zealand’s first NATIONAL writer. In Katherine Mansfield’s work, for instance, we are not conscious of anything New Zealandish.

LANGUAGE IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”

  • Sargeson has found the perfect language to express each character’s feelings. Is not British nor American English. It is easy, subtle and free of mannerism.
  • The special quality of the language lies not only in the bold colloquial tropes or the occasional local usage but informs every intonation and every element of the spoken idiom.
  1. sea-eggs – sea urchins, kina in Maori
  2. kumaras – red-skinned sweet potato, with an English plural suffix
  3. pipis – cockles
  4. tea-tree bush – a shrub or small tree native to New Zealand and southeast Australia (Melaleuca lanceolata)
  • The language spoken by Sargeson’s characters is not the only language spoken in New Zealand, and these are not the only characters.
  • The sentence structure must be no more elaborate than his characters’ and no more subtle.
  • The spoken language is Sargeson’s chief instrument; if he were interested in characters of another kind, his method would have to be modified.
  • The stories are told in first person, from the point of view of semi-articulate characters.  This technique illustrates how Sargeson’s method enables him to give us simultaneously:
  1. the development of the story
  2. evocation/description of its setting
  3. information about characters only indirectly portrayed
  4. emotional reactions of the narrating character to the whole
  • He uses punctuation not to reinforce the logical and syntactical divisions of the thought but to mark the places where in fact the narrating voice could have paused.

DRAMATIC IRONY IN “AN AFFAIR OF THE HEART”

The reader realises more than the narrator does because the reader is given clues. Sargeson is a fan of this technique, which can actually make him seem a bit pompous, but as Reid points out, Sargeson was a gay man in the era of antigayness, so he had no choice but to write with smoke and mirrors:

Much depends on Sargeson, the middle-class writer, knowing and perceiving more than the various working-class or hobo characters he invents to tell his tales. This technique is pushed as far as it can go in the longest story (really a novella), That Summer, where, by story’s end, we really have to believe that the invented narrator has been extraordinarily thick, and has not seen what’s under his nose. Such a relief to meet a story where the irony is more self-referential and, as a result, more self-critical, such as the masterly Gods Live in Woods.

Nicholas Reid

RELATED

Frank Sargeson was friend and mentor to Janet Frame.

The Garden Party by Katherine Mansfield for NCEA 1.4

Katherine Mansfield finished “The Garden Party” on her 32nd birthday in 1921. She took a month to recover from her previous story, “At the Bay” before embarking upon this one. She felt that The Garden Party was better than “At The Bay”, ‘but that is not good enough, either…’ It is apparently based upon an actual incident.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Mrs Sheridan holds a party, which she leaves to her teenage children to organise. This will mark their entry into the world. However, the story is not about the party itself but rather the lead-up and the aftermath, when the upper class Sheridan family learns that a man has been killed down below. Laura thinks to offer solace by taking his bereaved wife some of the leftovers. She goes to the house down below and is overcome with a feeling of hopelessness, inappropriateness and perhaps some greater understanding of the nature of life and death.

The Garden Party is much more a story than the other shorts involving the Burnell family. Here, events are used to carry the meaning; Prelude and At the Bay are more explorations of milieu (storyworld), where a series of keen observations about seemingly insignificant details add up to form a lasting impression and offer a deeper message.

SETTING OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

KM presents this deeper message by building an atmosphere of fun and frivolity before presenting the characters with an awful situation. The ostentatious nature of the party is emphasised with our attention drawn to the comfortable circumstances of The Sheridans: large house, tennis court, spacious garden, hilltop view, lily lawn, green baize door.

When close reading a story for setting, pay attention to altitude. Where altitude is mentioned, it’s probably symbolic.

The house KM imagines is her bigger childhood house in Thorndon, Wellington, at 75 Tinakori Road. The Beauchamp family moved back to town when Kathleen was 9 and a half.

Also within this setting, we see a comparison between the Sheridans and the underlings – we see them interact with each other and the different reactions of the family to their social inferiors.

THEMES OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Most stories have several themes.

Remember: A theme is always a full sentence! ‘Party’ cannot be a theme, for instance. ‘Party’ is ‘subject matter’. When you write themes as a sentence they often sound simple or trite, but that’s okay. The stories themselves are much more subtle.

Growing up involves some uncomfortable truths.

The party is the children’s first time to prove their new-found maturity. Their mother is ‘determined to leave everything to the children this year’. Laura is torn between her own feelings and the dominance of her mother, who never really does relinquish control of the party, ordering masses of lilies on a whim.

Laura does not reject the life she is a part of; rather, she has understood something about it — she reaches a more serious maturity than her mother and older sisters have reached.

People are able to insulate themselves somewhat from class distinctions.

Criticism of the social values of bourgeois society is the most obvious, basic theme, with the upper-class Sheridan family living at the top of the hill and the lower-class in their ‘poky little holes’, ‘little cottages just below’. KM herself must have been keenly aware of class distinctions as she was the daughter of a self-made man, living in upper-class New Zealand society. This theme is also important in The Doll’s House.

The upper-class is symbolised by sheer extravagance. The sandwiches each have flags (fifteen kinds). There is a hired band, cream puffs and masses of canna lilies. Each member of the family has power over the cook, the maids and the men putting up the marquee.

[In my own illustrated short story Midnight Feast, this is also a theme. Growing up in New Zealand, I have been heavily influenced by Katherine Mansfield!]

Scene from Midnight Feast showing class distinction

Scene from Midnight Feast showing class distinction

CHARACTERS OF “THE GARDEN PARTY”

The family is no longer the Burnells but The Sheridans, who reflected KM’s family during her own teenage years. Unlike the Burnells, the family does not live within its own microcosm of the world but is fully participant in the wider social world of town.

Laura

The name Laura is a Latin baby name. In Latin the meaning of the name Laura is: Laurel tree or sweet bay tree (symbols of honour and victory).

This is Laura’s story. Main characters are linked inextricably to the setting, and perhaps KM chose a ‘plant’ name for Laura for that reason?

Although there are some general, impersonal passages and several scenes without her, we see this storyworld through Laura’s eyes. We observe others how she sees them, especially their response to her own behaviour.

At the beginning of the story, Laura is still a child. She doesn’t fully understand what is happening; her reaction to the workman’s death is a mixture of instinct, upbringing and egotism. She sees the workman’s death in an emotional way, torn between her own instinctive feelings and the powerful dominance of her mother and older sisters. She finally reaches her own personal understanding of life, which is left ambiguous in the final sentence. She does not reject the social life of the upper-class but comes to her own serious kind of maturity.

Being still a child, and not fully aware of the power of class distinctions and her own place within the social structure, Laura acts as a bridge between the upper and lower classes. She decides ‘it’s all the fault… of these absurd class distinctions’. Unlike Mrs Sheridan, she sees the workmen as individual people, indeed, as attractive ones.

When the carter dies, again, Laura sees him as another human, with the frivolity of their party exposed. But after she has her eyes opened to the true class distinctions, she is able to take her mother’s lead and return to the safety of the grand house on the hill. Just because she now knows the truth doesn’t mean she is going to do much about the income disparity.

Mrs Sheridan

Mrs Sheridan is comfortable with her social status and at ease with ordering others about. We see this clearly in her attitude towards the cook. She is teaching her children to see the world from her own elevated by short-sighted perspective. Mrs Sheridan doesn’t want her children to be socially aware. We see this when she tries to divert Laura’s attention with the talk of the new hat. 

Mrs Sheridan is in charge of all the food, and might be compared to some kind of goddess of fertility.

Meg

Meg ‘could not possibly go and supervise the men’.

Jose

Jose, too, has absorbed the attitudes of her mother re class distinctions.

Laurie

Laura and Laurie are similar in their outlook on life, symbolised by their similar names. It is only natural that Laurie understands Laura’s reaction to the grieving family without Laura needing to put her feelings into words because Laurie is the only other person in this world who could possibly understand her inner conflict. 

SYMBOLISM IN “THE GARDEN PARTY”

Laura’s Hat

By placing the hat upon Laura’s head, Mrs Sheridan claims her to the upper-class – superiority and indifference. Compare the passing of the hat to the passing of a crown (or similar talisman: sword, coat, cloak, cape, teacher’s pen etc.) in many other kinds of stories — generally flipped, in that a downtrodden, underprivileged character eventually earns a crown. That’s how most traditional stories go. Here, Laura doesn’t have to do much to get it, and when she does get it, she seems to realise that she hasn’t really earned it. 

‘Forgive my hat.’

Nor is she entirely comfortable in her class. Nevertheless, she does wear the hat, just as she takes part in her upper class, privileged lifestyle.

Birds and Flight

Mansfield uses the metaphor of birds and flight as a strategy to show how the Sheridans insulate themselves from the lower classes. Jose is a “butterfly”. Mrs. Sheridan’s voice “floats” and Laura must “skim over the lawn, up the path, up the steps” to reach her. They are all perched high on an aerie up a “steep rise” from the cottages below. But Laura is a fledgling. Her mother steps back and encourages her to flit around in her preparations for the party, but Laura’s wings aren’t quite experienced enough–she “flung her arms over her head, took a deep breath, stretched and let them fall,” then sighed, so that even a workman “smiled down at her.”

How To Read Literature Like A Professor, Thomas C. Foster

That’s why Laura describes her fellow party-goers as ‘birds’.

This bird symbol running right through the story also explains the significance of the man down below whose house front is studded all over with minute bird cages. Those cages are a threat to the upper-class people on the hill.

In children’s fantasy, the flight is often literal flying.

The Garden As (Apparent) Utopia

Those with Biblical knowledge may see the perfect weather and beautiful garden described in the first paragraph as the Garden of Eden. Failing that, KM has at least set up the garden as a kind of utopia. (For more on utopias, specifically in children’s literature, see here.)

Whenever you come across a utopia such as this in literature, ask yourself who’s in charge. This is, as John Truby would tell you in his book Anatomy of Story, an ‘apparent utopia’. In a genuine utopia there is a community, and everyone in that community is able to grow in their own way, supported by others. But the world of The Garden Party is not like that at all, and Laura has realised it by the story’s end:

This world appears to be perfect, but the perfection is only skin deep. Below the surface, the world is actually corrupt, rotten, and enslaving. Everyone is desperate to put on a good face to hide a psychological or moral disaster. The suburbs are often an apparent utopia, with their manicured lawns and friendly neighbours, but in stories there is usually something terrible going on in the suburbs.

— John Truby

There are a number of different words you might use when describing something like utopia:

Nostalgic — can have a negative connotation, meaning a kind of ‘homesickness’, where nothing can ever be as good as you think it was (and it never was that great anyway).

Topophilia — this is a term coined by Gaston Bachilard in his book The Poetics of Space. It means simply ‘love for a place’, free of the negative connotations associated with ‘nostalgia’.

Arcadian — Another word for Utopian. Arcadia is the name of a Greek province. Utopia also comes from Greek and literally means ‘nowhere/not a place’, though this might be a somewhat simplified etymology. But in some ways, Arcadia and Utopia are opposites — Arcadia is thought of as a garden full of good fruits for humans to enjoy whereas Utopia can be considered a place which has been shaped by humans, in which the environment is as much a construction as the society itself. Utopia in its purest form is a spaceship in a futuristic science fiction story.

Pastoral — when referring to land, it means land for raising cattle or sheep. But when referring to literature, pastoral means ‘portraying an idealized version of country life. But if you look for ‘pastoral books’ you’ll probably find books relating to the Christian church. The Wind In The Willows is pastoral, though also treated as nostalgic and Arcadian, depending on the critic.

Prelapsarian — characteristic of the time before the Fall of Man; innocent and unspoilt.

See also: Utopian Children’s Literature

Allusion to Persephone?

If the garden is an apparent utopia, this sets us up to regard the cottages down below as Hades/hell — the classical underworld. We might then regard Laura as Persephone. If Laura is Persephone, Mrs Sheridan is Demeter. As evidence for the comparison, here’s the list from Thomas C. Foster:

  • fertility-goddess mother, who is the match-maker (people arrive at the party in couples)
  • beautiful daughter
  • kidnap and seduction by god of underworld
  • permanent winter
  • pomegrante-seed monkey business
  • six-month growing season
  • happy parties all round
  • they live on an ‘Olympian’ height
  • the broad road into the cottages is kind of like the River Styx, which you have to cross to get into Hades (roads are often like rivers in literature, when the city/suburbs are a symbol of the forest/plains)
  • When Laura returns from ‘the underworld’ she has basically become her mother. In Greek mythology, there is often no difference between mother and daughter.

The myth of Persephone is also about a young woman arriving into adulthood. This involves facing death and understanding it. The myth involves the tasting of the fruit. (The story of Eve in the Garden of Eden also makes use of fruit, and how tasting it gives you unwelcome but adult knowledge.)

Darkness and Shadow as Death

KM does a great job of describing the darkness and shadow of the township below. There are many examples in the text e.g. the large dog ‘running like a shadow’.

from Hilda Bewildered

from Hilda Bewildered

NCEA ENGLISH 1.4 Example Essay

DESCRIBE AN IDEA THAT INTERESTED YOU IN EACH TEXT.  EXPLAIN WHY THESE IDEAS INTERESTED YOU.

AUTHOR: Katherine Mansfield

TITLES OF SHORT STORIES: The Voyage and The Garden Party

An interesting idea that Katherine Mansfield dealt with in two stories, The Voyage and The Garden Party, is the transition from childhood to adulthood.  In both stories, Mansfield makes use of symbols to let readers know that growth has taken place.

The Voyage is about a young girl, Fenella, who is being taken to Picton to live with her grandparents.  As the story progresses it is revealed that this is because her mother has died, and we presume her father is unable to care for her alone.  The death of a parent is in itself a time for children to grow up suddenly, and Fenella’s ‘journey’ to the South Island on the Picton Ferry is symbolic of this period of growth.

Within the symbolic journey is a symbolic umbrella, which comes to represent Fenella’s transition into the next phase of her maturity.  Fenella’s grandmother, who accompanies her on this journey, allows her to look after the precious ‘swan-necked umbrella’.  At first, the grandmother feels she must remind Fenella to be careful with the umbrella, being careful not to poke it into the railings of the ferry and break it.  Later on in the journey, however, when Fenella and her grandmother leave the ship, Grandmother is about to remind Fenella about the umbrella, but does not need to, saying only:

“You’ve got my –“

“Yes grandma”.  Fenella showed (the umbrella) to her.

This demonstrates that Fenella has now grown up to the extent that she need not be reminded about looking after precious things.

In the same story, darkness is contrasted with light to symbolise childlike ignorance versus the knowledge and understanding that accompanies adulthood.  Images of light are used repeatedly in the first half of the story.  For example, as Fenella and her grandmother walk to the ship, everything is dark except for a shining lamp.  The solitary shining lamp highlights the darkness.  On board the ship, it is revealed that the grandmother is dressed all in black; likewise, the men on the deck are hiding in the shadows.  In contrast, as the ship sails into Picton, images of light prevail.  “The cold pale sky was the same colour as the cold pale sea”.  As Fenella is walking up the path to her grandparents’ house, she notices the path of ‘round white pebbles’.  These images of light contrast with the initial images of darkness to indicate that Fenella can ‘see the light at the end of the tunnel’; that she has grown up sufficiently to get on with life despite the death of her mother and that she has moved into the next phase of her life.  This is interesting because Mansfield’s view of life and death is ultimately a positive one, despite the overall negative view created in European culture.

The Garden Party also deals with the interesting issue of growing up, as Mrs Sheridan has decided to let her children organise their first garden party all by themselves.  Unlike Fenella in The Voyage, though, Laura’s journey to independence is not as clear and definite; she flits between feeling very grown up and suddenly losing confidence.  When the workmen arrive to put up the marquee, for instance, she begins to address them in an authoritative manner, but suddenly feels that this is too affected, and “stammered like a little girl”.  This demonstrates the difficulty Laura initially feels in taking on adult responsibilities.

The real test for Laura comes later, when she is forced to make her own mind up on a moral issue.  When the news arrives that a man from down in the cottages has been killed, Laura feels that the party must be cancelled out of respect for the family.  Until her father and brother arrive home, however, she is forced to stand alone in this opinion.  She decides to compromise by putting the incident out of her mind until the party is over, then taking it more to heart when the fun is over.  At the conclusion of the story, when Laurie, her more mature older brother meets her in the village below Laura says, “Isn’t life-“ and does not finish the sentence.  She does not need to, as Laurie understands her.  This demonstrates that the younger sister has now joined her older brother (whose names are symbolically similar) in the increased understanding of life that comes from making one’s own decisions and contemplating death. This increased empathy with a more mature individual is an interesting one to consider, as it affects all of us as we grow older.

Both of these short stories deal with the fascinating theme of growth in two individuals who are confronted with the issue of death.  Mansfield’s skilful use of symbolism and imagery help the readers to plot the growth of her central characters for themselves.  This is interesting because the idea of growth and development is relevant to all human beings.

[750 words]

The Difference Between Novels and Short Stories

More than any other narrative structure, the short story veers toward what Joseph Frank calls “spatial form” — a set of narrative techniques and processes of aesthetic perception that work to impede linearity. For most novels scale is weighted on the side of everyday reality, measured by means of accumulation of matter-of-fact details within temporal frames. But short stories are kind of the opposite: Elements of the mythic and dreamlike are foregrounded. Instead of moving through time in such a way that propels readers on, readers of short stories are catapaulted from beginning to end and back again. Short stories are designed to be re-read.

— Mary Rohrberger, The Art of Brevity

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